The actor Jessica Brown Findlay, who played Lady Sybil Branson on Downton Abbey, has spoken out about how she overcame the eating disorder she had struggled with since the age of 14.
Findlay stars alongside Lesley Manville and Samantha Morton in upcoming ITV Encore/Hulu series Harlots, about sex workers in 18th century London. The 27-year-old actor says that talking about her eating disorder was crucial in helping her tackle it.
“I felt so alone for so long, and I just hid,” Findlay tells The Telegraph. “And then I started talking and held my head up, and instead of saying sorry, decided to tell myself that I matter.”
Therapy helped her pick apart her disordered thinking about weight and food, says Findlay.
“We can feed certain ideas of what beauty is and what success is,” she explains. “There has to come a time when those aren’t the rules anymore.
“Then we can have a mature conversation about what that is about and about depression.”
Crucial to Findlay’s recovery was coming to the understanding that the number she saw on the scales did not reflect her value as an actor – or as a human being.
“It’s about learning to stand up and say, ‘This is me, and that’s OK’,” she says. “I’m not going to be a better actor if I’m a dress size smaller. It’s nothing to do with my brain.”
People with eating disorders often try to keep their eating habits and disordered thoughts a secret from others, and there can be many different motives behind this secrecy. Some sufferers might think that their friends and family will force them to seek help when they don’t want it; others may be concerned about causing others to worry.
In light of this secrecy, Findlay says that she hopes speaking out about her own experiences will help other sufferers in opening up.
“If you are lucky enough to speak and be heard, it might be something that could be useful to others,” she says. “The more we have brave discussions like that going forward, the easier it is to talk about things, and the less alone we feel. It’s certainly made me feel less alone.”
It’s estimated that more than 725,000 people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, with women making up a little under 90% of this figure.
While eating disorders are often blamed on the societal pressure to be thin, the reasons behind why someone develops one are usually far more complex, according to NHS Choices. Risk factors that can increase the likelihood of a person having an eating disorder include certain underlying characteristics – for example, having an obsessive personality, an anxiety disorder, low self-esteem or being a perfectionist – and particular experiences, such as sexual or emotional abuse or the death of someone significant.
For advice and support on eating disorders, visit Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity.
Images: Rex Features / ITV Encore / ITV