This section includes people describing their experiences of secretive behaviours at the time when they were ill. Some people might find reading about these experiences distressing. All the material on this website is intended to support a better understanding of why these unhelpful behaviours in eating disorders happen, how to get help for them and to support genuine recovery from eating disorders.
People with eating disorders often attempt to keep their eating disordered thoughts and behaviours a secret from others. People might have a number of reasons for this, such as:
• Not realising that they have a problem
• Being worried about what other people will think
• Being concerned that others will try to stop them
• People may think that they are protecting other people’s feelings by not telling them.
Young people felt it was important for family members and others to be aware that a person may behave in a secretive manner. By being aware of this, it was thought that families could have a better idea of what might be going on and be better prepared to support young people. They also emphasised that hiding things from family when they were ill was not something they chose to do, but something they felt they had to do.
Many young people we spoke with said they felt they had to hide their problems with eating, sometimes for years. Some were scared that telling someone would mean that they would “lose” the eating disorder, or that they would be made to “get fat”. Emily kept bulimia nervosa a secret for years from her parents and said she was “terrified” they’d try to take it away. Looking back, others felt that talking about their issues was “admitting” to having a problem which they weren’t prepared to do.
People could also worry how others, like family members, would react and would try to protect them from getting upset. Suzanne felt she had to be the “perfect child” in the family and not “let parents down”. She arranged school counselling at particular times and GP appointments outside of the family surgery so her parents didn’t find out. Elene was embarrassed and worried that if people found out they would laugh at her for not being “thin enough to have an eating disorder”. People could also feel that the eating disorder was something that belonged to them and they didn't want to let others into it. Maria described the experiences as very “insular”.
There could be a variety of ways people used to hide their eating disorder:
• Wearing loose clothes to disguise the weight loss.
• Telling lies about what they’d eaten or if they’d eaten at all. For example, they would hide, destroy and throw away foods to make parents think they had eaten in school.
• Others had elaborate ways of making it look like they had eaten or of hiding the evidence of bingeing.
“I used to go to quite extreme lengths to make it look as if I’d eaten. So I would chop the food up and kind of dip it around in the ketchup on the plate and leave a few crumbs and stuff, so that it was convincing.” -Charlotte
People with bulimia nervosa
said it was easy to find ways to be sick without others realising, at home, school and work.
David used to make himself sick in the toilets at home and in the office without others knowing.
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Age at interview: 22
Age at diagnosis: 19
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Just like it was then, if it happens now it will be the same thing. I will come in, it will happen, go upstairs, and it’s, and the facts, it sounds really stupid obviously I do live at home, so my parents are around sometimes, not all the time, but the fact that the bath’s running means that there’s, there’s, you can hide it as such. Or if not I would have music blaring or something like that, because you don’t want anyone to know what’s going on, or you don’t want anyone to know what’s happening. And, and obviously like I said at its peak it was, it was at work, where the office that I work in, I work in the upstairs section so it’s probably about sixty of us, vast majority are women, so there’s not actually many, ever many people around in the men’s toilets. So it’s very easy to get away with it happening at work without anyone realising what was going on, and it just became a real part of my life.
Zoe describes how her parents couldn’t leave her alone even to go pick up the phone. She was...
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Age at interview: 23
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You know, my poor parents, it was everything became a battle. They couldn’t leave me. If they left me literally, to go to the loo or to pick up, if the phone rung I would be off, you know. They had to lock, keep the doors locked and just, yeah, it was like having a toddler around.
And then there were times I quite often, if I sat at the table, I would line my, I would always be adamant that I had to wear my dressing gown at the table. They thought it was sort of a body image thing but I’d line my pockets and I was putting things in my pockets and hiding them. I think my mum and dad have had, they could see what I was doing. I wasn’t that sly. I mean I was trying to be sly but they got to the point where they just they didn’t know what to do. They’d, we’d done the screaming and shouting. We’d done the chasing. They’d taken everything off the bathroom so I couldn’t lock myself away and they were just like at wit’s end. They didn’t know anymore what they could do to help.
People often said that when others challenged them about their behaviour, it could push them to become more secretive. People felt so compelled to keep hold of their illness that lying became easy Charlotte said she had “a catalogue of excuses” if she was challenged and Emily described how, after years of hiding bulimia, “lying came naturally”. Maria convinced her family and doctors her weight loss was down to a physical cause and not self-induced. She said it was scary how easy it was to get away with things when people “believe what they want to”. Those who’d been treated in hospital said spending time with others with eating disorders had taught them lots of “tricks of the trade” for hiding their eating disorder. People could also feel angry that the medical professionals hadn’t seen through their excuses because they should’ve realised secrecy is part of the illness. (For more see ‘Staying in hospital’
Looking back, people often felt ashamed of how secretive they’d been and felt like they’d almost been a different person. Francesca said it helped her to think that secrecy or “being deceitful” was a part of her illness and not something she wanted to do. Hannah O had mixed feelings; she felt she had to hide anorexia nervosa but at the same time was just so “exhausted” she wanted “someone to find me out so they could just help me”. Some people hadn’t felt able tell their family about their problems with eating and food, even to this day.
As people started to feel better, they felt less need to be secretive; talking therapies could help in this. Being able to have open, non-judgemental and trusting relationship with family and others could be very helpful in tackling secrecy in eating disorders. There is a lot of support available for parents and family members of young people with eating disorders, to help them understand and better deal with such difficult issues visit our resources section
Last reviewed October 2018.