Comedian feeds the laughter and starves the stigma with jokes about his anorexia

“Jury’s out, but I don’t think anorexia is a great way to live,” laughs Dave Chawner, placing his sense of humour firmly before any eating disorder in his credentials.

The award-winning, London based comedian is using his anorexia as the punchline with which to beat the stigma until it’s dazed and confused, stupid and giggling all the way home.

Backed by BEAT UK, the UK’s largest eating disorders charity, Dave Chawner previously toured a comedically-driven eating disorders awareness campaign. ‘Normally Abnormal’ aimed to raise awareness by lowering the tone, eloquently.

Dave Chawner, now 28, started suffering with anorexia at around the age of 17.

“Suffering. I really hate that word,” he playfully chimes, “It’s so pathetic. It sounds so weak and needy, and I just think that’s really shit.”

Dave began losing weight for a school play and found that people reacted to his sudden weight loss with compliments. He says his stressors were no different to that of the average teen – exams, coursework, UCAS deadlines – and that his eating disorder, he’s now sure, was really triggered by “an amalgam of things”.

He says, “The anorexia became a subliminal response to my situation.

“It kind of sounds a bit weird, but things started to become absolutely beautiful, and I really started to kind of flourish once I’d began to lose weight.

“It seemed to me subliminally that if I lost more weight things would continue to get better.”

Commonly, eating disorders are said to stem from an unmet need for control. When asked how he feels about this, Dave admits, “If I’m totally honest, people like my mum would say ‘oh it’s just a control thing,’ and so, you box it up and ship it off.

“I absolutely agree it is about control, but I think just a one word answer is a bit too pissy and simple and I think it’s terrible that we live in a society where this is what we want.

“For me, it was more of an addiction – if we’re going to go with one word answers. It was more of an obsession and it was more about focus when everything else felt a little bit out of focus.”

He goes on to strike a particularly grounded comparison between eating disorders and the average human experience: “I think there’s a very good paradigm between booze and food.

“I live in London and, Jesus Christ, my first job I remember one of the teams used to take the ‘newbies’ to the pub and they’d have to knock back either 4 pints or 6 shots.

“It’s just so institutionalised that it’s kind of hard to tell when a social drinker turns into an alcoholic, and I think it’s very hard to determine when somebody has a disordered eating and when that turns into an eating disorder.”

Statistically, around 10% of those receiving inpatient treatment for eating disorders are male, but that’s only a record of those who have been referred to mental health services.

Although, men who suffer from eating disorders often speak out about the poor availability of treatment specific to them, Dave has a different view: “When people are always asking me ‘what’s it like to be a man with an eating disorder?’ I’m always like, well I’ve never been a woman with an eating disorder, so…

“But, personally, I think I was taken a hell of a lot more seriously because I was a man.

“It was almost like a little kind of project. Like, we’ve got a man, they’re very rare, we’ve got to make him well and the service that I’ve had has been awesome, incredible and amazing.”

Dave is quick to add, “I’m just very lucky in the postcode lottery to live in London which has Maudsley, the best eating disorders unit in the world. They took me incredibly seriously.”

He is also well aware that the male experience very much transcends the boundaries of his own, “I’ve spoken to blokes who have had very different experiences. One guy who had incredibly, incredibly low BMI was told by a doctor that he couldn’t be anorexic because men don’t get anorexia, and this guy was minutes away from death.

“It’s not a ‘silly girl’s disease’. It has the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder and as such we need to treat it with the rhetoric and the time it deserves.

“And, there are problems. In the NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) guidelines, one of the key signs of having anorexia is a thing called amenorrhea, which is the lack of periods. You stop menstruating… well, I’ve never had a period in my life, you know, but it’s like ‘Oh my God!’” Dave laughs, sounding surprised by the lack of menstrual blood in his womb, “So, that’s very gendered in the dialogue as well.”

Dave Chawner’s awareness campaign, not only aims to speak openly and honestly about the grim details, but also to shed a surreal light on a very real problem by using comedy to both blur and clarify the lines: “Nobody says I don’t like to laugh. Nobody ever says I don’t like to have some fun and have an amazing time.

“I looked at that and thought, you know what, I could actually use comedy as a way to talk about this stuff, take it off the shelf, break it down, and make it engaging.

“I think that comedy has a wonderful way of reaching people because people are laughing and in order to be laughing they have to be listening and if they’re listening they can learn.

“I want to kind of use that in order to help the people that might be struggling, but also to kind of get to a wider audience of people that are lucky enough to have no experience whatsoever.

“And, I personally don’t think it’s that mental.”

The comedian cracks up a bit, “But, there are bits where I’m like, is that funny or is it just fucking tragic?”

Dave says he began to consider himself unqualified to joke about eating disorders after his first comedy tour because he didn’t experience his anorexia as dramatically as those who began reaching out to him did. The “overwhelming” response quickly caused him to relapse.

“I started to hear all these stories about anorexia and it was incredible, but equally it was a double-edged sword.

“The problem was, the more grim stories I heard, the more I kind of felt like a bit of a fraud because I’d never entered therapy at that point. I’d never gotten down to a tiny BMI. I’d never fainted, and that caused me to relapse quite severely and quite consciously.

“I did it almost to actually prove to myself that I can be the best anorexic ever, and there was a sort of competitive element.

“But what I’ve now realised is that you can just as much drown in a puddle as you can in a lake. It’s not about the severity, it’s about the illness. I think there is this kind of false dialogue that we set up.

“That’s the biggest reason that I find media quite damaging. It is those extreme stories that get the column inches. They’re what are going to draw people in.

“The problem is, for every one extreme story there are hundreds of people who are subclinical that are certainly struggling just as much but don’t get the air time.”

Dave expands on his mixed feeling about the media coverage of eating disorders: “It’s really frustrating, but I don’t believe that the media created eating disorders, so I don’t think they should be blamed for them. That said, I do think they have a huge responsibility to report them sensitively.

“Journalists and journalism, especially in the print media, especially the news media, have such an agenda to get people on that page and shocking images are going to do that and they probably don’t realise that is quite harmful.

“It’s very fashion, it’s very vogue to talk about size 0 and, again, that is an unnecessarily gendered thing.

“I always try and detach the debate about seeing images of slim people from eating disorders because once those two debates get too closely tied, it implies that anorexia is about vanity.

“It implies that it’s about trying to be skinny, about trying to be good looking, and unfortunately it isn’t. If it were that simple that would be amazing, but it’s not.”

How we should approach someone who is struggling with an eating disorder is always something we’re apprehensive about. It’s difficult to know whether your concern might force you to say something unhelpful or damaging.

However, Dave assures that it’s better to say something than nothing at all: “My dad was the first person to turn around to me and say, ‘Look, don’t take this the wrong way, I don’t get it. I’ve never had anorexia. I’ve never really met anyone with anorexia. I don’t understand it.’

“And, that was such a huge weight off for me because I don’t get it either, I don’t completely understand it.

“It was a huge catharsis for me. To be able to admit there are certain aspects to this where I know I’m being ridiculous, but I can’t stop.

“It’s okay to not understand. It’s okay to not know and it’s okay to worry about saying the wrong thing.

“As long as that is done in a comforting way, in a proper way, then I think a lot of people would actually respect that and like that a hell of a lot more.”

With regards to saying the wrong thing, Dave reaffirms, “I do realise there are things out there that people say that are not ideal and that can be triggering, but when you start mocking people for ignorance, people aren’t going to want to learn and I think the whole thing at the moment is about learning together.”

When asked if it’s possible there are positive aspects to his anorexia and his 4 years of campaigning, Dave lights up, “Oh shit loads of positives!”

“This is the thing, I try to shy away from being negative about it. I mean there are obviously a lot of negatives. I’m never going say ‘oh it’s great, do it!’” He buckles, “But, I do think with a lot of mental illnesses, there are certain things that it gives you as well, and too much of that just comes at a price.”

He elaborates: “Speaking about my experiences has been amazing in so many ways.

“First, I’ve been given the space and time and the opportunity to actually think about how my mind works and my body works in a way that nobody else would. I think that’s just absolutely beautiful.

“The second is just the encouragement, the things that people have said to me. I’ve never been trolled or anything like that.

“And, that kind of breathes into the third of this idea of it being a community as there really are people out there that do help you, who do lift you up.

“It’s really amazing how when you start being vulnerable with people, they start being vulnerable with you.

“It’s been genuinely beautiful and genuinely so multi-faceted that I don’t ever want to focus on all of the negatives that I think it has.”

With regards to confronting mental illness and pursuing recovery Dave says, “We’re talking in absolute generalisations, but the people I’ve met with restrictive ED specifically, very perfectionist, always want to be the best, so compassionate, so understanding, so caring of other people, and I think those are all amazing aspects, why would you not want that?

“You can channel all of those things into something positive.”

Then Dave adds, “And, I say mental health not mental illness.

“You know, everybody has shit in life. It could be anything and it can kind of make you feel abnormal, but the fact that everyone feels like that shows that everyone’s got an Achilles heel.

“So, don’t be ashamed of it. Just kind of accept it, acknowledge it, and use it.”

And, Dave Chawner leads by example. He’ll be back in Scotland for the Edinburgh fringe from August 3rd, with his brand-new comedy show ‘C’est la Vegan’ where he’ll explore society’s relationship with food and self-identity.


Make-Up With Yourself

I have a lot of flaws.

I cover them up; I bleach them; I wax them; I pluck them; I pop them; I curl them; I paint them; I deny them. I do in many ways conform.

I don’t wear a lot of make-up, something in me is probably trying to quietly rebel, but I do still feel naked without it.

I feel very exposed and open to judgement when I don’t cover up those risqué bags under my eyes or those eye-popping spots on my face.

It is a feeling that’s similar the worry that you’re top is too low-cut/ not low-cut enough or your skirt too short/ not short enough. Which is strange given they are coming from opposite ends of the spectrum.

I guess what these feelings have in common is that they are both concerned with perfection. It’s the same embarrassment that comes with not meeting a specific standard.

And, my natural disposition for introversion probably doesn’t help me out here, either.

I don’t know if it’s the amount of time that I spend in my own head, but oftentimes my body just feels like this ill-fitting morph suit. I’m entirely within but not fully with myself, if that makes sense.

It’s like I’m curled up inside, afraid to reach out and push my arms and legs into the sleeves of my own skin. I feel like I’m a waddling, misshapen bean bag, socially awkward, just trying to stand normally, sit normally, smile normally, be normally.

However, I actually credit this discomfort for guiding me as a person.

It’s strange, but from a very young age I’ve always known this to be true: my body and what I do with it, what’s done to it, how it changes and how it will never change can never touch who I am as a person.

I try very hard to stop feelings of physical disappointment from transpiring into true self-loathing. I think that’s when you’re truly lost to the world.

That’s not to say I’ve never failed. I’m obviously human. But, I have risen from the ashes of self-destruction more than once.

A mild example: when I was a little girl, I had a bout of what I now know was trichotillomania.

I was gifted with a highly over-active imagination but, just to keep my ego in-check, I was equally cursed with a lot of irrationally driven anxiety as a child – and, admittedly as an adult. This resulted in me physically pulling my hair out and, in my case, this was from around my eyes and from my eyebrows to the point they were entirely bald.

I remember crying before a party at school because I couldn’t wear mascara like all the other girls were starting to.

I now have very short, very straight and very frail eyelashes which still grow in a bit patchy. It’s really not a huge deal, but I do feel very self-conscious if I haven’t curled them. Less feminine. More childlike.

That was a very exposing experience, particularly as I was so young – I think I was around eight years old.

Something from within me was being impulsively expressed to the world. It was the truest form of self-expression; it was something I couldn’t entirely control nor predict.

However, I’m certain that this strong link between my internal world and the external one helped me better understand what reality is. It’s a construct.

I was creating something physical out of a feeling. But who I was didn’t exist in the many missing eyelashes, I was in every pluck with which the hairs were pulled.

This was a compulsive behaviour, and compulsions are things that have to feel ‘just right’, perfect even, in order for them to cease.

The irony was that I was pulling my eyelashes out with some bizarre, indescribable, need to feel like I was doing it just right. For some reason my brain was finding perfection in self-destruction.

This link somehow taught me how to disconnect the physical realm from the internal one. I figured out that the world is just this web that catches pretty ideas like butterflies and bees, flower petals and grass, rain drops and sunlight, but it also tangles itself in flies, rubbish and dirt.

It’s like a strip of Velcro and we all just stick our thoughts to it, puzzle them together, create opposing pictures and gather in cults of preconceived ideas. Reality and the world we live in comes from within.

I started scavenging for my pieces in the web and brought them back fairly broken and bruised from the net that had ensnared them. It was then I realised that within me exists my very own tiny reality, which I can create away from the mess that lies outside.

That’s not to say I don’t still share my ideas or listen to others, of course, I just do so very selectively now. There are a lot of bad ideas out there, a lot of cruel beliefs, a lot of nasty minds, and I’m not interested in letting any of them into my little universe.

I’m happy that I know of this special patch of soil within the depths of my gooey, mine-field of a brain where I can grow anything without sunlight or water, without physical reality.

I think knowing of that power enlightened me to how we are all far bigger than our humble bodies let on.

The depth of a person means more to me than anything I can physically see. And, I’ve never met a single person who I’d say felt like a puddle.

People can be shallow in the way they look at others and the world, but people themselves, as selfish as they may be, are a bundle of wires, tangled in a unique way, barely keeping all strange systems go.

We can all find someone to look at in envy. We’re all convinced no one has it worse than us. However, when we start talking that’s when we realise that not only are we equally broken, but that we are also built to fix one another.

My dysfunction is your solution; what I’ve learnt from my pain might save you the trouble and vice versa.

However, I do think it’d be wise to drop all these old ideologies and unjustified prejudices.

We’re all held to these strange, uncomfortable standards, which no one has ever actually explained to us. We just go with it, because anything different will always be bashed back into a stereotype, boxed, labelled and shelved, and the adjectives marked on the tag are never as kind as they are to the norm.

I do have to push the female agenda here, because these days not even an inch of the female anatomy is free from scrutiny; the vagina is the holey grail of shame.

No one actually has a justifiable explanation for why women should shave everywhere but their heads, hide their periods and their sanitary products, be sexually available but only to a strict number of partners, and pretend like female masturbation either isn’t a thing at all or only ever exists in porn to please a man’s eyes.

Also, I find the way the appearance of female genitalia is joked about to be incredibly immature. Seriously, you’d think we shit out of our vaginas the way some men (and women) describe a regular, healthy female reproductive organ.

But, in all seriousness, this is a sickness and it’s contagious. Not liking the way we look can lead to not liking the way others look, and such foreshadows becoming cruel and nasty towards others just as we are cruel and nasty towards ourselves.

Bottling up our feelings in bodies that we spend each day actively rejecting creates a horrifying juxtaposition.

We refuse to admit how broken we are, and we’ll just keep cutting and re-stitching our own self-inflicted wounds until they become infected and lethal. The pain from within, just like those thoughts we build the world around, creates its own reality and becomes too physical to bear.

How can you help yourself if you don’t like yourself? Rare is a sympathetic hug from the enemy.

Not only should we be kind enough to offer an ear to those who are suffering, we must also be brave enough to accept one in return. Not only does telling your story out loud help you, it may also save someone else.

And, that’s quite simply why I wrote this post.

Mind, body and soul positivity knows no gender, race, religion, sexuality, label. Let’s allow our tears to water a new world rooted in love and kindness, acceptance and empathy, and maybe a little bit of peace and quiet.