Sara's ambition to be 'too thin'

VIDEO Tell Sara Dunnage she looks good, and the 21-year-old will feel like crying because she hears 'you look fat'. Despite battling with anorexia for nearly five years she still harbours an ambition to be, in her words, 'too thin'.

TELL Sara Dunnage she looks good, and the 21-year-old will feel like crying because she hears 'you look fat'. Despite battling with anorexia for nearly five years she still harbours an ambition to be, in her words, 'too thin'. As the debate continues about the example set by size zero celebrities, REBECCA LEFORT spoke to a woman who hates her body with a passion that almost killed her.

PART of Sara Dunnage's brain knows she is dangerously ill, but the other part keeps telling her she is fat, fat, fat.

The 21-year-old from Ipswich has suffered from anorexia nervosa for nearly five years, and at her lowest weighed just over six stone and was shockingly close to collapse and even death.

Today she weighs just under eight stone- a weight she is unhappy with as she thinks it is too heavy, but one that she is just about able to live with after years of counselling and support from family and friends.

As Sara tells her emotional story, it is clear that despite all the therapy, both the 'normal' and anorexic voices in her brain still battle for superiority. Her family call the anorexic part of her, 'Anna'.

Sara, the sales assistant who hopes to enjoy life and come to terms with the disorder, says: “I'm starting to see positives in my life again. I don't think I'll ever recover fully but I'll be more in control of it rather than it being in control of me.”

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But then the powerful 'Anna' appears to kick in from nowhere and says: “If I could be someone else, anyone else but me, I would. I hate my whole appearance. My body looks bloated and I always look pregnant.”

Sara's body-idols were size-zero celebrities, including Victoria Beckham and Nicole Richie, fuelling her desire to be so skinny that everyone else thought she was unhealthy.

But even when she plummeted to almost six stone - way below the recommended weight for someone of around 5ft 5ins - she still thought she was disgustingly large and refused to wear anything but the baggiest of clothes.

The voice in her head that tells her she must lose more and more weight, is so strong that even now it forces her to exercise, despite osteoporosis in her lower back which means her bones are at greater risk of fracturing.

Sara, who lives with her family in Burke Road in the Castle Hill area, said: “It's such a stupid illness. Some people say they have learnt things when things go wrong. But I've learnt nothing from this. I had no social life, I felt so lonely. The idea of having a curry with friends fills me with dread. I still can't eat in front of people.”

The former Thurleston High School pupil said she hoped one day in the future to start a relationship with a boyfriend, something she has never experienced. But she admitted that the disease has caused her to push loved ones away.

She added: “I think everyone else is wrong. I think they can't see how fat I am because I try to cover up with baggy clothes.

“I have a battle in my head all of the time; I just have to hope it's not the anorexia that wins.”

Sara has been working for The Entertainer toy shop in Carr Street for nearly five years, and despite needing a lot of time off because of her illness she has started to flourish again recently.

She has taken on apprenticeships, in retail operations and customer service to boost her skills.

Her boss, assistant manager James Sturch, said: “She's been fantastic. We've had good days and bad days but she's come on leaps and bounds recently. We've always been aware of the problem, which has helped - she couldn't keep it to herself because it did affect her hours.

“Now that she doing more training she's really come out of her shell. She's a great member of staff.”

Have you overcome anorexia? Has it claimed the life of somebody you love?

Do you have a message of support for Sara? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich IP4 1AN or e-mail

SARA started to develop anorexia in October 2002 when she was 17.

At around 5ft 5incs tall and a size 14, she had always considered her ten-stone frame to be fat, despite never experiencing any bullying or outside influences to tell her this was the case.

She said: “It all came from inside me, I really don't know why. When I got a job I was able to control my eating and every time I dropped a dress size I just wanted to go further.”

At this point Sara would eat toast for breakfast, a roll and a piece of fruit for lunch and a child-sized portion of dinner.

She would often try to conceal the meagre amount she was eating from her family, and admitted: “My mum would put a meal in front of me and I'd slip it into my pocket if I didn't like the look of it. I felt guilty but I couldn't help it.”

Weighing around seven stone Sara, who was so frail at one point that she needed a wheelchair, was admitted, against her wishes, to the Phoenix Centre in Cambridge, which supports adolescents with eating disorders.

She said: “At this point I felt out-of-control, I couldn't stop the weight coming off. I didn't feel weak, I didn't feel there was anything wrong, but physically there was. It got very serious.”

Sara stayed in the centre for four-and-a-half months but did not find the counselling useful. When she came out she plunged to an even lower weight than she had been before, just over six stone.

Afterwards, she found outpatient care from the centre much more helpful as it allowed her to concentrate on other parts of her life, such as work.

Now she weighs around eight stone. She said: “I've done it at my own pace. I feel a lot better than I did; I feel a lot stronger.”

On a normal day she eats three main meals and four snacks, at regimented times.

She has no desire to become 'normal,' as to her that would mean being fat. But she does hope to be able to get on with her life, to take some more qualifications and to do well at work.

WATCHING their daughter physically shrink before their eyes has been a nightmare come true according to Sara's parents.

In fact the experience has been so horrific it has left both of them feeling suicidal at their lowest points.

Sara's mum Joy, 53, said she realised straight away that something was wrong but always felt powerless to help her daughter.

She added: “We kept trying to tell her but she was adamant nothing was wrong. I was very worried, I stayed up all night crying and worrying. I thought 'she's going downhill and we're going to lose her'.

“I blamed her at first for getting into the situation but then we learnt it's a mental illness that can't be controlled.”

The family, including Sara's sisters Marie and Angela, tried to help but Sara hid her problem and often shut them out completely.

Joy added: “We had no idea that she was hiding food. It is amazing the tricks they get up to and even in hospital when they're being watched they still manage it.”

At times Sara's parents were forced to physically shove food in her mouth, before she was finally admitted to the Phoenix Centre.

Even now the illness still blights the family who feel like they are walking on eggshells, with just one wrong-step bringing out 'Anna', the dark side of Sara.

Her dad, Ken, 52, said: “It changed her whole personality. She was such a bubbly girl and it is horrible to see it happening to her. It took over her -no one can argue with Anna. Sara was so fun but 'Anna' was evil.

“There are times we've all felt suicidal as a result, you can't understand what it does to the family unless you experience it.”

When he looks back at family photos of his daughters growing up, he describes Sara as looking “perfect” before the condition took hold.

Joy added: “I have to say to people 'don't tell her she looks well because she'll think “I'm fat”'.

“It has affected the whole family because I have been on the lookout with the other two girls for signs, which hasn't been fair on them.”

Although her parents have no idea why the disease took hold, with no history in the family, they both agreed that today's size-zero culture, which Ken branded “a disgrace”, was partly to blame.

Joy added: “I think the culture is encouraging people to die. They shouldn't make clothes that thin.”

Now the family are trying to look to the future, but they still fear 'Anna' who rears her head every once in a while. Joy added: “We're just learning to live with it but it's always there. I've lived with it for nearly five years now but I still don't understand it.”

Anorexia nervosa means 'loss of appetite for nervous reasons'. However the definition is misleading because people with anorexia may have a normal appetite, but drastically control their eating so as not to satisfy their appetite.

If you have anorexia you may have an intense fear of gaining weight and losing control of your body shape.

The causes of anorexia are complex and are linked to feelings of control and self-worth.

Anorexia often starts between the ages of 15 and 25, but it can develop in children as young as ten and in older people. Surveys suggest that one pc of young girls (age 15-25) have the condition.

Although 90 per cent of those who develop anorexia are women, the condition also affects men.

SOURCE: NHS Health encyclopaedia

Around 75 new cases of anorexia nervosa are seen in Ipswich every year.