Real Life

Emma’s private battle: ‘Exercise masked my eating disorder’

The Arrowtown mum wants to help others avoid the pain, fear and guilt she felt about food
Emma sitting on a ledge by a windowPictures: Ma Jones Photography

At the peak of her eating disorder, Emma Wright would faint if she stood up too quickly.

“My periods also stopped for years and I couldn’t regulate my body temperature. I was freezing all the time and I’d started growing fuzz all over my body,” recalls the 54-year-old.

Emma is now a “body freedom coach” and the author of the recently published book Body Confident: A Guide To Raising Happy Eaters. She says she first started bingeing, purging and restricting food when she was 14.

“I was a very thin child. But then puberty hit and I put on a lot of weight quickly,” she recalls. “My family didn’t like fat people and would make jokes about them. So, I grew up feeling deeply ashamed and worried that people wouldn’t like me because I was big.”

Now based in Arrowtown, Emma started dieting, and became obsessed with calories and exercise, spending hours every day riding her bike.

“I masked the eating disorder by presenting myself as an athlete. I competed in mountain-biking events at national level, so I was doing lots of road cycling every day.”

It didn’t help that family and friends were constantly telling Emma how good she looked.

“People would say, ‘You look so healthy,’ which only fed my disease.”

‘Several times over the years, Emma sought professional help, but it didn’t work for her. It wasn’t until she and her builder husband Graeme Woolmore had their first child, when Emma was 40, that she started to recover from her eating disorder, which afflicts around 70 million people globally.

“I realised I didn’t want to pass this obsession with body image and food on to my children,” tells Emma. “If there was one thing I was committed to as a parent, it was that my two kids didn’t have the same issues as me because it was absolute hell and sucked the joy out of my life.

“Instead of wanting my kids to be effortlessly slim, I wanted them to respect and care for their bodies, and to reject the messages that told them their bodies are flawed.”

Emma’s plan was to limit her children’s intake of sugar and processed food, instead feeding the now-teenagers healthy, organic meals.

“But like most kids, they weren’t that keen on a plate of veges! And then we’d go to parties where they’d eat the foods I thought were bad and tried to keep from them. I realised you can’t raise your kids in a vacuum.”

Emma’s lightbulb moment came when she saw her preschoolers eating sweets.

“They looked at me with fear and shame in their eyes. I’d caught them eating something they shouldn’t have been eating,” she shares. “That really frightened me. Even at that young age, they had already received the negative message about food and were ashamed of doing something wrong.”

Ema did a Master’s degree in leisure theory. She then began to research how restricting certain foods could contribute to body-confidence issues.

“I started to understand the tools and practices that lead to freedom, peace and recovery,” she says. “The goal was for my kids to leave home competent eaters. That means they’re able to nourish themselves, eat without overthinking and eat the same way whether someone’s watching or not.”

Not only did her findings shift the way Emma parented, but those same tools set her on the path to her own recovery.

“One of the most powerful healing things for me was realising that bodies come in a diverse range of sizes and that we have to make everyone feel good about their bodies.

“I realised how much distaste I had for certain- looking bodies and how that perpetuated the stigma. Once I really understood that, I started to heal.”

A decade ago, Emma started sharing her experiences on a blog. She was soon asked to speak at schools around Aotearoa. In 2022, publishers approached her to write a parenting book about helping kids to keep a healthy weight while making sure they love their bodies.

“My eating disorder affected every part of my life. There were I took jobs in the outdoors because it meant I could exercise. I also wasn’t able to trust a relationship until I was 39. I thought there was something wrong with my body that needed to be fixed.

“My hope is that this book helps others to avoid the pain, fear and guilt I went through for most of my life.”

Being on the other side of an eating disorder has changed her life, says Emma.

“For so long, I’d wake up and all I could think about was what I was going to eat and what exercise I would do. These days, I hardly ever think about food and almost never think about my body. It’s a huge relief.”

Help is here

If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, please phone 0800 2 EDANZ or visit ed.org.nz.

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