Dave Chawner is an award-winning stand-up comic, now busy performing at the Edinburgh fringe. He talks openly about his experiences with anorexia on stage and revels in the chance to use comedy to normalise or break down stigma about eating disorders.
He’s also a best-selling author. His recent book, Weight Expectations, shot to number one best-seller in just three days. In it, he states that “Eating disorders are serious but that doesn’t mean we have to be.” It’s a refreshing approach.
We spoke to Dave about being open about his experiences and how he feels about the future of mental health.
You’re very open in talking about your anorexia in your stand-up shows and in interviews – do you find it easy to share your experiences?
Weirdly, it’s something that I’ve always wanted to talk about. When I started out in comedy, I went to these amazing clubs. I saw Chris Addison, Stuart Francis and all big hitters and the thing I loved is that they were unashamedly themselves. They were losers, they were poor or they were outsiders. They tackled quite dark topics. I thought: comedy is coping. If you can laugh about it, it becomes manageable.
People ask why I talk about my anorexia. Firstly, being selfish, I find it incredibly cathartic.
Something I didn’t realise, but now do, is that I don’t have a very conscious narrative voice. I don’t have a voice in my mind that says “Oh, I’m going to the shops”, for example. A lot of my thoughts aren’t fully formed and verbalising them helps. Talking therapies for me help. Talking about my experiences helps to make sense of it all, which is really rewarding.
Once I’d opened that can of worms and started to express myself, I found different ways of explaining stuff. I found ways to explain things better. I also got feedback from other people, which I like and which helps make it easier.
Having anorexia isn’t something I chose. I can only feel guilty or bad about things I choose. If you don’t have a choice then you shouldn’t have to apologise. I take a hard line on that. I’ve never felt the need to apologise for wanting to talk about it.
Are your audiences generally open to you discussing anorexia?
Sometimes an audience’s guard is up because they don’t know that I have a history of anorexia. It can be an easy subject to be derisory about or to pop cheap jokes at.
But once people realise you have lived experience, then the jokes come as an anaesthetic to the explanation.
I love doing a show I believe in. A lot of time the quietest people are the ones who come up to you afterwards. They react to me talking about it colloquially. The other day, a man on a building site said to me, “Oh, you had anorexia” – it felt so normal to be having that conversation, and the more normalised it is, the easier it gets.
Are you still managing anorexia?
I describe myself as being ‘retired from anorexia’. I’m further from it now than I have been for years. Something I do joke about is that I went into therapy clinically anorexic and came out technically overweight.
I’m still not comfortable in my body and how it looks – but that’s a body image thing, not anorexia.
What’s your perspective on mental health broadly today?
I think that in the midst of all the tragic stories you hear – this doctor didn’t pick this up or the NHS failed me in these ways – and looking at all the depressing stats, what’s important to remember is that people aren’t led by tragedy. They’re inspired by positivity.
If we were to track how far mental health has come in the past 50 years, it’s unbelievable. For example, until 1987, homosexuality was seen as a mental disorder in the UK. Now we have such a better grasp. That’s one of the reasons I try not to talk about stigma; we’re bringing up a generation that are liberated and confident to talk about their mental health so let’s stop reminding them there was a time when people were uncomfortable about it.
Every time we talk about stigma young people are realising there may be stigma – we’re reinforcing it.
Is the future bright?
There are always ways to improve and I think we will do that gradually. Really it comes down to engaging with young people. It’s brilliant that they want to be engaged. I remember when at school I saw something Stephen Fry wrote about his bipolar disorder.
As a class, we sat around and spoke about it. It was the first time I’d heard an explanation and encountered someone talking about it. I remember back then thinking: that resonates.
Looking to the future though, we should remember that good mental health is incredible. We’re always going to find ways to improve and work towards that. It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come and we’re only going to achieve more – which is really exciting.
See Dave’s TEDx talk, ‘My Battle with Anorexia‘
See an interview with Dr Lynne Green on eating disorders