One summer six years ago, when she was 18, Ruby Tandoh was unwell. She checked herself into a mental health ward following three years of anorexia and bulimia, culminating in a suicide attempt. Though Tandoh was in and out of the hospital within the span of a day, she would spend the next few years trying to better understand her own mental health and the pleasures it deprived her of.
Tandoh became famous when she was still in college: She was a runner-up on the fourth season of The Great British Bake Off in 2013. Since her stint on the show, Tandoh, now 24, has developed a combative relationship to “wellness” and its champions, outspoken about whom this rhetoric leaves behind. She can't quite stand the idea of people applying moral judgments to their eating habits. Tandoh has articulated this frustration in sobering, unpretentious essays for VICE and The Guardian, along with two cookbooks. (She is currently working on a third book, a nonfiction work about her relationship to eating.) Tandoh’s writing stems from her earnest desire to simply eat what she loves.
Her latest project is an extension of this outlook: “Do What You Want," which comes out this Friday, is a standalone zine about where food and mental health intersect. For it, Tandoh and her co-editor Leah Pritchard—who's also her girlfriend—have assembled a wide variety of writers, all of whom are women or nonbinary folk, for a 160-page collection of essays and recipes. Some of the writers, like Diana Henry and Meera Sodha, write about food for a living; most others, like advice columnist Heather Havrilesky, don't. The zine’s proceeds are funneled directly into some of the United Kingdom’s leading mental health charities.
Earlier this month, I spoke to Tandoh, who now lives in Sheffield with Pritchard, about the experiences that brought her to this project. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
MAYUKH SEN: How are you feeling about the chatter surrounding the zine? I read an excerpt in the FADER by Christine Pungong a few weeks ago.
RUBY TANDOH: It’s so much bigger than I thought it was going to be. When the idea was first conceived, it was just going to be a 10-page pamphlet with some recipes and bits just photocopied in, a proper zine. No. It’s blown up to be 160 pages long now. The zine police are going to be on my back because it’s professionally-printed and everything!
MS: When did you first conceive of the zine?
RT: Me and my girlfriend had just decided to run the London Marathon for charity. And this is very much the way things happen to me—I don’t know if it’s the same for you—I get these waves of enthusiasm, and it’s just like a runaway train. I commit to one thing, and then I commit to a million things right after. That’s exactly what happened with this zine. Literally, within five minutes of me committing to running the London marathon, I was like, “Oh my God, we should do, like, a project!” You know, something else to raise more money. I’m an absolute masochist. But, in the end, it’s been very pleasurable work, though it was a big thing to commit to.
MS: Right. And you can’t always tell when you’ll have the energy to be creative. Where did you get the idea for a zine solely devoted to mental health?
RT: My girlfriend and I sat down and had a long, hard think about whose voices we wanted to feature. Obviously, the concept was so broad. Mental health can mean anything at all. So it was really exciting to have such a blank canvas, so to speak.
We decided to narrow the focus a bit to only have the voices of women and nonbinary people, and the overwhelming majority of our contributors are queer or people of color. What became clear as we were reaching out and asking people if they wanted to contribute was that readers wanted to hear the stories that don’t usually get broadcast. Obviously, like, media institutions are formed by certain kinds of people, so there are certain kinds of stories that get out. We wanted to show a kind of mental health that really was a bit more diverse than all of that.
MS: In the UK, what narratives about mental health tend to take hold? We have our own problems with nuanced representation in the United States. I saw that NME cover of Stormzy that came out recently.
RT: Yeah, that was not so good. It’s polarized here. There are so many people who have [a narrow] understanding of mental health. If you give them a story of a middle-aged white dad who loves his family but has depression and you call it “The Black Dog,” and the depression is the black dog, then they can understand it. They understand that this is about a nice person going through something tough.
But when the symptoms are less palatable, or the person in question is not a white man, or white woman, or whatever, people seem to have a lot harder time understanding it. That’s why it was important that the piece you referenced in the FADER, Christine’s, is about people whose mental illness manifests in ways that are not 100% lovely. I want people to confront that sometimes they may have a friend or family member who has a mental health condition that makes them act out, or maybe sometimes makes them flaky or difficult. Really being accepting of mental health is accepting all of that and being sympathetic.
MS: What are some instances that stand out, in your mind, of outlets getting stories of mental health really wrong?
RT: There’s this show on television, it’s real trash reality TV. It’s called “In Therapy.” This trend therapist who’s an absolute shill—she should not be doing this—talks to celebrities who’ve gone through famous breakdowns. She gives them therapy on screen. It’s wonderful. I love it.
One of her clients is Danniella Westbrook. She went on the show and was taking about all these awful things that had happened to her. She had a really public breakdown and lost her septum because she’d done so many drugs. She was a famous British fall from grace. People loved watching her spiral. There was one awful tabloid story where the paps took a picture of her getting a sausage roll after she plead bankruptcy. The tabloids were saying, “Oh my God, look, she’s got enough money to treat herself to a sausage roll!” It was awful. That shows this divide: We love to watch people spiral—we absolutely delight in it. But the second they’re willing to give us something, or everything, of their whole story, audiences respond by saying, okay, only now can I really give you some sympathy. People really have to justify themselves [to be treated humanely].
MS: How frank were conversations surrounding mental health for you growing up?
RT: That’s interesting. I mean, I don’t think there was any kind of candid talk about mental health. My parents had their own coping mechanisms. What they really insisted on was sweeping everything under the rug, and I think that’s an impulse of a lot of parents. They don’t want to hear that you’re hurting. The easiest thing in the world is to say, just don’t think of that. For me, any kind of wobbles in my mental health were met with trying to escape from the problem and never confronting it. This impulse came from a place of love, but it was also so damaging. These things don’t go away just because you turn a blind eye.
MS: When did you first realize you suffered from some form of mental illness?
RT: I knew something was wrong from when I was 14 or 15, though I never would’ve given it a name back then. Even now, I feel a bit uncomfortable about it. But there are structures in place to treat it and speak openly about it now. You can go to the doctor. You can get your diagnosis. I feel like I’m able to claim and feel comfortable with saying I struggle with my mental health sometimes, more than I was as a teenager.
MS: What do you think were the factors that made you comfortable about saying that out loud now?
RT: I think I was quite lucky. Obviously, the internet is the source of a lot of shit. But I was lucky to stumble into a group of friends online who were very open about what they go through, and the problems they have. A lot of them have actually written for the zine. Seeing people have that compassion towards themselves inspires you to try to reserve a bit of that sympathy for yourself as well.
MS: What do you tend to eat when you feel down?
RT: I have an absolutely monstrous sweet tooth. I’ve been paying more attention to the way I eat recently. And I’ve noticed that, whenever I get stressed, it’s like my hand is not connected to my brain. It’ll just creep across the table like a limb from The Addams Family and get a biscuit or chocolate ball. It’s fucking scary. But, yeah, it’s sweet stuff. There’s so much nostalgia attached to sweet stuff—you think of comfort, of birthday cakes, chocolate bars. It makes you feel like a kid again.
MS: So tell me about the name of the zine.
RT: I wish it were profound. It’s a fun thing, really. I guess so much discussion around mental health is quiet, serious, almost a bit bleak. We wanted to do a project that was a bit irreverent, fun, but obviously tackles big topics as well. “Do what you want,” to us, at least, means that there are little things you can do to make yourself feel better, even if it’s just taking a medication or getting an ice cream on a shitty day.
MS: How did you solicit writers for the project?
RT: A lot of them were friends. A lot of those people, actually, aren’t even full-time or professional writers. This is not their “thing.” They’re just very good at putting their story into words.
For the ones who are professional food writers, I really had to pester them. And those people were actually very forthcoming, especially when I framed my project as something I was doing for charity. My mission resonated with them. They were very quick to spill. In fact, there were a couple of people who surprised me with how willing they were to give parts of their stories. I kind of thought, wow, these people are way too big, they’ll never say yes. But the second you say it’s a zine about mental health, you get an email where they say, Yeah, I’ve actually been stressed about this, this, this, and this. They do not have an outlet for what’s stressing them. People were keen to open up.
MS: That’s mildly surprising, because I feel like—and maybe this is just my misconception, and it obviously varies from writer to writer—but there’s a correlation between how famous you get and how guarded you become.
RT: Yeah. I mean, for this one, we got an interview with Sara Quin, one half of Tegan and Sara. She was so open. She even said, at the end of the interview, that she wouldn’t have been as open if it were for a music publication. But this was about mental health, so it was easier for her to be honest and candid.
MS: How did you, as an editor overseeing this project, make your writers feel safe? It can be difficult for writers—especially freelancers working with editors in a one-off capacity—to entrust editors with their stories on such sensitive topics.
RT: That was a big concern. We gave a lot of thought to it. We were asking so much of people to write something deeply personal, something that they may not have even told people before. A lot of it had to do with doing my research, not just approaching someone and asking, yeah, can you write about being nonbinary, and misgendering them—I needed to do my research. I wanted to know what their interests were, what identities are relevant to them, what other stuff have I read by them. I did take a lot of care to do that so that when I emailed them, it wasn’t just a cold call. It was the beginning of a conversation.
Also, I’ve been very careful to be quite strict with edits, to make sure that edits conform to people’s standards and checking with them. There are things that might just look a quirk of language to me, but for others, those perceived quirks might be really crucial to their stories. It’s just being communicative and not assuming I’m just some authority because I’m editing.
MS: When people’s stories are out there, you forfeit control over what happens to them. Have you feared that your writers will get harassed?
RT: It’s difficult. Some people we’ve done interviews with wanted a degree of anonymity. We’ve made allowances for that. One of our writers wasn’t sure if she wanted her name to be put on her story, so, initially, we anonymized details of her story. But she actually changed her mind in the end and she wanted to stand by her work. Either way, in terms of the other people, it’s been hard. Luckily, because most of the zine won’t be online, the writing shouldn’t, fingers crossed, become fodder for trolls.
MS: Right. It’s like print media is a sanctuary for honest, confessional writing.
RT: I do feel worried. I don’t want any of the writers to come under attack. We’ve been careful about where we’ve put some of the excerpts, making sure they’re on platforms where we have a degree of control. If, in the unlikely situation that something turns to shit and someone comes under fire, I’ll obviously be there, fighting in the writer’s corner.
MS: Who’s been doing all the layouts for the zine?
RT: My girlfriend and me. Both of us.
MS: That sounds exhausting.
RT: It has been. But the strangest thing is—and I know this sounds so annoying, so Pollyanna-ish—it’s been really fun. I guess it’s because the stuff people have given us has been of such high quality and we have such good illustrators that it’s been a creative pleasure when laying this zine out.
MS: So I know you’ve insisted it’s a one-off, but have you considered doing it again? Maybe at some point in a few years?
RT: No. I love doing it knowing there’s an end in sight. I’ve got so much momentum right now because it’s new and exciting, but it’s absolutely not happening again.
MS: What do you hope this zine does to your readership’s understanding of mental health?
RT: The important thing for me is that I want it to be accessible so that if someone who doesn’t have any understanding of mental health picks it up, they don’t find it intimidatingly academic. That’s why all the stories are all so person-based. I wanted it to be relatable. If someone does have the experience of mental health problems, I want them to see a bit of their story in the zine at some point. That’s why we had so many different voices and stories covered. I wanted to make sure that no matter what your mental health problem is, if you even have one, you can relate. That’s the biggest thing, isn’t it? Making sure you don’t feel alone?
To order your copy of "Do What You Want," head here.