AN eating disorder activist put MSPs on the spot at an event designed to scrutinise how politicians use data to make important policy decisions.

Artist Ally Zlatar raised a question at Holyrood's first Evidence Week – a joint initiative between SPICe at the Scottish Parliament and charity Sense about Science.

The 25-year-old is campaigning for better awareness and treatment of eating disorders and used the initiative to ask her local MSP Kaukab Stewart how Scottish policymakers are responding to the evidence that eating disorders affects more than million people in the UK annually.

Ally said: "I really wanted to be involved with Evidence Week because it's an opportunity to speak directly to these key members of the Scottish parliament and have your voice heard."

Ally is originally from Toronto but has lived in Scotland for the past four years, setting up the Starving Artist initiative to spread awareness of mental health issues.

Her work on that project has been her win the Princess Diana Legacy Award in 2021 and special recognition from the British Citizen Awards in 2022.

Having experienced the differences between the Canadian health care system and the NHS, she believes more could be done to support people with eating disorders.

Ally said: "I found that there's a real lack of understanding that this is a mental illness.

"There are so many different voices and lived experiences that need to be heard.

"I felt that so many doctors and policy makers didn't understand and so I found that creative art was a great way to broaden conversations."

She added: "I found that while Canada is very quick to give attention, here in the UK they're so far behind, especially with in-patient treatment.

"Unless your BMI is at 15 or under, so basically a skeleton, you won't get to have in-patient care.

"By that point people are already suffering so there needs to be more preventative action and there needs to be more ongoing support."

Ally developed anorexia at the age of 12 and spent 10 years having treatment for the illness.

She said: "I ended up losing so much weight that I couldn't even walk up a flight of stairs as I was that frail.

"I realised that I didn't love myself and I didn't give myself food or any other joy in life.

"For a long time I thought if I was thinner I would be happier but it never worked.

"People think it's about vanity but it's about trying to love oneself when you really can't.

"Eating disorders come from a very depressing place of self loathing and neglect."

Glasgow Times: Artist activist and lecturer Ally Zlatar Picture: Gordon Terris

Ally has used art to help her in her recovery and initially set up Starving Artist as an exhibition and publication with five artists.

However, more than 50 then approached her to be involved and the initiative is a global movement with projects currently in Fiji, Malaysia, Singapore and Samoa.

Ally said: "They say a picture is worth 1000 words but I think it's worth one million words in the sense that, for me, it helps people better understand what I've been through.

"It also shares the unseen sides of eating disorders because it's such a personal experience.

"I still have lifelong repercussions. I still have heart palpitations. I still have osteoporosis. These are things that don't leave you and are a reminder that you are unwell and no matter how hard you try you will still be unwell.

"But there's joy in trying to look at darkness. In my art I try to find ways to make fun of it and explore it in other ways.

"If you can't laugh at it then you're living life wrong because you have to see the joy, even in the pain."

Evidence Week was hosted by the Presiding officer Alison Johnson and attended by MSPs, convenors of key committees and Roger Halliday, Chief Statistician of the Scottish Government.

Similar initiatives have been held in other parliaments in the EU, UK, and Ireland but this was a first for Scotland and saw people from across the country put their questions directly to policymakers.

Ally is looking for support from Kaukab in getting answers from the Minister for Health, Social Care and Sport and associated Parliamentary Committee.

In response to Ally's question, Kaukab said she will provide a written answer.

The MSP for Glasgow Kelvin said that eating disorder awareness and treatment is very much "on her radar" due to work with students.

She added: "But I wouldn't be giving a quick answer to that. I would be taking my time to give a reasoned answer about the current situation and then looking at scope as to what can change and looking at how we can change that.

"I absolutely support any opportunity for constituents to ask questions directly of their MSPs and one of the pros to Evidence Week was the accessibility."

MSPs were briefed by world-leading researchers on pressing policy issues in Scotland while rapid-fire sessions, meetings and workshops were help with the aim of equiping MSPs and their staff with the critical tools they need to engage with policy evidence.

Siobhian Brown MSP, Convener of the covid-19 Recovery Committee, said: "The evidence we gather from scientists, researchers and policy makers is crucial in informing our scrutiny of the Government and its response to the pandemic.

"The last two years have clearly illustrated the crucial interplay of science and policy making, and the importance of robust data and scientific evidence in helping shape Government policy.

"Through our committee’s evidence gathering we’ve also learned first-hand how dangerous misinformation can be and the pivotal role of public trust in scientists, researchers and Ministers."

Tracey Brown, Director of Sense about Science added: "The work of Holyrood creates a far-ranging need to use and scrutinise evidence, from economic forecasts to environmental monitoring.

"In a single day MSPs may have to navigate complex policy issues such as homelessness, rural deprivation and indeed the pandemic, while approving measures to counter climate change and investigating the diverse issues affecting their constituents."