TW: Eating disorders (no numbers, specifics or ED behaviours included)
1st-7th March is Eating Disorder Awareness week in the UK. An Eating Disorder is a mental health condition where you use the control of food to cope with feelings and other situations. Unhealthy eating behaviours may include eating too much or too little or worrying about your weight or body shape. Some examples of eating disorders include avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and anorexia. There’s no single cause and people might not have all symptoms for any one eating disorder. It’s also possible for someone’s symptoms, and therefore their diagnosis, to change over time.
I want to start by exploring some common misconceptions when it comes to Eating Disorders.
MYTH #1: Someone must be underweight to have an Eating Disorder
FACT: Often when people think of someone with an Eating Disorder, they think of someone who is significantly underweight. However, although weight loss is typical in anorexia, most people with an eating disorder stay at an apparently “healthy” weight or are “overweight” (as commonly measured by the BMI scale). If the person does need to restore their weight, this is only one aspect of treatment, and being weight restored does not mean that the person is recovered. The thoughts and behaviours that come alongside the eating disorder also need to be addressed.
MYTH #2: Eating Disorders are a choice
FACT: Eating disorders are complex illnesses – there is no single cause. Instead they are thought to be caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors. Eating disorders are extremely distressing for both the individual and their loved ones, and often are accompanied by feelings of shame. They require specialist treatment, but people can and do get better. Eating disorders are mental health disorders and are never a personal choice.
MYTH #3: Eating Disorders only happen to young girls
FACT: Research shows that eating disorders do not discriminate – they affect people of all genders, ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations, weights, and socioeconomic statuses. Many people think of Eating Disorders as a ‘heterosexual, white, female’ problem and as a result, males, people of colour and those from the LGBTQ community are less likely to be diagnosed and face greater barriers to treatment.
MYTH #4: Eating Disorders are a diet gone wrong
FACT: Although for some people, one trigger for an eating disorder may be that they have been dieting, eating disorders are not “a diet that has gone wrong”. They are serious mental health disorders which can go on to have adverse effects on physical health which can be fatal.
Now we’ve busted some myths, it’s time to get to the scary part. I’m Alice, an Events Manager, book worm, lover of stationary.. and I have an Eating Disorder. I have had an Eating Disorder since my teens and it is something which I will continue to be in recovery from for the rest of my life. I say that because every day I have to make the decision to choose recovery and some days it is easier than others. My Eating Disorder stemmed from control (see Myth #4 – NOT a diet gone wrong) and even now, when I feel overwhelmed, controlling the way I eat or exercise is an easy way for me to feel on top of things. This works, momentarily but then it can lead me to a place which is difficult to climb out of. Accessibility to Eating Disorder treatment has historically been restricted to people who fit a certain appearance (young, thin, white, female – see Myth #3 for why this is wrong), and in my case this meant when I reached out for help, I was seen as not yet thin enough to need help. The message I heard loud and clear was “If you want us to help you then you need to lose more weight” and that’s exactly what I did, at the further detriment of my physical and mental health, personal relationships and general life. After time and further requests for help I was able to access the support I needed and I sit today in a much better place when it comes to my body and food. Thankfully, a shift has started to happen to see Eating Disorders as a mental illness with the possible side effect of losing weight, but, there is still a long way to go especially in understanding the disproportionately unfair in access to services for marginalised people. Eating Disorders do not discriminate, so why do our measurement and treatment systems?
The thin ideal is consistently sold as the key to happiness and health. Interestingly, when I was my thinnest I was the most unhealthy (and certainly the saddest) I have been in my life but no-one said a thing… apart from to praise me for losing weight. With the rise of Social Media filters and Instagram nutritionists selling their latest ‘Wellness plans’ there is no wonder that more and more of us want to change the way that we look. Contributing to this – the representation of fat people in TV and film, often only awarded the storyline of desperately trying to lose weight or to serve as the butt of everyone’s jokes. Judging people for their weight seems to be the last acceptable form of prejudice and I hope within my lifetime that we see a change in this narrative.
There needs to be education around health being a whole spectrum of things and not about making ourselves smaller. This includes considering language we use about bodies and food, especially around those which we have influence. I dream of the day that we all celebrate the food that we eat and the amazing things that our bodies do for us.
To read more about Eating Disorder Awareness week and support available, visit Beat.
A huge thank you to Meg, Clare and Zoe for reading and giving me feedback on this post before publishing.