Content warning: This article contails discussion of eating disorders and other isues such as malnutrition and food poverty.
Following Eating Disorder Awareness Week (28 February – 6 March 2022), it feels slightly jarring to have it coincide with the start of Lent. It’s not the involvement of indulgence or giving things up,
however, both of which can happily fit into a healthy lifestyle and diet. It’s more the stresses that festivals and celebrations that involve ritualised eating and expectations often involve for those with disordered eating.
A world preoccupied with food
Imagine a world where pancake day wasn’t fun any more! Not everyone can make the choices they would like about what they eat, and when, or easily explain why this happens.
So much of our lives today seem to focus on food: our tv shows, and the adverts between
them; the way we treat ourselves or celebrate success; the thing we cut out to punish ourselves; the new ‘superfood’ that will cure all our ills, or the one thing that has been making us ill all along. Paleo diets, keto diets, fasting diets, cleansing diets… So many new things to try, and to buy. Every time we buy into what a ‘healthy diet’ now is, the goal posts move! So we start again.
Our supermarkets now are cathedrals to consumption, and the first sign that there might be a moment without access to it all, and we panic buy like a biblical plague of locusts. As if a day closed for Christmas would leave us all at death’s door from malnutrition.
That’s not to minimise the very real rise in cases of malnutrition-related illnesses over the last few years. But that has been entirely due to systematic grinding down of what was left of our welfare system, rather than anything preventable by any means other than voting.
Children going hungry because their families can’t feed them is something truly shameful. People whose health is being harmed because they’re unable to eat the food they need is not shameful at all, and it’s tragic that anyone can see it as such, still.
What are Eating Disorders?
People often have very fixed ideas of what eating disorders look like, and how they manifest. As with most stereotypes and generalisations, this does more harm than good.
Anorexics are not just skinny young girls, bulimics don’t constantly gorge and vomit, and these aren’t the only games in town. There are other, just as important conditions such as Binge Eating Disorder, Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, Pica and any form of disordered eating that is preventing someone from being able to have a happy and healthy relationship with food. These illnesses often arise from a desire for control – those suffering with a lack of control or happiness in other areas of their life may turn to controlling food and their apearance as a supposedly “easy fix”.
The causes and cures for eating disorders are not as clear cut as many might think, either.
These are severe and debilitating mental illnesses that can strike people down sometimes
without warning or even their own realisation. Anorexia remains the mental illness with the
highest mortality rate of any other, and whilst it might be most prevalent in girls between 12 and 20, around one quarter of cases affect men and boys.
If you are worried about someone, don’t assume that this isn’t something that could affect them because they aren’t ‘typical’ in some way. Cures work best that start soonest, and recoveries are quicker, too. Most importantly, prevention is better than cure.
If you’re worried, try and find a non-confrontational way to approach someone. There are lots of ways you can offer support, if they are able to accept it. If you’re not confident about how to help someone you know, Beat has some great resources.
Help is available
There are other positive actions we can put in place, too. Whilst we don’t know what can cause someone’s behavior to tip out of their control and into disordered eating, we do know that self-esteem and self image can both be contributing factors.
Never stand for bodyshaming – it doesn’t matter of who or why. All our bodies, every one, are beautiful and worthy of love. A person’s actions can be ugly, but not the skin they’re in.
Perceived stigmas around body-types and fitting in with what is seen as ‘desirable’ or what is
expected, also parallel the stigmas around mental illnesses, and seeking help. Those of us who can be open and talk about how these things affect us can help others who may be feeling alone and afraid to reach out. There is help out there, and if you are worried about any aspect of your relationship with food or your body image, there are lots of friendly and supportive organisations out there who will talk to you. No one will judge you. Just make one small step today, and you can begin to live the life you want.
Supplemntary to the links included above, below are some more helpful resources for if you, or someone you know, is dealing with an Eating Disorder:
- NHS Eating Disorders Overview
- NEDA – Feeding Hope: Signs and Symptoms
- Mental Health Foundation – Informatio on Eating Disorders
- Rethink Mental Illness
- CALM – The campaign against living miserably
- Together, for mental wellbeing
The Open University Students Association also partners with Shout and Togetherall, who can provide free, confidential support for OU Students.