** This post was written for NEDIC’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2016, to raise awareness of the stigma and misunderstanding that still surrounds eating disorders, particularly in their media representation. **
Both personally and professionally, I’ve spent much of my life dealing with eating disorders.
It started with my own near-fatal battle with Anorexia Nervosa and now, dedicating my life to helping women overcome issues with body image, working extensively with eating disorder sufferers. And throughout all of this, I’ve noticed that time and time again, there are certain themes that continually arise in the media’s portrayal of eating disorders. Unfortunately the culture of shame, stigma and misinformation unfortunately still runs rampant in stereotypical portrayals of what an eating disorder “looks like” and ultimately, this only contributes to sufferers delaying or avoiding seeking treatment.
The uncomfortable truth about eating disorders is that they’re not glamorous or a privilege for thin, middle-class white girls or a phase that one grows out of – they’re serious, life threatening mental illnesses.
People are dying, every single day. Eating disorders deserve to be taken seriously and until we do, the culture of secrecy will never be broken.
Today, I want to lift the lid and start the conversation.
So, from the perspective of of both a sufferer and a coach, here are 20 things that everyone needs to know about eating disorders to help us all fight them:
1. They don’t discriminate.
They don’t care that your sister gets amazing grades or that your best friend is funny and sharp-witted or that your father is the sole provider for the family.
2. They’re not at all tied to your body shape or size because they’re mental illnesses.
And not everyone will show the same physical symptoms even if their conditions are incredibly similar. They’re not reserved for emaciated, deathly-thin figures. Thin people can have an eating disorder. Overweight people can have an eating disorder. A larger body with a restrictive-type eating disorder deserves to be considered with just as much seriousness as a thin body.
3. The jokes hurt.
“If you don’t eat something, you’ll blow away!” to a thin person or “Whatever you’re doing is working for you!” to a larger person isn’t funny. It’s incredibly insensitive, diminishing and perpetuates stigma and shame.
4. They’re not a choice.
And sadly, this still needs to be said. They’re not a diet. They’re not a conscious decision. No one wakes up and says, “Hey, I think I’ll ruin my life today!” and insinuating that a sufferer can simply ‘stop’ is incredibly insulting.
5. They feed off shame and stigma.
Sufferers hear your comments and jokes and quips about weight, and they internalise them all. Sufferers feel trapped and conflicted because outsiders tell them that they need to just talk to someone about what they’re going through, but then those same outsiders make make jokes about weight or the person’s disease. Sufferers often feel like there’s no judgement-free safe space for them to express just how much they’re struggling.
6. They’re mental illnesses with physical side effects.
They’re not defined by a thin body or vomiting or otherwise – they’re defined by the mental torment, obsession and they’re incredibly complex.
7. They’re not just about food or exercise.
And there are always other issues and underlying themes (such as self-worth) that feed into an eating disorder.
8. Anorexia and bulimia aren’t the only disorders, yet they’re seemingly the only ones that we talk about.
A sufferer’s condition can morph between categories and there are behaviours that overlap boundaries. No eating disorder is any less serious than another.
9. They rarely work alone.
Because ED’s thrive on secrecy and isolation, they often work hand in hand with depression, anxiety and self-harm. Because of this, many have the misconception that ED’s are attention seeking behaviour. They’re not. If anything, most ED sufferers want to disappear, rather than be noticed.
10. A “full recovery” doesn’t mean that an individual will never slip back into a relapse.
Some individuals live in vicious cycles of recovery and relapse.
11. Weight restoration is not the “final” piece of a full recovery.
Far from it. The mental trauma can take many years to fully process, unpack and heal from.
12. They’re not contagious.
You can’t “get it” from just spending time with an eating disorder sufferer. When outsiders act as though sufferers are infectious, it only reinforces the sufferer’s sense of shame.
13. Not every sufferer wants to get better.
And that’s the hardest thing of all. Sometimes, you identify with your disease so strongly that you’d rather die than be parted from it. Sometimes, the struggle is too hard and you wish for death. Sometimes the goal isn’t to die, but to diminish to nothing.
14. Jokes make thing worse, because they’re not a situation that requires lightening up.
The poorly thought out “joke” of casually tossing questions like, “What are you, anorexic?” at thin people or assuming that anyone who is overweight must have an unhealthy relationship with food is damaging – not only to the psyches of the people whose feelings you’re directly hurting, but also to the eating disorder community as a whole.
15. Life can seem torturous.
They make simple tasks like getting out of bed, going to the shops and having dinner with your family seem like impossible tasks. They drain you completely.
16. They’re not about not caring about your body by starving/overeating.
They’re not at all indicative of laziness. Nor are they anything to do with “willpower” as so many outsiders will often commend sufferers on.
17. They’re not phases, goals or temporary decisions.
You don’t just “grow out of” them. And even if an individual’s disorder was sparked by dieting behaviour, they’re not “diets gone wrong” – they’re underlying mental illnesses that can lie dormant until awakened by the right catalyst.
18. Seeking help isn’t as simple as it seems to an outsider.
Eating disorders thrive on secrecy and the mere prospect of sharing the darkest parts of the behaviours and thoughts that you’ve been engaging in can be absolutely terrifying. Berating a sufferer with “I don’t know why you don’t just talk to someone!” doesn’t help.
19. They’re life threatening.
Not every ED sufferer will survive. This is a depressing fact that often goes undiscussed because it’s nicer to quote encouraging “You can do it!” slogans but the fact is, not everyone will. Some will die without ever seeking treatment. Some will die in recovery. ED sufferers die every day.
20. They’re all consuming.
You can’t just “put them behind you for the day”. They take over your life. They control you. The voice of the disease fuses with your own inner-voice and you begin to view your tormenter as an integral part of who you are.
Remember, eating disorders are deadly – and the silence surrounding them even more so. Eating disorder sufferers aren’t as easy to spot as the media makes them out to be, and the symptoms won’t always be obvious. Your mother, father, friend, sister, brother, teacher or student could be suffering from an eating disorder right now and you might not even be aware… so please, make a conscious effort to assess the impact that your own discourse is having on the environment around you.
We all benefit in destigmatising mental illnesses.
If you or someone that you know is suffering with disordered eating – there is help and support available for you, both in the safety of therapists rooms near you and online anonymously. For a list of resources for your country, please click here.
If you’re currently in recovery, Inside Out may help alongside your therapy. It’s a 14-Day guide designed to kickstart body positivity using proven Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques, commonly used to treat eating disorders. Click here to find out more.