If your friend had an eating disorder would you know? According to a recent government survey 79% of 2108 adults were unable to name early signs of an eating disorder. Yet, according to the charity BEAT, around 1.25 million people in the UK are said to have an eating disorder. Is there enough awareness about eating disorders? What causes an eating disorder? I decided to go and find out.
In February 2018, Jennifer Rollin wrote in ‘Psychology Today’ that eating disorders are a form of emotional avoidance, that is the eating disordered person uses weight or food control as a way of escaping from their emotions. Rollins says that if they learn to handle emotions better then they will recover, potentially not have an eating disorder to begin with.
Similarly Kate Leaver said in a recent article that the way to tackle both obesity and eating disorders is to address our relationship with food. Leaver writes a scathing backlash against government plans to introduce compulsory weight checks in schools. Leaver argues that this will result in fat shaming and encourage anorexia. We don’t know the exact causes of eating disorders of course, but ideas around this tend to focus on psychological or medical causes, some believing that they can be caused by a mixture of both, others often blaming the media, quite often also social media. In 2019 the Magnolia Creek Clinic cited ‘fitspiration’ posts on social media as contributing to eating disorders.
But can we really blame the media? For sure there are films with an eating disorder theme such as ‘To The Bone’ on Netflix, ‘Empty’, on YouTube, even Stuart Murdoch's film God Help The Girl, that present a particular image of the typical eating disordered person, the young, usually white, waif like girl, and they have been slammed for promoting this myth. One does not simply create awareness about eating disorders by pushing the same ideal of beauty that many would argue is the source of the problem in the first place. Having said that, whilst ‘To The Bone’ has received the most criticism, the lead actress chose to do the film because she has actually had an eating disorder. It is debatable to what extent it would be possible to portray eating disorders differently. The viewer expects to see this stereotype so that is what the viewer gets. A possible solution might be to portray other eating disorders rather than focusing on anorexia so much.
In February 2018 an article by Conason looked at myths around eating disorders, claiming that, far from only affecting young, pale, waif like girls, they can affect anyone, anywhere, from any background. In a recent Ted Talk on the subject, Dr Laura Hill claimed that eating disordered people have a different brain structure to everyone else. Looking mostly at anorexics she described it as ‘being like noise inside the anorexic’s head.’ Dr Hill believes that eating disorders are a medical condition like diabetes, some people will stabilise, whilst others will need life long diet plans. But does this tell us anything about why this happens? Yes it is true that types of stress can have a serious effect on brain structure, and most likely so will the physical act of denying ourselves basic nutrients but what Dr Hill does not explain is how this difference in brain structure occurs in the first place.
It is possible for an eating disorder to occur very suddenly in a person, triggered by a single event but stress induced differences in brain structure tend to happen over a period of time, as a result of many traumatic events. Furthermore Dr Hill concentrates solely on biological causes and ignores the emotional and psychological aspects.
More recently Ricardo Dalle Grave MD wrote in Psychology Today about the psychological and emotional impact of the pandemic on people with eating disorders saying that:
“Infection fears tend to increase the feeling of not being in control that, in people with eating disorders, is often managed with an increase of dietary restrictions or other extreme weight control behaviours or with binge-eating episodes”
He recommended that clinics should offer regular online appointments to minimise these affects whilst still maintaining appropriate pandemic protocol.
Is There Enough Awareness Of Eating Disorders?
Whilst the causes of eating disorders are not fully known, it can certainly be said that there is a lack of awareness about them. I conducted a small survey to find out more. I asked a small sample of people, aged between 17 and 50 if there was enough awareness about eating disorders. Many felt there wasn’t. Learn about eating disorders, know the signs, and if you suspect that someone you know may be having problems, talk to them. You might just save their life.