Mental health in general, and eating disorders in particular, have had a lot of attention recently, and there have been really important steps taken towards normalising the conversation around them. However, there are still many preconceptions out there that need addressing.
Disordered eating is just a symptom of a deeper mental illness
The most important aspect of eating disorders that I believe more people need to be aware of is that it’s not really about the food at all. That might sound strange: it’s in the title after all. But the ‘eating’ part of an ED is just a symptom of an underlying mental illness: it is not the cause of the illness – it’s not even the most fundamental characteristic – it’s just the most obvious symptom.
This might sound controversial, and even people who have suffered or are suffering with an eating disorder may not agree with me. And to tell the truth, I didn’t hold this view before I became ill, or even at the start of my treatment. Only once I had chosen recovery, chosen to fight back against the illness, I began to really understand that the obsession with food and weight is just a symptom of deeper psychological problems.
It is this fact that people need to be made aware of. Eating disorders cannot be explained by diet culture or social media or body image pressure. Although all three do contribute to the development of an eating disorder, they are not the cause. Much of the recent media attention on eating disorders has focused on how young people are constantly being bombarded by body image pressures. Of course that’s true. But if that were the real cause, then everyone would have an eating disorder, or no one would. These pressures feed into deeper underlying issues and guide them towards manifesting themselves in disordered eating, but they are not the cause of the illness.
Eating disorders cannot be explained by diet culture or social media or body image pressure
So what does cause eating disorders? Good question. It is different for everyone who suffers one. You might think that this is a cop-out answer. All I can say, is that of all the people I have met through treatment, not a single person’s illness has been the same. It’s not like flu or measles where you can identify the single pathogen which causes the symptoms. So many things can contribute to a mental illness manifested as an eating disorder.
For me, the eating disorder was a consequence of severely low self-esteem (to the point of hating myself), an overpowering need to control myself and my world around me because of this low self-esteem, perfectionism, and profound distress and confusion over who I am. All of this came together into a perfect storm and the result was a distorted, unhealthy, potentially fatal relationship with food. Food and weight was a way to channel the perfectionism, to control myself, to numb myself to distress and confusion, and to punish myself for being what I believed to be a bad person. I didn’t develop an eating disorder because I wanted to lose weight or because I had an uncontrollable desire to change my body: the eating disorder and weight loss were the result the mental illness I was suffering.
The disorder becomes an effective, yet deadly, shield against psychological distress
So you can’t tell me that the eating disorder was just about food. In fact, throughout treatment, the eating part was perhaps the easiest to put right (though I would never say that it was easy: the pain and distress that accompany re-establishing ‘normal eating’ is difficult to put into words). The deeper psychological work is perhaps the biggest battle I have had to fight. Now, I have restored a healthy relationship with food, but some of those internal struggles and harmful thought process are still present. That is the enduring war, but one that I intend to win.
So talking about social media, models, body image pressures etc. is all well and good, but that only gives a superficial understanding of what an eating disorder is. And assuming that someone with an eating disorder must look a certain way shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what this illness is. It’s time we started to see eating disorders as the deadly mental illness they are, and not just about dissatisfaction with appearance. Maybe once this is accepted into the conversations around eating disorders, more people will take them seriously, and more people may be able to seek the right treatment. Eating disorders kill.
If you or someone you know may be suffering with an eating disorder, here are some links to find out more information about the illness and treatment. Please don’t think you’re not ‘ill enough’: if you need help, ask for it...