Let’s talk about Eating Disorders - EDAW 2018

Keeping accountable is a huge step towards recovery. By talking about your daily challenges and putting this scary thing into words strips the eating disorder of any power it holds over you and makes it that bit more manageable. Give it a name. Say it aloud. I have an eating disorder. It makes me feel like this. It’s a bit like shouting out VOLDEMORT rather than whispering He Who Must Not Be Named. Honesty and truth will kill the taboo of mental health and eating disorders.  

It’s a sensitive, life changing issue and you might not be ready to be tell everyone about it just yet, but don’t let it become a forbidden subject that remains hidden. Mental illness is already deeply shrouded in taboo which makes it really difficult to explain the truths of eating disorders to others. No you don’t have to look a certain way to have an eating disorder. No anorexia is not the only eating disorder. Yes it is a mental illness. Yes recovery is possible. This week (26 February to 4 March) is Eating Disorder Awareness Week (EDAW), a week of international awareness events fighting the myths and misunderstandings that surround eating disorders. Sadly, due to stigma and stereotypes, many sufferers don’t seek help and get the support they need. This week is about trying to change that.

Whilst freedom of speech can be a wonderful asset and be used for good, it is most often the words of others that hurt us the most. Tiny comments made by friends and family can become twisted in our minds to mean something hurtful, to be a jibe at your weight, your figure, your cooking or your eating habits. I have often taken throw away comments to heart and obsessed over them to the point of changing my behaviour, specifically what I eat, what I don’t eat and when I exercise. That friend probably doesn’t even realise the gravity of what they’ve said and understands even less about how it could influence your health and self-esteem. It’s amazing that if someone says something complimentary you can forget it in a heartbeat, but if someone says something negative, you can remember that for a very long time. This sensitivity goes beyond the words of family and friends, it can come from every single comment you hear about eating and exercise, from peers, magazine articles, adverts, television, films and even packaging. Yes, packaging. A particular bugbear of mine is the serving suggestion on foods. When 2 squares of chocolate = 1 serving and I have 4 squares, what does that mean for me? I obsessively think about it for the rest of the day and my thoughts can quickly spiral out of control - I had more than the suggested serving, therefore I am greedy, I am weak, I must get to the gym, I can’t have chocolate ever again, why don’t I have any willpower, guilt, guilt and more guilt. This trigger has come from a tiny piece of didactic marketing on a plastic wrapper written by someone who doesn’t even know you.  

So how do we combat this? Whilst we can’t single handily change the mass media and marketing of foods, writing this down and talking about it really helps put these challenges into perspective and makes them more manageable. Likewise we can’t filter what we hear from others, but we can educate and encourage them to think before they speak. For recovery it’s important to make those you spend a lot of time with aware of how comments about food, exercise and body image can make you feel. This doesn’t mean telling them never to mention the above subjects in conversation, but to highlight where you’re at, what you find unhelpful and what they can do for you. When I told one of my closest friends about my eating disorder I was humbled that the first thing she asked was “what can I do to help you?”      

Now here’s what you can do to help. There are lots of ways of getting involved this week, whether you want to raise funds for an eating disorder charity like First Steps, share EDAW posts on social media or simply tell someone about your experiences and bust some myths. We want to get more people talking, tackle the stigma and help every sufferer to know that they’re not alone.

 Alex