As post-Easter exams approach, Life and Style's Jess Howlett shares her tips on how to remain motivated over EasterWritten by Guest Author on 19th March 2018
Eating Disorder Awareness: Can It Be A Bad Thing?
Life & Style Editor Tara Kergon discusses the unfortunately problematic aspects of the EDAW campaign and how to support it in a constructive way
Eating Disorder Awareness Week is, on the face of it, an incredibly important campaign to both challenge the misconceptions about the illnesses and break the stigma which unfortunately still surrounds all mental health problems. But it can also be incredibly problematic. In the name of awareness, suddenly my Facebook is filled with in-depth stories of hospital admissions and my Instagram is awash with progress pictures, usually before and after shots of those who have struggled with and/or recovered from eating disorders. And while it’s amazing and wonderful that so many people will speak up, I find myself simply wanting to switch off and stay away from my newsfeed.
As with all mental health awareness dates my first problem is simply that I don’t personally attach any significance to this week, and therefore don’t want to feel I “should” post something - there are other times in the year that I would rather highlight as important in my recovery. It seems like just another part of the stigma to feel I am restricted to one week a year when I can talk about my eating disorder, when that same illness never takes a day off. I should feel free to discuss it as and when I like – when I reach a personal milestone, when I make an achievement, or even when I struggle, regardless of whether it’s the last week of February or not.
“It seems like just another part of the stigma to feel I am restricted to one week a year when I can talk about my eating disorder, when that same illness never takes a day off
But perhaps the part I find most problematic about the week is the simple fact that people will almost exclusively post before-and-after pictures of their recovery, which are at best overdone and at worst incredibly triggering. We’ve come past the point where we need to be shocked into seeing how bad an eating disorder can be (we all saw those Isabel Caro pictures, and probably watched To The Bone on Netflix), and besides, the true issue behind the illness is almost never weight or shape or even food – so why make it all about the pounds lost or gained, or the journey from underweight to healthy? And I can’t help but notice that the majority of these progress photos all come from individuals suffering anorexia, with a skeletal figure on the left and stronger, healthier one on the right, which paradoxically only serves to further erase and ignore the fact that an eating disorder can be present at any weight.
What about binge-eating disorder, where an individual is likely to be overweight? What about bulimia, where it’s common to be anything from slightly underweight to slightly overweight? What about anorexia athletica, where the person probably still fits the new cultural ideal of fit and strong? What about the entire range of eating disorders that can affect any person at any weight? To see a newsfeed filled with sick, skinny girls, even when they are highlighting the personal progress of recovery and even advocating weight restoration, is incredibly triggering as the illness is itself incredibly competitive. Most people will probably believe they have never been sick enough, or thin enough, or in hospital enough times, and seeing people talk through their stories will inevitably turn up someone who has been sicker, or had it worse. And those kinds of (inescapable) competitive thoughts will only fuel an eating disorder, both in those seeing the posts and those creating them.
While I really am an advocate of speaking up about mental health and breaking down the stigma of eating disorders, I just don’t believe we are going about it in the right way. To reduce an eating disorder to the visual pins a mental illness to the superficial side effect of weight loss, and fuels the kind of negative competitive behaviour that will be detrimental to recovery. It shouldn’t be about how many feeding tubes or trips to hospital or pounds lost and gained; awareness of eating disorders needs to go beyond that because the illnesses do. And there needs to be far more recognition that an eating can come in any shape, size, weight or form - and be equally serious.
“It shouldn’t be about how many feeding tubes or trips to hospital or pounds lost and gained; awareness of eating disorders needs to go beyond that because the illnesses do.
If you are posting to raise awareness, and being brave enough to share your story, please avoid relying upon numbers or posting pictures of your lowest weight – the focus should be on the emotional or mental process. It is reductive to focus upon whether you did or did not go inpatient for it (I haven’t), whether your BMI slipped into near-death, or whether your daily intake was that of a concentration camp survivor. This week what I (and probably everyone else struggling with or recovering from an eating disorder) needs to see are the useful stories: the benefits of recovery that don’t focus on numbers, an opening up that doesn’t include the need to shock with pictures of lowest weights (which will inevitably lead to comparisons), and the understanding that weight loss is a side effect of a mental health problem which could affect anyone at any weight. And lastly, don’t feel confined to this week to talk about it!