The mass media is a powerful force throughout our world, and it strongly influences how people see themselves and others. Everywhere we turn– Social media, magazines, television– we are inundated with messages to work out more, eat less, and weigh less.
Media influences cause us to internalize patterns of physical beauty, resulting in dissatisfaction with our own bodies and self-image. Combined with increased technology use, anxiety, stress, and a global pandemic, it is no surprise that Body Dysmorphia and eating disorders are on the rise.
February 1st- February 28th is National Eating Disorder Association’s “Eating Disorder Awareness Week”. The goal of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is to educate the public, spread a message of hope, and provide resources to those in need. There is no better time than now to encourage these conversations and help to spread their message.
What are Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders are more than just an obsession with appearance or weight– They are serious medical illnesses that can affect a person’s physical and mental health, and in some cases, they can be life-threatening. Those with eating disorders can have a variety of symptoms, however, most include the severe restriction of food, food binges, or purging behaviors like vomiting or over-exercising. Some of these Disorders can include: Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, and Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. For more information on types of eating disorders, click here.
What Causes an Eating Disorder?
There is no one true “cause” or “reason” for an eating disorder. In fact, the exact cause of eating disorders is unknown. Certain people may experience genetic, or biological factors, such as changes in brain chemicals, that increase their risk of developing the disorder. Others also experience psychological and emotional risk factors, such as low self-esteem, perfectionism, impulsive behavior, and/or troubled relationships.
While the influence of genetics can’t be denied, genes are hardly the “end-all” of eating disorder prediction. Environmental factors also include physical illnesses, childhood teasing, trauma, social media use, advertisements, a history of restrictive dieting, and other life stressors.
In other words, eating disorders are complex – They are complicated illnesses that stem from a multifaceted interaction of biological, psychological, and environmental factors.
Every Body Can Break The Stigma
30 million people in the United States suffer from an eating disorder at any given time. Eating disorders also have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness– Up to 20% of individuals with chronic anorexia nervosa will die as a result of their illness.
Despite the seriousness of the disease, eating disorders remain highly stigmatized, and are less likely to be discussed and diagnosed than other mental disorders. Why? There is still a commonly-held view that an eating disorder is a lifestyle choice– That the person is to blame for their disorder, that “it’s just a phase”, or that it is just a “diet gone wrong”.
It’s important to understand that people don’t choose eating disorders – they are medical ailments that can affect people of any age, gender, economic background, ethnicity, body weight, or age. They cause significant physical, mental, emotional, and social impairment. Like any other physical or mental illness, a person does not choose to suffer from an eating disorder.
One of the most harmful consequences of stigma is that it may act as a barrier for people seeking proper help. Research shows that it takes an average of 8-10 years for someone to seek help and yet early help seeking is crucial to curtailing the impact and duration of the illness (NEDA, 2018). It is imperative that these illnesses become normalized so that people can recognize the symptoms and seek the help they need, but also so that the people helping them can do so effectively– And when caught early enough, eating disorders can have one of the fastest recovery rates!
According to NEDA, some of the emotional and behavioral ED warning signs might include:
- Intense fear of gaining weight
- Frequent checking in the mirror for perceived flaws
- Self-worth and self-esteem dependent on body shape and weight
- Fear of eating in public or with others
- Preoccupation with food
- Eating tiny portions or refusing to eat
- Hoarding and hiding food
- Consumption of only “safe” or “healthy” foods
- Making excuses for not eating
- Use of dietary supplements, laxatives or herbal products for weight loss
- Excessive exercise
- Cooking elaborate meals for others, but refusing to eat them themselves
- Unusual food rituals (cutting food into small pieces, chewing each bite an unusually large number of times, eating very slowly)
- Any new practice with food or fad diets, including cutting out entire food groups (no sugar, no carbs, no dairy, vegetarianism/veganism)
Every Body Can be Proactive
Highlighted in NEDA’s ED Awareness week mission, it is imperative that we build awareness of the warning signs, as well as education on how to best support those with eating disorders. Although there’s no scientific method or sure way to prevent eating disorders, here are some strategies to help you, your child, or your loved one develop positive behaviors and body image:
- Avoid Restriction: Maintain a healthy and balanced diet. Try to avoid categorizing foods as “good/safe” or heavily restricting foods that are “bad/dangerous.” All food helps us to fuel our bodies– Yes, a healthy diet is extremely important, but there is always room for all food groups in moderation.
- Weight does Not Equal Happiness: You are more than just what your body looks like. Try to avoid the notion that a particular diet, weight, or body size will automatically lead to happiness and fulfillment.
- Don’t make it about weight. Try to avoid conversations about numbers on a sale or calories on the package. Frame discussions about your/your child’s body in terms of their overall wellness and how it feels. Talk about how great it can feel to participate in activities that you enjoy. Talk about how satisfied you are with the meal you made.
- Foster self-esteem. Look for positive qualities in yourself (or in your child), such as curiosity, loyalty, generosity, or a sense of humor… And remind yourself love and acceptance are unconditional, regardless of weight or appearance.
- Be ‘Media Literate’: TV, ads, social media and other media are preoccupied with thinness. The overwhelming content of the ‘ideal body’ that we see in the media puts us at a higher risk of developing risk behaviors for the development of eating disorders. We must think critically about messages portrayed in the media– Particularly focusing on the unrealistic nature of the media’s “ideal body type”. (A great resource on media literacy here!)
- Celebrate Your Body For What it Can Do: When you do think about your body, focus on what it does for us. Be grateful that your body can dance, sing, run, skip, jump out of bed, hug your friends, and hold your children. Your body is the house you grew up in– Treat it with care!
- Talk to your doctor: Doctor’s visits include checks of height, weight percentiles, and body mass index, which can provide insight into any significant changes. Doctors can also ask/answer questions about eating behaviors, screen for bulimia, and provide reliable resources about nutrition and exercise.
- Ask For Help: If you think someone has an eating disorder, gently express your concerns, and encourage the person to seek trained professional help. When treated EARLY and correctly, eating disorders have the highest and fastest recovery rate! If you think you have an eating disorder, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Reach out to your doctor, therapist, trusted loved ones, or eating disorder helplines with questions and concerns. Recovery is possible at any time, but it is important to seek help as early as you can.
For more information and support on eating disorder warning signs, education, and resources, please visit:
- Call the NEDA Eating Disorder Helpline at 800-931-2237.
- Call The Inner You Counseling Center at 401-773-7116 for outpatient counseling services via teletherapy or in person.
Written by: Allison Liguori