Culturally, eating disorders are associated with models, ballerinas and teenage girls desperate to look like Taylor Swift. We see stick thin girls with gaunt, sallow faces; ribs eerily prominent. The phrase ‘unrealistic standard of beauty’ is thrown around, which implies that eating disorders are easily cured with a meat pie and a stern talking to.
So why are they stuck in the heads of sufferers for years?
I once had an eating disorder. I come from a dance background and I’m in the entertainment industry; there is always pressure to be trim, taught and toned. When I was in my early teens, I was put on a drug to control my temporal lobe epilepsy. While the drug stopped the seizures, the side effects were a slowed metabolism and increased appetite. That, coupled with the changing body of an adolescent girl, assured that I went (quite quickly) from an athletic dancer’s physique to a chubby, unfit package.
Seeing your body transform like this at the age of 14 is tricky. Couple it with the fact that your greatest passion; dance, requires extreme fitness/muscle tone and it becomes trickier. Add an obsessive, anxious personality and you have a recipe for disaster. Looking back, I really had no hope. I was obsessed with food. All I thought about was increasing my fitness and decreasing my weight. I went through periods of deprivation, followed by extreme (and secret) binging. My size fluctuated, along with my self-esteem and mental state.
I’m sure you’re wondering why I didn’t seek help; I was exhibiting every symptom. Here’s the thing; I never looked anorexic. I was never one of those skeletal images we’ve grown so used to. As such, nobody ever saw it as a disorder, not even myself. However, what society doesn’t realise, through lack of information or lack of interest, is that having an eating disorder DOES NOT AUTOMATICALLY IMPLY anorexia or bulimia. There is another spectrum.
Let’s talk about OSFED; Other Specified Eating and Feeding Disorders. An OSFED sufferer can display many of the symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa, but will not meet the full criteria. This doesn’t mean that OSFED is any less serious; 30 per cent of people who seek treatment suffer from it.
Eventually, I began to realise that I had a serious problem. None of my friends obsessed over their weight like I did. With the support of my wonderful parents, I sought help and spent time with a psychologist. I’m now – at the age of 27 – very much out of the woods. However, if I had known earlier that there was more to an eating disorder than being dangerously underweight, I could have saved years of stress.
My purpose here is to clear up a few glaring misconceptions. I can think of 3 big ones:
- You can control your eating disorder.
FALSE. Anorexia is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Other eating disorders follow a similar vein and require behavioural therapy.
- It is a plea for attention.
SO FALSE. Having an eating disorder is psychological torture. The damning voices never leave you alone; they lead to self-harm and even suicide. There are far better ways to get attention.
- It is a sign of vanity.
UNBELIEVABLY FALSE. There is no beauty to be gained by jaundiced skin and protruding ribs. Aside from that, the resulting body dysmorphic disorder distorts your image. A size 4 will look in the mirror and see a size 14 staring back.
Please; if you are reading this and you relate, seek help now, regardless of your size. Stop the juggernaut before it consumes you. Eating disorders are not trivial, they are serious mental illnesses and should be treated as such.
Image via Thefix.com