During my time at secondary school we attended a class known as PSHCE. I can’t remember what it stood for and I can’t remember what we learnt, I guess it was meant to teach us about life and the ways of the world, obviously they did a fantastic job because, here I am, thriving.
As I mentioned, I didn’t take much away from these lessons, but there was one session that stood out; sitting at my desk, gazing out of the window, day dreaming about boys or lunch, because they are of course of equal importance to a teenage girl.
The topic of that particular class was eating disorders and I had some vague interest in it, mostly because it was a break from the dreary science and maths lessons. So we sat there listening to our teacher read off PowerPoint slides with about as much enthusiasm as I had for maths and I took away the knowledge (as I’m sure many of my peers did) that ‘normal’ people didn’t get eating disorders, only celebrities, models, dancers. They smoked, they avoided food and they made themselves sick to stay slim, it wasn’t a big deal and I remember thinking:
‘how stupid, why would anyone CHOOSE to do that to themselves? How could anyone deprive themselves of food? I love food too much to avoid it! And the people making themselves sick on purpose? What a terrifying notion! That will never be me.’
With the knowledge (and experience) I have now, I look back and see that these classes didn’t do a whole lot of good informing people about mental health struggles and probably left a lot of people believing, including myself, that eating disorders, amongst other mental illnesses are a choice, that eating disorders are all about loosing weight, being vain and trying desperately to get attention.
So let’s pick that apart shall we?
There are three main parts that contribute to eating disorders, firstly we’ll look at:
Sociology / environmental – everything that is going on in the world around us, diet culture, images of the ‘perfect’ body, food guilt, fear of fat, fear of weight gain and the belief that weight loss is the way to happiness. It can also include other stressors such as bullying, childhood teasing and physical illness.
Psychological – focuses on why the minds of some individuals latch on to eating disorders while others seem to be able to diet and live a life of disliking their body but still staying, overall, mentally well. There are certain traits that have been linked to the development of eating disorders, including, perfectionism, setting impossible standards and inflexibility to name a few.
It’s also where the conversation about control comes up, controlling the amount of food eaten, not eaten, the amount of calories burnt and the escape from control with binge eating.
When things become a struggle, life gets overwhelming and you find that you can’t keep control of everything, what can you actively control? Food. So by eating less, counting calories, choosing portion sizes, bingeing and purging you gain this warped sense of control that your life was lacking and you believe that it makes you feel better!
Physiological – the physical effects on the body that come with starvation, purging or binging. Especially the neurobiology of the brain.
Speaking from experience, in the middle of a binge when I would mindlessly eat to escape my racing thoughts, I felt an almost euphoria. My anxiety would ease for a few moments and I would be peaceful. The sense of release, felt from both restriction and binging is an alteration of brain chemicals. So you can imagine how easy it is to return to those destructive habits when you believe it’s going to ease your discomfort, much like drugs or alcohol.
So no, it’s not for attention and it’s not a choice. You can imagine how much it hurts when people accuse you of ‘choosing’ this. There are so many things contributing to these horrible illnesses and little that we have control over. It’s not just about the food, nor is it just about weight loss, it goes so much deeper than that.
Let’s all be more open minded and support those who need it.