The theme of this year’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week is ‘Why Wait?’. On average, nearly three years pass before an individual seeks help for an eating disorder. There are multiple reasons why this could be the case, but I know for sure that stigma is often one of them.
There’s something oddly shameful about speaking out about when I experienced bulimia. For years I have blogged about my mental health and mental illness, disclosing some of my darkest experiences with the whole of the internet. Yet, when discussing bulimia, I can’t help but feel so embarrassed.
I think this stems from being labelled as having an eating disorder when I don’t fit the traditional stereotype of being underweight and having a low BMI. This fact always reinforced my denial, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.
Having suffered with Body Dysmorphic Disorder for as long as I can remember, I would frequently become obsessed with ways that I could change my appearance. Hence, it was not very surprising when I developed bulimia. Growing up I was always conscious of my weight and this very much fed into my appearance anxiety. I thought weight loss was the golden ticket, to change the shape of my face and no longer be the hideous monstrosity I so often believed myself to be. Of course, being preoccupied with your weight and body shape is sadly becoming the new normal for too many adolescent girls, so this went unnoticed by both myself and the people around me.
In my early 20s, I experienced profound psychological distress which lead to around four years of fluctuating weight. This was due to changes in medication, agoraphobia, and patterns of emotional and disordered eating. Again, this was deemed as acceptable by both myself and the people around me.
After university, big changes in my life motivated me to “take back control”. I convinced myself that by making “better choices” with food, and by exercising regularly I could attain a level of wellbeing that I had not been able to previously. This quite rapidly evolved into a new negative coping mechanism for me to explore.
I wasn’t just making ‘better choices’, no. My life soon turned into a numbers game, with careful calculations concerning calories exerted in relation to calories consumed.
In a society that is overly concerned, and almost obsessed, with health and wellness, accessibility to the ways to engage in damaging behaviours is actually so frightening in hindsight. This makes it so much easier to deny that you have a problem, because surely everyone else is doing it. Right?
It’s so easy to shift the responsibility, to further deny that you have a problem.
Sadly, the answer is that by living in a society that conditions us to hate ourselves, businesses will prosper from trying to correct our flaws. By having a vulnerable sense of self and low self-esteem, we have no chance to fight against the thin-ideal and globalised beauty standards which dominate the media. By building up the resilience of future generations, they might.
The discourse around eating disorders needs to be shifted so that the emphasis is not on an individual’s weight, body shape or BMI but the disordered eating behaviours that they are engaging in. More often than not, that damage is not so visible, such as psychological distress or harm to internal organs and their functioning. We need to encourage people to seek help before they have reached the extreme end of the eating disorder spectrum, and not wait until they feel ‘worthy’ of an eating disorder diagnosis.
Everyone deserves help and support to adopt positive coping mechanisms which do not affect their relationship with food. Regardless of your weight there should be no wait.