For thinner or for worse – the ugly, deadly face of eating disorders

Eating Disorder

To mark the end of Eating Disorder Awareness Week I feel compelled to write a blog on the subject matter, because I am fiercely passionate about it. I am neither a trained expert in psychology nor have I ever worked with patients of eating disorders. What I know comes from a dark and hopeless place, from books, from articles, from talking to victims and their families and from being emotionally savvy and switched on. I am also writing this because eating disorders are evil, and, like any mental illness, talking about it and getting things out in the open, helps people to understand and raise awareness.
If we look around us, I am certain that everyone knows someone or of someone who has dealt with or is still battling an eating disorder. Eating disorders come in as many shapes and forms as there are types describing women’s and men’s bodies. They can take hold of you no matter what age, gender or nationality you are or social background you have. Eating disorders seem to be all around us, be it because we are more open about their existence or whether they affect more people in this day and age.

The first time I made contact with an eating disorder was at 13 years old. I read a book in my native German, translated called: “My beautiful sister” (Blobel, 1989). The story follows a young teenage girl who is overweight. Her older sister is slim, beautiful, successful and has many friends. The younger one often gets playfully taunted by her sister, for being bigger and for eating excessively. Eventually, after starting an initially harmless diet, the young sister eats less and less and eventually becomes anorexic, but her family intervenes quickly and she gets help. I found the book interesting and it got its message across (anorexia is dangerous!) but I thought it downplayed the deadliness and longevity of the illness. The book gave the impression that family and friends instinctively know how to handle the problem and that the road to recovery is quick and life returns to normal. I think the author had the best intentions to keep a disturbing subject light, but in that case, sugar-coating the issue doesn’t help. If anything, it trivialises the real dangers of anorexia and her deadly friends.
The second contact was with another book, reading an actual account of a young American woman battling anorexia. I don’t recall the book’s title or author, and the book is somewhere in the attic of my parents’ house. What I do remember though is how it made me feel: sad, hollow, hopeless and an image in my head that was dark and full of despair. The struggle of the woman shocked me to the core. It described the most silently self-destructive illness that couples glorious self-control with the ultimate unwanted goal: death. Because, if you have an eating disorder and you don’t want to get better or you want to get better too late then you will die. The most soul-destroying thing I took from the book (and therefore also the scariest) was that the woman did want to get better. But somehow, in her head, the eating disorder was ever-present. It was lurking like a cancer, dormant and quiet for some time, and it allowed her to live and to eat and to see food as a necessity rather than her enemy, but it never really went away. It remained with her, and sometimes, very rarely, it reared its rotten ugly head and threw her off course. When it visited, it stopped her from eating, it made her scrutinise her body and it made her question her sanity, until she had lost some weight again. Only then, when the feelings, a mix of triumph and ice cold fear of a full-blown relapse, resurfaced, did she realise that she had to throttle anorexia back to silence. And carry on as before, one day at the time, baby steps every meal time, one spoon or fork full at the time. The book conveyed perfectly what an eating disorder, especially a serious case of anorexia nervosa is about: it is dark, it is dangerous, it is exhausting and deeply destructive, in every which way possible. It is soul destroying as much as it is ruining your mind and body. There is nothing happy or triumphant or beautiful about an eating disorder. It is pure misery and the book was able to show this perfectly. I never enjoyed reading it but that was a good thing, because that meant the author had done her job well. Had I gone away and thought: that sounds fun, I’ll give that a go, she would have truly missed the intention of her autobiography.
The third contact with eating disorders was not in the form of a book but human beings. By the time I was 15 years old there were at least three girls in my school that had a visible eating disorder, meaning, they were so thin they looked like a ghostly vision from a concentration camp (I later learnt that a lot more girls than only those three had eating disorders, such as bulimia and a disturbed behaviour and relationship with food). I saw those girls wasting away in front of my eyes but there was nothing I or anyone else could do to stop them. They were on a mission to achieve something, in their heads a distorted and disturbed ideal of beauty and perfectionism, but in reality they were on the road to total self-destruction. It’s like watching someone holding a gun to their head in a film – you know there’s nothing you can do but shout at the TV but it won’t change the outcome. Suddenly my eyes were open and I saw eating disorders everywhere. And sadly, they seem to be more common now than ever. It’s a sickness of our society, caused by many different and complex factors, both internal and external, but, dare I claim, they are not as new as we think. I would say that they have been around for a very long time, maybe even hundreds of years. Empress Elisabeth of Austria is rumoured to have carried an eating disorder with her for most of her adult life. At 172cm tall she weighed a mere 45kg and was obsessed with keeping this thin frame through a restricted diet and lots of exercise (Conte Corti, 2003). I doubt that she truly enjoyed her diet. I am convinced that her drive to control her weight and looks was not as much about being painfully thin but dealing with the fact that it was the only thing she could control. Her over-bearing mother-in-law controlled everything else, took away her children and ruled her existence. What this reminds me of is Princess Diana and her well-known interview in which she opened up about her battle with bulimia. Her life, too, was controlled by royal etiquette and duty. She had no control. So an eating disorder found her and she controlled that, the one thing she could.

This leads me to look into probable causes of eating disorders, and I know that the list would be longer than any blog I’ll ever write. I also have come to realise that many times an eating disorder isn’t so much about being thin. For many victims it’s not a harmless diet gone wrong. The underlying issue often hasn’t got that much to do with food but more often with control, feelings of not being good enough, not being loved enough and not being perfect enough. The majority of anorexic girls I have met have never been overweight. In fact, prior to becoming ill, all of them were a healthy and slim weight, sporty and highly intelligent overachievers. From the outside, they had everything going for them. So where did things go wrong? As mentioned above, many of the victims have a very unhealthy strive for perfectionism and being in absolute control. Take that and throw in puberty with lots of confusing feelings, raging hormones, and you have a recipe for disaster. Take that and throw in a tragic life event and things are turning for the worse. It’s difficult to determine what started the illness and sometimes years of therapy will never get to the bottom of it. Basically, there is no certain way to predict who will develop an eating disorder and who won’t and there are many factors that influence a person’s brain before they decide to hit the self-destruct button. All I do know is that none of the victims will enjoy the illness. Because eating disorders are selfish. And they turn their victims into selfish puppets. Eating disorders don’t want you to have friends, a partner, or a family. They don’t want you to feel happy and loved. They want you all to themselves. They want you to put all your energy, thoughts and focus in and on them. They don’t want you to experience love. They want you to only love them.

Some people battle the illness for years, some their whole lives. The big problem with these addictions is that you can’t just avoid the substance that is causing the problem (food clearly is not really the problem but on the surface and for the sufferer it is). The cruel and biggest challenge for the victims is that they will have to learn, like a child, to eat again. They have to learn to be hungry again and learn when they are really full up. They have to learn to enjoy their food again, they have to learn to eat in social scenarios, they have to learn to let go of the control over themselves and they have to overcome fears that seem so absurd to an outsider. And that is easier said than done. In fact, even for those who admit that they have a problem and want to get better, it’s a huge problem. I’m not suggesting that recovery from substance abuse is any easier, but at least there are ways to avoid the stuff. You can’t do that with food. We all have to eat to survive. Food is not just pleasure and fun, it’s also the fundamental essence that keeps our minds and bodies alive. If we don’t eat and drink we die. I have heard comments such as “Just eat something”, which is probably the most unhelpful thing anyone could ever utter. It’s not that simple, especially when dealing with anorexia, where the seemingly simple task of putting some food in your mouth is the utmost struggle. Think of your biggest, terrifying fear. Then times that by one hundred. It’s like telling someone with arachnophobia to put their hand in a tank full of spiders. They cannot do it, and if you make them do it they’re likely to have the most horrific adverse reaction.

As more and more people are speaking out about mental health issues, the more chances we have to help those affected by mental illness and get them well again, rather than see them deteriorate and, in the worst case, die. Luckily, over the years people have found it easier to talk about their experiences with eating disorders, too, and many celebrities have opened up about their own struggles. That certainly helps to normalise them and to remove the stigma and the need to hide the illness. However, very sadly it also highlights the magnitude of the disease and how many brilliant, wonderful and beautiful people are affected by it.
I don’t think that social media and the media’s portrayal of women and setting beauty standards cause eating disorders. I do believe however, that they’re not helping at all. I see it like this: If you already have a low immune system and go out in the cold and rain without clothes you’re more likely to become ill. It’s the same with eating disorders: if you’ve already got a low self-esteem and truly believe that, whatever and whoever you are is not enough, and you are then exposed over and over again to messages telling you to look this or that way, to be thinner, more toned, look younger and so on, you’re more susceptible to falling into the claws of anorexia et al than if you have a healthy self-esteem and are clear that those “beauty standards” are complete and utter rubbish.
I also believe that neither fast food nor crash diets or any other restricted diet for that matter are helpful or beneficial to a human’s mind, body and soul. An outlet that promotes sitting on uncomfortable chairs or in your car, scoffing 1000 kcal within less than 10 minutes is as damaging as suggesting to drink nothing but juices for 3 days and taking tablets to curb your appetite. The fast food chain and the multimillion company producing diet drinks and pills won’t hold your hand when you’re in hospital with a heart attack or being treated for malnutrition. They won’t give a tiny rat’s arse if you live or die. They’re not concerned what damage they do to your health. Your loved ones will. And, I bet, if there is an afterlife, you’ll be pretty hacked off with yourself for stupidly cutting your actual life short.
In one of my previous blogs I talk about individuality and being original. Given the fact that science proves that no one is the same as someone else, how can we then try and squeeze our bodies into one size fits all clothes and beauty standards? It just doesn’t work and it never will. This image is deeply hurtful and dangerous to the vulnerable amongst us. The build and shape or our body, the colour of our skin, our hair, our eyes, it’s all bespoke to our individual person and there is no one out there like it again. This is what we should celebrate and promote, because it’s so absurdly wonderful.

So it’s up to us to instil a healthy bit of self-esteem into ourselves, our children and our nearest and dearest. It doesn’t hurt to tell everyone once in a while how amazing they are, inside and out. Because, in the end, being loved for whoever you are with whatever body shape nature has gifted you with is the most empowering and healing thing we can do for one another. It may not erase eating disorders altogether, but it may be the road to embracing people for who they are and stopping people from taking drastic measures to fit an “ideal” that’s fabricated and absurd in equal measures.

References:

Blobel, B., 1989, Meine schöne Schwester, Bertelsmann Club, Güterslohe, Germany

Conte Corti,E. C., 2003, Elisabeth, Weltbild, Augsburg, Germany

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