Eating disorder statistics are expanding – FAST. children as young as 3 worry about getting fat, and over 5 million people remain significantly depressed about their bodies.
Meanwhile, 1.6 million people are affected by eating disorders, with only 10% seeking professional support, and up to 1/3 of individuals with anorexia dying because of related medical complications !!!
This is not acceptable, and neither is the answers that we are provided with as to why eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, EDNOS, orthorexia, or any other form of disordered eating arise in the first place.
At one end of the spectrum, we are told that it is because we live in a world where there are masses of skinny models, media touch-ups, and messages that promote negative bodily comparisons. We are also told that eating disorders are a way of feeling in control, or even as a way of getting attention! We are even made to focus on weight being the issue, and that faddy diets are to blame.
I agree to a large extent with all of these explanations. They to play a role in the contribution to eating disorders. Yet they don’t really explain what is going on at a deeper level.
They also don’t explain why around 1 in 4 of eating disorder cases are male, who although experience pressure to look a certain way, are not manipulated into this type of thinking to the same degree as females.
What these explanations fail to get at is what we learn to value in society, and how these values lead us away from feeling as though we have any meaning, purpose or value in the world.
Fundamentally, individuals have led away from meeting basic needs for belonging, love and acceptance, because the way our western system works is on the basis that individuals need to be successful in their careers, appearance and how they go on to create a family of their own.
We are taught from a young age, that the grades at schools and colleges, the zero figures in our bank balance, and the luxury status of the products we own, are all symbols of a happy and successful life – that others should aspire too. But, you can have all of those things without the basic stuff that really matters – love, acceptance, belonging, meaning and the time to express our unique creativity.
The messages put out there in our society perpetuates the myths of a so-called successful life, where individuals are encouraged to objectify their whole life, work and their own bodies. Just like the letters after their name or figures in their bank account, so too do the figures on their scales, body fat monitors and Calorie counters become to symbolise their level of worthiness and value in the world.
For someone who has ever suffered from poor self-esteem, or feeling as though their basic needs are not being met, it can become ever so tempting view weight and food intake as a solution to meeting our neglected needs.
“Perhaps if I was skinner, ate less, looked more toned, ate a healthy diet or took control of my body fat measurements, then maybe I will gain that love, acceptance, belongingness and meaning.
At the opposite side of the spectrum, we view fat, weight and eating unhealthy as symbols of greed, gluttony, laziness and sloth – characteristics that society doesn’t value or allow you to possess if you really want to be a worthy and lovable person in this world.
Also, simply by not eating or losing weight, our minds become to feel numb. Numb to the anxieties that we faced without an obsession with food and our bodies. This escape from our fears, with a new distraction and religion to follow, this reinforces and perpetuates the very behaviours that make our whole worlds, minds and bodies ever more disconnected and hollow.
The images in society portray that happiness comes with the perfect model figure, even if that means becoming infertile and emaciated as a result. But it isn’t the model at fault per se, it is the underlying meaning that this symbolises.
We have to be led away from our authentic selves through pursuing society’s values of happiness and success rather than those that are innately ingrained within us. In fact, society exploits our basic needs, manipulating us to believe that love, purpose and becoming a valued member of society means aspiring to its unrealistic standards of beauty and success.
With the compliments that often come with starving yourself, this reinstates the belief that acceptance from others is based on your appearance and weight. You wouldn’t normally get this attention unless you had been extremely successful in another area of life such as work. And, as someone already in the trap of that euphoric feeling that starving brings, the addictive cycle continues.
Starving also feels like a punishment that we deserve for not being good enough, and so food becomes additionally associated with guilt and shame for experiencing any pleasure that we don’t feel worthy of having. Perfectionistic tend to creep in too – as a means of punishment and trying to earn our right to feel like a worthy person in society.
We may see the bones that jut out of our skin, but we also see that we are not yet good enough. The real issue hasn’t been resolved, which partly lies in not feeling as though any part of us, other than our weight, signifies our worth in society.
Food becomes fearful, and just something that will lead to rejection from society, which at a basic level could mean death. We may not consciously realise this, but the neurological wiring of this impending doom is very much a reality – even causing us to physically shake in fear, sometimes preferring death to the anxiety that churns around our empty stomachs day in day out.
Funnily enough, many treatments for eating disorder focus on the surface level problems – food and body. I’ve spent multiple inpatient admissions going over multiple meal plans and discussions about how to not fear food.
Recovery techniques focus on past childhood experiences of food and body while reassuring people that they aren’t overweight and that they won’t become overweight through eating healthy again. But these messages still enhance the belief that society values our weight and food intake as a measure of success. What most treatments don’t address is that, underneath any eating disorder, is a desire to be loved, accepted, valued and to find meaning.
Rarely was I asked what I really wanted to do in life, how I wanted to feel like I had contributed something positive to the planet.
It is only when I started volunteering in my local community though did my whole perspective on recovery and health change. I began to enjoy my time spent with people who were passionate about something. Who felt like their life had a meaning and purpose to it, which centred around helping others.
These people weren’t work-obsessed or perfectionistic or majorly concerned with the way their bodies looked to others. Instead, they were concerned about the impact of their actions, and what they could do on this planet to make it a better place to live in. These people inspired me so much. They brought me out of my shell, and never looked at me as a person with an eating disorder.
They saw through the disorder, and into the real me hidden beneath the cloak I had viciously strangled myself in. They taught me how to love again, and not only other people, but also myself.
The thing is, although these people spent lots of time caring for others, they also realised that in order to do that to their full capabilities, then they also needed to look after themselves. At first, this was a foreign concept. My mind was on full self-destruct and punishment mode, and I didn’t see myself as anyone deserving of real love, let alone my own.
But these guys taught me differently, and so eventually I was able to feel ok about the idea of taking time for myself, not saying yes to everything, and not using starvation as my only way to cope and feel a sense of value in the world.
While volunteering, I gained the confidence to go to university, and even though I couldn’t afford it, my contribution to volunteering in the community largely helped me to obtain a scholarship to go.
Over the next several years, I studies, health sciences, nutrition, positive psychology and all about the real elements that go into making someone authentically happy and healthy. Surprise surprise, the real crucial elements weren’t anything to do with dieting or having a healthy weight or looking a certain way.
The key elements were about self-compassion, expressing creativity, finding meaning, making positive social connections with others, feeling grateful and finding value in the unique talents that each and every one of us are gifted with. These findings were mind-blowing to me and so crucial to my own journey towards recovery and full healing from the anorexia that had plagued my mind and body for far too long.
These findings also connected me with this purpose of Nourishing Routes and helping to empower others to realise that health is so much more than what we eat weigh or look like. They also fuelled my passion for sharing hope for recovery from eating disorders, while helping as many people across the globe to develop the lifelong positive relationship with their food and body.
At my core, I now don’t believe in self-loathing to gain self-worth. It never works like, even though society might suggest it. Instead, I believe in the art of self-compassionate living, where each of us can realise our true meaning and value as human beings.
It doesn’t matter what it is, but just as long as we recognise that we are all one. We are all individuals who have a positive purpose on this planet, and that feeling a sense of belonging with other human beings and our world as a whole brings a mass of health benefits that far outweigh any amount of weight loss or striving for perfection.
To sum up, I’d like to reinstate that eating disorders are not just about skinny models in the media per se, but the underlying meaning that such images endorse. Also, our relationship with food and our bodies are not meant to be self-destructive, even though we live in a time where society’s meaning of success partly means following a self-destructive plan.
Instead, we were born to be free with who we already are, so that we can free our time to find our meaning, purpose and sense of belonging in the world.
We need to meet our most fundamental needs as human beings, for love, acceptance, belonging, value and meaning. By meeting these needs, and finding ways to love ourselves from this inside out rather than the other way around, this enables more and more individuals to live more self-compassionately, and enable the world to respect individuals who strive to live more compassionately with themselves and others too.
Only then can we make humongous strides in challenging and preventing issues like eating disorders, low self-esteem and poor mental health, because they manifest as a symbol of not being able to meet our basic needs or feely worthy enough to live compassionately.
With thing in mind though, and taking positive action for a more compassionate world, I thoroughly believe that we will all be free to live the life we love, filled with love for ourselves, others and the planet.
Source: Nourishing Routes