Before I even realized I had an eating disorder, the thing I digested most was literature. Not for my studies, unfortunately. I even had to quit Uni when my brain got too tired to concentrate on studying, and when even the thought of having to go to class was draining enough.
I did, however, savor every recipe I
came across looked up. And after I realized was diagnosed with an eating disorder, I also started feeding upon all the literature I could possibly find to make sense of this eating disorderedness. My days were consumed by food and eating disorders for so, so long.
These times have passed now. I haven’t opened a recipe book, an actively eating disordered a healthy living blog or a self-help book in at least half a year. One of few blogs I therefore also lost sight of is EDBites, by Carrie Arnold. I stumbled upon her blog again a few weeks ago and realized I needed to catch up reading. I am glad I did, because she then did a fabulous awareness post the other week that I really wanted to share with everyone here.
But first, let me stray from her post a little and elaborate on the subject..
Eating disorders and body image debates are everywhere nowadays. They are especially linked to images in the media, the stick thin advertised models, the commercialization of dieting, the widely used association between ‘skinny’ and ‘healthy’, the apparent boom of celebrities with eating disorders and the growing rebelling body-love movement.
One can wonder if this recent growing awareness of body image issues is due to a growing percentage of eating disorders. Maybe it is not an epidemic of eating disorders, but simply an epidemic of signification. Either way, the epidemic has a dual implication; it has not just caused growing awareness, it has also caused growing misrepresentations of body image and of eating disorders.
The causal relation between the body-images the media portray and eating disorders seems to be an accepted fact in today’s society. However, some of the most cited studies, such as the Fiji study of eating disorder prevalence after the introduction of (western) television, are, in my opinion, dubious in their conclusions. First of all, the number of girls participating in the study was small, and the follow up study to measure the impact of western TV did not use the same participants as the original study. Also it is often left out that Fiji had access to western media such as magazines for years already. What else needs to be considered is that the people of Fiji did not understand the difference between reality TV and sitcoms, so their understanding of the reality of TV is not comparable to western understanding. The western media often says the Fiji girls take the western actresses as role models to want to look the way they do, but the original study states that these girls said they saw the actresses as role models for their work and career perspectives. This is something completely different. And even though the study showed an increase in purging behaviours, the average Fijian BMI did not decrease, it even rose a little. The respondents in the study did not show any weight loss. We all know that weight loss does not count for an essential to have an eating disorder, but that, combined with the fact the average BMI of Fiji is close to what in the Western world is considered overweight, does put the study in a different perspective.
Different studies, such as one in Curacao, show something else. Where this country is very aware of western ideals, if not only because it is a satellite-country of the very western Netherlands, the preference for curvy, round women has never changed. Even more striking is that, even though their ideal is almost the opposite of what is portrayed by western media, the percentage of eating disorders among the high-risk group of mixed-race and caucasian teenage girls in Curacao does not differ from the international average. The study did show that among the black women in Curacao there were no reported cases of anorexia. The study, unfortunately, only focuses on anorexia, and even though it reports findings of bulimia for the black part of the population, it does not elaborate on it. What does this mean? That, even though the Curacao population is not oblivious to the western ideals, anorexia was not found in a large part of the population. The media are therefore not the only ones to be blamed.
This all is by no means an attempt to downplay the importance of addressing the aforementioned skewed image the western media bombards us with on a daily basis. Nor is it a way to say the raise in awareness should be reversed. Many studies show that anorexia is a disease mostly found in affluent, industrialized countries. Therefore, it might be considered not just an epidemic of significance, but also an epidemic of disease itself. And it entails an even bigger growth in the future, since technology keeps advancing and the world keeps getting richer. The current trend of hating on our bodies is not something to be ignored, whatever the direction of correlation between the media and our self-image is. It is just too easy to blame it all on western media, as (ironically) the western media appears to hold true. Fact is that, whether the ideal is skin on bones or junk in the trunk, the world wide average of eating disorders is 5%. Five percent may not sound like a lot, but it is one in every twenty people. Or, returning to Carrie’s words: “Each year, roughly 4 million babies are born in America. Approximately 200,000 of these babies will develop an eating disorder. Every year has 525,600 minutes.
That means that every 2.6 minutes, a child will be diagnosed with an eating disorder. Every two minutes, a parent will be told ‘Your child has an eating disorder'”.
Yes, that is a lot.
And since this is the case worldwide, even if the local body-ideal glorifies curves and more, pointing fingers at the media and trying to change what they choose to portray, might possibly not have the effect we like to believe it will. This calls for even greater awareness campaigning regarding the subject. If 1 in 20 people fall victim to eating disorders worldwide, this deserves serious attention, not in the least to make people (and especially politicians who have power to change the currently lacking health system) understand the importance of early (medical) intervention. Where the current health systems seem to focus on admission of patients who have hit rock bottom (or have managed to dig beyond that), we need to make them understand that, for a disease this prevalent, this is completely ineffective and all the more costly in the long run.
One in nine women fall victim of breast cancer. Yet no doctor will have to postpone treatment until it has reached an extremely advanced stage. More so, in recent years the amount of awareness campaigns focused on self-checking, Facebook virals to remind us when it’s breast cancer-month and celebrity commercials to do the same. All to help make early intervention possible, and to help take preventative measures.
We need to stop putting our energy in trying to raise awareness about the skewed body images in the western media. We should instead raise awareness about our failing healthcare system. We need to raise awareness about the prevalence of diseases for which early intervention and possible prevention will result in saving lives.
One in twenty people will suffer from an eating disorder.
Eating disorders have the highest death-rate of all psychological illnesses.
Early intervention, or possibly even prevention, can save millions of lives.
How about we raise some awareness on that.
PS; Unfortunately my internet is failing on me, so I cannot search for web links to the studies mentioned. However, I am sure all of you are ‘Google-proficient’ enough to trace them.