Dispelling Myths: The Truth Behind Eating Disorders
By Nikhita Singhal
Eating disorders: the illnesses of pre-pubescent girls and shallow adolescents. At least, that’s how society often perceives them. Yet eating disorders are not solely focused on food, or weight, or even body image; they are not a vain cry for attention. They are mental illnesses, molded and given power by fear, anxiety, a lack of control, and a myriad of other factors dependent on the individual who is suffering.
And eating disorders are certainly not restricted to females, or to adolescents. They pay no heed to gender, age, or race when they poison people’s minds. Dismissing an eating disorder as an illness of teenage girls not only makes it more difficult for others who are suffering to come forward and seek help; it also makes it difficult to comprehend why these diseases are so deadly.
For some struggling with eating disorders, food and weight may very well be at the forefront of their minds. However, many circumstances that trigger conditions like anorexia or bulimia have naught to do with physical appearance. The culmination of a series of stressful life experiences, a drive for perfection, or a perceived lack of control over the events in one’s life, may all spiral into a deadly fixation on food or one’s body as a coping mechanism.
Certainly, this situation can be exacerbated by the ‘thin ideal’ enforced by ubiquitous media messages. Advertisements scream from every screen and page in sight, rattling our self-worth and influencing our values. However, while combating these toxic messages is unquestionably a worthy pursuit, it will not drive eating disorders to extinction. The underlying issues plaguing people of all genders, ages, and cultures with eating disorders may manifest in food-related behaviours, but cannot be shut down by sheer willpower.
To assume an eating disorder shows weakness in someone suffering is to completely underestimate the potency of the human mind. The paralyzing terror someone feels when faced with food or the prospect of gaining weight may be a reflection of deeper demons to be fought, or of tangible differences in neuroanatomy. Our genes are not something we exert much control over, nor are eating disorder something we choose to be afflicted with. An eating disorder is not a diet or a transient phase. It is not something people try out for a while, decide they don’t like, and then give up on. It is a parasite that latches on to sufferers’ minds, and convinces them that abandoning it would make them weak and miserable. It saps life from them steadily, yet does not allow them to perceive its numerous negative effects. Instead, the further they sink into the illness, the more distorted their perception becomes.
Next time you suspect someone may be struggling with an eating disorder, please do not judge them or dismiss their illness as a fad or phase. Nor should you merely pity them for falling prey to the media’s obsession with thinness – because while a drive for weight loss may be involved, it does not define these individuals. Instead, practice compassion. Eating disorders are no simple ‘way of life’ – and they certainly are not a dieting craze, or an insult to hurl at particularly thin individuals. Rather, eating disorders are a dangerous path that may lead straight to death if the silence and stigma are not shattered.
Nikhita is a student at McMaster University, where she is studying health sciences. She hopes to use her experience with an eating disorder to make positive contributions to the field and empower others to seek recovery.