Breaking Stigma Needs To Lead To Breaking Barriers
By Maja Kostanski
June 2nd will mark the third annual World Eating Disorders Day, an initiative that aims to expand global awareness of eating disorders as genetically linked, treatable illnesses that can affect anyone. The theme for this year is #WeDoAct2BreakStigma, urging individuals and communities to take steps to break the stigma that surrounds eating disorders. As statistics show, there is still a great need to raise awareness about eating disorders in our society¹:
- 40% of Canadians (mistakenly) believe that eating disorders are a choice.
- Only 35% of Canadians admit they wouldn’t be able to recognize the signs of an eating disorder.
- 91% of Canadians believe that the media pressures to have the ‘perfect body’ are to blame for developing an eating disorder.
So what does breaking the stigma look like? There are many ways to decrease stigma, such as sharing correct information and initiating genuine conversations with family, friends and professionals about what eating disorders are and what they are not. This topic was explored in our Something’s Gotta Give (SGG) Short Film Series, particularly in Episode 2: Bust the Myths and Episode 5: Re-think ED’s within Mental Health.
From my personal experience, one of the challenges I came across during my eating disorder recovery was the dismissive way that others would tell me I look fine, or I seem fine. Eating disorders are not discernable by the way someone looks – sufferers come in all body shapes. I suffered from binge eating and an exercise addiction, and by meticulously balancing food and exercise I was able to maintain a healthy weight, which made it appear externally that I was fine. I was not fine. On the inside, I was in agony; and I was flat out exhausted both physically, and even more so mentally. When I finally found the courage to tell my friends and family that I was seeking help, I was often met with comments such as “But you look so fit!” or “You’re always outside hiking and running, you seem fine”.
This is my story, and there are thousands of stories similar to mine. So yes, stigmas absolutely do exist and there is a lot of work to be done on educating society about the reality of eating disorders. But that’s not enough.
As I delve deeper into statistics, and the complexity of eating disorders and the systems around them, and with some guidance and insight from the Looking Glass team, I am quickly realizing that we – as individuals, as institutions, as a society - need to do more.
Admittedly, when I first started working for Looking Glass (just a week ago!), I had it in my mind that raising awareness and breaking stigma was the key to tackling eating disorders. As I delve deeper into statistics, and the complexity of eating disorders and the systems around them, and with some guidance and insight from the Looking Glass team, I am quickly realizing that we – as individuals, as institutions, as a society - need to do more. Yes, we need to change the way we think, but more importantly we need to change how we actually go about fighting and eradicating this disease. So let’s break stigma, and then break barriers – barriers to accessing effective treatment, barriers around government inaction, barriers to insurance coverage... the list goes on.
So what does breaking barriers look like? From an individual perspective, there are countless ways to take action: from speaking up about companies that use misleading advertising messages and images, to urging the government to pay attention to eating disorders through writing letters and lobbying policy-makers to increase funding for ED research, prevention and treatment.
From a healthcare perspective, we need to re-think ED programming and tackle the issue of waitlists and financial barriers to treatment. In addition to early prevention programming in our schools and communities, and the availability of better information resources generally, we need to ensure there are enough support and treatment programs for those who suffer. Education around eating disorders for healthcare professionals needs to increase, and burnout and lack of training needs to be addressed.
From a society perspective, we need to detoxify our culture and the deeply ingrained values that obsess about body image and vanity. Our value as people, regardless of gender, has become linked with how young, thin, and attractive we are. These values affect the way we view and talk not only about our own and other’s bodies, but also our own and other’s worth. This has to change.
These are just a few of the many ways we can take action. The SGG Short Film Series addresses many hard-hitting issues and what can be done, and I encourage you to watch them all.
What I am learning is that the long-term vision is what we need to fight for and something we cannot lose sight of. The short-term vision is to change the way society understands eating disorders. The long-term vision is to live in a society that leaves no space for eating disorders to manifest themselves in the first place.
¹ IPSOS Reid Poll of 1005 Canadians in November 2014, conducted for NEDIC
Maja is the Communications Coordinator at the Looking Glass Foundation, and holds a Bachelor of Science in Food, Nutrition and Health from the University of British Columbia and a Digital Marketing Certificate from Simon Fraser University. When she isn't working, you can find her mountain biking, hiking or running in the trails with her energetic dog.