WHAT IS AN EATING DISORDER?
Eating disorders are serious conditions related to persistent eating behaviours that negatively impact your health, your emotions and your ability to function in important areas of life (Mayo Clinic). Most eating disorders involve high focus on weight, food consumption and body shape, leading to dangerous and unhealthy eating behaviours. There are many different kinds of eating disorders, each with their own set of symptoms and ways of presenting themselves. Commonly known eating disorders include: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.
Causes: The exact causes of eating disorders are not fully known and similarly to many other mental illnesses, there can be a multitude of causes. From a biological point of view, certain people may have genes that increase their risk of developing eating disorders or changes in ones brain chemistry can also be a factor. Causes can also be from psychological and emotional health. People with eating disorders may have psychological and emotional problems such as low self-esteem, perfectionism, impulsive behaviour and troubled relationships which can contribute to the disorder.
Risk factors: Teenage girls and young women are more likely than teenage boys and young men to have anorexia or bulimia, but males can have eating disorders, too. Although eating disorders can occur across a broad age range, they often develop in the teens and early 20s. Other factors including stress, family history and other mental disorders may increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AN EATING DISORDER AND DISORDERED EATING?
Disordered eating is a term used for unhealthy eating behaviours and worries about body image. It is quite common, many people have some kind of disordered eating at some point in their life. It is important to recognize the signs of disordered eating and get help from a medical professional before the problem gets worse. That way you may prevent an eating disorder from developing. Eating disorders are extreme cases of disordered eating and when one’s behaviours meet the DSM-5 criteria for an eating disorder. Some of the most common types of disordered eating are dieting and restrictive eating. Others include self-induced vomiting, binge eating, and laxative abuse.
THE DEEPER PROBLEM
The problem of eating disorders and disordered eating extends farther than those who have eating disorder. I recently realized how casually people talk about disordered eating without knowing that what they are describing is similar to an eating disorder/disordered eating. Teenagers have normalized unhealthy eating behaviours in their conversations but in the wrong way. Instead of being supportive and creating an open environment for addressing this dire topic they freely talk about their disordered eating behaviours and almost to the point where they seem proud of it. For example a few months ago I was sitting at school with some friends (let’s call them Ashley and Julia) who were talking about when they eat their meals and how unhappy they are with their body. They had just been scrolling through Instagram and the conversation went something like this:
Ashley: I wish I looked like Kendall Jenner. How is she so pretty?
Julia: SAME! I have an entire folder in my camera roll with pictures of her that I look through to motivate myself to lose weight.
Ashely: I really need to lose weight, summer is coming so fast and I am so fat, I can’t look like this while wearing a bikini.
Julia: Yeah… I just stop eating sometimes.
Me: Do you not eat for an entire day? Don’t you feel hungry?
Julia: I go for one to two days, you stop feeling it after a while and then I just eat a lot the next day but then I feel bad about how much I ate so I stop eating again.
Ashley: I do the same thing, it’s not that bad.
THE INFLUENCE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
In addition to this conversation, I noticed the amount of content being posted on social media, specifically TikTok, about eating disorders and disordered eating. Despite the harms and negativity it can bring, the online community has grown to being very supportive and open to mental illnesses. I think it is really great that people can have a space to connect with people similar to them and share their suffering publicly. I do however see some downsides. As we know social media can be very dangerous, it takes lots of courage sharing your personal struggles online, but when there is a free comment sections there are bound to be people who leave mean and hurtful comments. Another negative to social media is the opportunity for people or content to be misunderstood. I often see videos of people sharing their “how I lost 5 pounds in 2 weeks” or “what I eat in a day – my journey to losing weight”. While the intentions of these are to share and document their journeys, there are definitely many people out there, myself included, who have wanted to try these regimens seen online. Everyones bodies are different so these tips may not work for them and most of the time they are unrealistic.
This is a TikTok that came up on my for you page a few days ago. I think this video does a good job at explaining what goes through some with an eating disorders mind however like always there is a negative. Before watching this, imagine you are 12 years old, see everyone else at school as being “prettier” than you and because of this not the most confident in your own skin. When scrolling through TikTok, you come across this girl who looks beautiful and healthy and is describing her eating habits. At the innocent age of 12, you are very vulnerable to the influence of social media and so you decide to follow what she is doing in hopes of being as pretty as her.
With all the conversations and social media posts I have become more aware of over the past few months there are two ways I think this issue could be better addressed.
1. We need to change the way we talk about our eating habits. There are many simple switches to our language that could create an environment where the talk of eating habits and disorders is not warped to become casual banter. We can do this by:
2. Think about who you are following on social media. Notice which accounts make you feel good or bad about ourselves. Be conscious of who we follow and what they’re bringing to our lives. We need to unfollow accounts that make us place emphasis on appearance and recognize when we’re tempted to follow someone just because they’re attractive.
HOW CAN YOU TAKE ACTION?
In the future, listen and be aware for negative and casual talk about eating disorders and disordered eating. If you hear a conversation headed the wrong way speak up and educate on the effective and better ways to address disordered eating and eating disorders.
Brainstorm some ideas! In the comments below answer this prompt: what are some other ways you can think of to address eating disorders in conversation? Consider how we can shift the narrative from casual, relaxed discussions to a better understanding of eating disorders. In addition, I would love to hear any other feedback/questions/other comments you may have! Click here for my sources and don’t forget “you are beautiful no matter what they say” (Christina Aguilera).