01 Sep 2022

What I wish people knew about eating disorders


For Body Image and Eating Disorder Awareness Week (BIEDAW), social worker Lauren shares her lived experience and why she wishes people could realise eating disorders aren’t a choice or about vanity.

Eating disorders are not the result of vanity

The reality is that eating disorders are complex. The development of an eating disorder is multifactorial, arising from and maintained by a combination of biological, psychological and cultural risk factors.

The misconception that vanity fuels eating disorders played a big part in keeping me isolated and stuck in my eating disorder for many years. Reaching out for help terrified me because of what others would think of me and my values, especially those closest to me.

The illusion of control in the development of an eating disorder

Eating disorders seem to be one of the few mental health diagnoses where the individual can feel to blame for their suffering. However, the reality is that no one intentionally sets out to develop an eating disorder.

While the initial behaviours may have begun with the intention of changing body size or shape, for those predisposed to an eating disorder, these socially acceptable and even encouraged behaviours can quickly spiral. While dieting alone is not responsible for someone developing an eating disorder, it can be the trigger for those of us who are predisposed.

We live in a society consumed by diet culture

I would argue that Western culture is diet culture, in which case most of us have been indoctrinated into diet culture since birth.

So, what does this mean?

You’ve likely internalised diet culture messages promoting weight loss, idealising thinness and elevating particular ways of eating. I am yet to meet anyone who doesn’t hold numerous beliefs (both conscious and unconscious) based on diet culture messages.

I’m not here to shame any person; I’ve been there. When I first learnt about diet culture, I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t want to acknowledge that many of the beliefs that had shaped my life resulted from diet culture. But no individual is to blame; diet culture is a systemic problem, not an individual one.

My personal journey

My eating disorder initially developed when I was 12 years old. I was an anxious child with perfectionistic tendencies. Nervous about the transition from primary school to high school, directing my energy toward controlling my food intake gave me something else to focus on. I thought that if I couldn’t be the perfect student, I could at least be the best at controlling my food and body.

Even at the age of 12, I had internalised the diet culture messages that eating certain foods was “bad” and that a woman’s worth is based largely on her appearance.

On the surface, these messages may have appeared to fuel my behaviours. And at the time, I didn’t have the insight to recognise how my anxiety, perfectionism and the transition between schools influenced my behaviours.

Eating disorders are a coping mechanism

When someone is in the midst of an eating disorder, they are often unaware of all of the underlying causes of their eating disorder. That’s why, when you speak with someone experiencing an eating disorder, the dominant fear may appear to be a concern for their body changing.

In reality, someone with an eating disorder may focus on food and their body to avoid focusing on the seemingly uncontrollable feelings and situations beneath the surface. The emphasis on food and appearance is merely their strategy for coping with life and by no means a measure of vanity.

How to approach a loved one, who you think is experiencing an eating disorder

My eating disorder largely flew under the radar. In part, I think because I was an adult when my eating disorder was at its worst. But also due to the normalisation of disordered behaviours by diet culture. I did have a couple of close friends and family members express concern, which I promptly dismissed and assured them, nothing was wrong.

If you are concerned a loved one might be experiencing an eating disorder, approach them in a safe environment and ensure they feel loved and cared for by you. Remember that an eating disorder is a mental health diagnosis with physical health ramifications. So, rather than focus on changes in body shape or size, share your concern for changes in behaviour. For example;

“I’ve noticed you have been speaking very harshly about your appearance lately…”

“I’ve noticed you’ve been spending more time at the gym and haven’t seen your friends as often as you used to…”

“I’ve noticed that it’s been a while since you ate any meals with the family…”

You do not need to list every behavioural change noticed; one or two is enough. I know that I would have felt attacked and as if I had been under surveillance if someone had approached me with a list of concerns about my behaviour.

Check in with your loved one

Let your loved one know you are worried about them and want the best for them. Make sure to ask how you can help and what they need from you, and to let them know that you want to be there to provide support. Most importantly, be patient. Recovery is a journey, not a race. Likely, your loved one won’t want to open up to you immediately.

If so, respect their feelings. Give them space to process your concerns and let them know that you will check in with them again in a few days, or they can approach you sooner if they are ready to talk.

In my recovery, as I began to open up to friends and family, what I appreciated the most was people checking in with me and asking how I was going. I didn’t need anyone to try to solve my problems for me. I just wanted to know they cared and were there to listen.

Author bio

Lauren is a qualified Social Worker with experience working in the mental health sector in Western Australia. Her lived experience of recovering from an eating disorder has driven her to support others on their recovery journey. After gaining accreditation as an Eating Disorder Recovery Coach through the Carolyn Costin Institute, Lauren established Your Nourished Mind, a health service focused on providing one-on-one practical support for those suffering from disordered eating and diagnosed eating disorders.

Further reading
Get support

If you or someone you know is experiencing an eating disorder or body image concern, contact Butterfly’s National Helpline on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673), chat online or email support@butterfly.org.au 

Confidential and free support is available 7 days a week, 8am-midnight (AEST).

Search Butterfly’s Referral Database for eating disorder qualified health professionals closest to your area.

Related tags: biedaw Body Image and Eating Disorders Awareness Week Early internvention eating disorders warning signs