Eating disorders – Small actions that can make a big difference <3

TW: mentions of anorexia, mostly focused on recovery but some people may find triggering. 

Disclaimer: I am not an expert on eating disorder recovery – all the advice below comes purely from my lived experience and learning about eating disorders through multiple sources. Also, my perspective comes from living in Britain.

Since I was diagnosed with anorexia, every eating disorder awareness week comes around and provides me with an opportunity to reflect and contemplate how I’m doing. For context, between the ages of 16-20, I was re-diagnosed with anorexia three times after getting better momentarily. I’ve been in a steady state of recovery for the last year, but everyday I’m fighting away a black cloud trying to infiltrate my thoughts. But I don’t want this to be just about individuals because eating disorders aren’t individualistic pathological illnesses. Eating disorders are the product of a society where we’ve become disconnected, commodified and constantly fed diet information and unrealistic images on social media. The ways our healthcare system treats people struggling with disordered eating will mostly focus on the physical consequences. Personally, the consequences included losing weight and suffering from osteopenia, amongst other physically and emotionally painful effects. While recovery from any mental illness is never going to be plain sailing, the fact that my recovery was purely monitored by my ability to rapidly gain weight completely failed to get to the emotional and socio-political roots of the problem. Although I was incredibly fortunate to be seen by several different counsellors, dieticians and GPs, most of my adolescence was spent being weighed and shown graphs of my progress, while my mind and the factors causing my eating disorder were an afterthought. An underfunded NHS and a system that places weight before the systemic and personal causes of eating disorders left me, and is leaving, so many people feeling unable to access support they need. It is completely understandable that being at a healthy weight for me was needed, but this neglects the fact that, a) eating disorders are never just physical or even just about food or weight, and b) less than 6% of people with eating disorders are medically diagnosed as ‘underweight’ (whatever that means because ALSO body standards and BMI are utter nonsense!). 

Anyway, I think it’s time I provided a bit more of a coherent list of things that everyone can do to make this world, or your little microcosm of it, (be it your school, friendship group or workplace), a place where toxic diet culture and body shaming won’t spring up, in a hope that we can make society a place where we’re all liberated from the chains of step counts and fatphobia imposed onto us by the media. These bits of advice are interwoven with my own personal experience. 

Six things that you can do to be part of the change to make the world a better place for people with eating disorders:

  1. Ditch the diet talk!

Thanks to @bodypostive_mom, this graphic explains what diet culture is. The dieting industry has done a very good job at getting into our minds the ideas of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods and also normalising things like counting our steps and calories. Calling certain foods ‘naughty’ doesn’t only make you sound a bit silly, but demoralising things like cake or whatever is a slippery slope. Be conscious when you’re about to talk about your diet, calories, your ‘clean eating’ habits or commenting on what someone is eating. You never know what they’ve been through or are going through and these small comments can be very triggering [triggering = causing someone emotional distress, typically as a result of arousing feelings or memories associated with a particular traumatic experience]. Since I’ve been in recovery, I know I have to avoid or remove myself from certain situations when I know there’s a high risk of being triggered in that event. This could even just look like having to make an excuse and physically leave a room where a conversation is happening. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s a massive kick in the face. Life is meant to be enjoyed, not controlled by numbers.

  1. Compliment someone’s personality, not their body 🙂 

This should be a thing we are all doing. People are so much more than their appearances so tell your friend how funny they are, not how amazing their body looks. Obviously if you’re close friends and this would be acceptable then sure, but if someone (a friend or family member say) has lost weight, ask them how they are rather than jumping in about their weight loss. For me, I got used to the looks and was crying out for someone to ask me if I was okay, rather than commenting on my body. Eating disorders really aren’t about appearances, and the narrative that they are is entirely false and neglects the fact that 85% of people with ED’s aren’t ‘underweight’ (even though health metrics for measuring weight are utter nonsense – I’m looking at you, BMI). Know that eating disorders aren’t about physical appearance but much deeper and this will help you unlearn all the unhelpful stuff out there. 

  1. A note on food focused events 

Food is a source of joy and community, but can be a trigger for stress and anxiety for some of us. When having food focused events, be it a barbecue, work buffet or sit down meal, it’s important that it can be as inclusive as possible. This could look like allowing people to serve their own food, not pressuring people to stay in one place and not questioning if someone leaves the room, or if you know someone has anxieties around the event, just talk to them about it! I’ve navigated a lot of formal events over the last few years when my ED has been flaring up. Things that have helped me is knowing what the timings will be, and being honest when I can.

  1. Know that anyone can have an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses which don’t discriminate. Whatever someone’s age, gender, ethnicity or background, anyone can have an eating disorder and there’s a huge spectrum of them. As Beat states, ‘Stereotypes about who gets eating disorders might make them even harder to spot among older people, men and boys, and ethnic and cultural minority groups. The real number of sufferers overall could be much higher than we think, but particularly among groups like these’. You can find out some more information about this here.

  1. Recognise that eating disorders aren’t isolated incidences of a mental & pathological illness. 

Eating disorders aren’t an individualist problem that will be solved with individuals solutions. They’re the result of a neoliberal society, where an individual’s worth is measured by productivity, which can include their appearance, which has been perpetuated by social media. There’s been a dramatic increase in young people with eating disorders, and this can unfortunately be linked to the consequences of repeated isolation and uncertainty over the pandemic. When I was in the low points of my ED, I spent most of my time alone, which made everything much worse. Resisting the individualistic narrative of mental health recovery, and seeking community, reaching out to each other is one of the most powerful tools we have. 

  1. Don’t vote Tory 

As well as slowly privatising the NHS and encouraging us to clap for NHS workers instead of pay them, it was a Conservative government (especially Boris Johnson) that introduced mandatory calorie labelling to chain restaurants and cafes as part of the ‘anti-obesity’ strategy. The Government ignored recommendations and research showing that mandatory calorie labelling on menus would harm people with eating disorders. Calorie labelling is one example of the failure of a dispassionate and neglectful conservative government. Johnson’s anti-obesity (fatphobic) strategy has done nothing to address the root causes of public health problems, including poverty, people relying on food banks and lack of time, again due to austerity and the tories! 

If you or a loved one is struggling with anything mentioned in this blog or with an eating disorder, I would really recommend checking out Beat’s website for links for support:

Instagram accounts I like looking at include: @rorecovering and @hopevirgo @recoveringwithmia @bodyimage_therapist @edpeersupportexeter

2 thoughts on “Eating disorders – Small actions that can make a big difference <3

  1. You never fail to inspire me, with everything you do! Thank you for this profound and insightful contribution to a vital topic. So many people will be greatly helped by your words… and lives even saved! In Tory Broken Britain, you are the brightest ray of hope & sunshine 😊


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s