“You’re such a beautiful girl, you don’t need to lose weight”, were the words a counsellor said to me in my first session, after I’d finally reached the top of the waiting list at university to receive support. Cheers, thanks Karen, I’ll just be off to order Dominos now that we’ve got that sorted. Large with a side of wedges?
Some of her other advice included – and I am very serious – telling me to eat some pasta, break up with my boyfriend, and download an app to help improve my mood. To be fair to her, the latter suggestion wasn’t completely ridiculous, but the others were so off whack that they’re almost laughable.
“Eating disorders, out of all mental illnesses, have the highest fatality rate.”
At the time, I wasn’t laughing. She was a (presumably) trained counsellor employed by my university, yet she didn’t seem to have any concept of what an eating disorder was, if I couldn’t trust a trained professional to understand, who could I? If that’s the bar, it’s no wonder my friends thought pleading with me to eat a biscuit was going to help.
Eating disorders, out of all mental illnesses, have the highest fatality rate. They are extremely complex and can be chronic, affecting neural pathways in the brain, changing behaviour and often leading to dangerous physical side effects. There are psychiatric hospitals all over the country which deal solely with the most severe cases of eating disorders, stepping in where treatment in the community has failed.
If you think about it carefully, doesn’t it seem unlikely that someone who simply wants to look more attractive would pursue this goal until they ended up in a locked psychiatric ward, in which they are forced to scrape the last bits of butter from the packet and eat oily cauliflower cheese with a side of cauliflower? A place where many patients are suicidal, and others are being fed through tubes. Please, shout if I’m wrong, but that doesn’t sound like the kind of place a person in search of a ‘bikini-bod’ would want to be.
Of course, most people with eating disorders do not end up in hospital, and that doesn’t mean that they are less valid. But whether a person loses 2kg or 20kg, whether they eat three meals a day or go for days without food and drink, it’s the same illness. The thought processes are the same and the devastating impact on that person’s mental wellbeing is significant.
I’m no expert, but I think my personal experience probably counts for something. I’m sick of people assuming that the only reason someone loses weight is because they want to look like the photoshopped models in glossy magazines. Sure, there’s probably an element of that in your standard dieting, but an eating disorder is a whole different ball game.
“Instead of wanting to be attractive, eating disorder sufferers want to be in control. They want to take up less space in the world, numb their emotions, escape from difficult situations, punish themselves, and feel as though they are good at something.”
While for many people the illness might start with a desire to deal with bad body image, it soon spirals into almost the opposite, leading a sufferer to want to look sicker and sicker, to be as gaunt and lifeless as possible. If weight loss occurs, the person becomes more and more repulsed by the reflection in the mirror, seeing at the same time fat that isn’t there and the skeletal figure staring back at them with tired, vacant eyes. If it doesn’t, self-hatred and disgust persist anyway.
Instead of wanting to be attractive, eating disorder sufferers want to be in control. They want to take up less space in the world, numb their emotions, escape from difficult situations, punish themselves, and feel as though they are good at something. Some people are wired to get a buzz from money, career achievements, sex, drugs, or alcohol, but others get that same feeling from losing weight or from depriving themselves of food. As with any addiction, it is possible to change behaviour and rewire the brain, but the short-term benefits often seem more appealing in the moment.
“They are a debilitating mental illness that strip people of their independence, identities, interests, and sometimes even their lives.”
Eating disorders are not wanting to lose a bit of weight before a summer holiday, or as my counsellor assumed, look ‘beautiful’. They are a debilitating mental illness that strip people of their independence, identities, interests, and sometimes even their lives. While it may seem like a nice idea to tell someone who is losing weight or is struggling around food that they already look great, a well-meaning comment like that could actually do more harm than good, leaving the person feeling shallow and misunderstood.
Losing weight is only a side-effect of an eating disorder, so instead of focussing on appearance, talking to someone about their emotions and thought processes is always going to be more helpful. They might be defensive to start with and there will probably be a lot of shame, but even if all you manage is a conversation in which you feel as though you’re walking on eggshells, you may be planting a seed of hope.
And finally, a note to my counsellor: I did eventually do two of the suggestions, but neither of them cured me of my eating disorder or made everything better. I guess I’m still on my mission to look like Gigi Hadid.
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