I sit across from yet another young woman who, with tears in her eyes, describes to me the thoughts she battles daily: disdain for her body shape and weight, concern that others think she is fat or can see her “problem areas,” constant evaluation and self-judgment regarding every bite of food she eats, comparison with others, and never feeling good enough. This woman does not have an eating disorder diagnosis, but like so many others, concerns of this nature take up an overwhelming amount of space in her life. She has been sucked into the lie that thinness will lead to happiness and success.
Every February, National Eating Disorder Awareness Week provides an opportunity to raise understanding, connection, and hope for the multitude of individuals who live with a diagnosed eating disorder, and the millions more who struggle with food and weight preoccupation.
Consider the following statistics put forth by the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC):
- Anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating affect approximately 5%-8% of young women in Canada. An additional 20%-30% have many of the symptoms.
- People of all genders, ages, ethnic backgrounds, and walks of life develop eating disorders.
- The most common time of onset is between the ages of 14 and 25.
- Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
Eating disorders are complicated psychiatric illnesses in which food and weight control are used to help cope with uncomfortable emotions and difficult life issues. There is no one specific cause, but rather a complex interplay among our genetics, individual factors, and the culture that we live in. There is a spectrum when it comes to this issue. On one end is a healthy, balanced relationship with food and one’s body – on the other end are eating disorder diagnoses. Most of us fall somewhere in between these two.
This is an issue that pertains to all of us. Whether or not you personally struggle in your relationship with food and your body, rest assured that someone you care about does. And we can all do things to work towards the prevention and reduction of these issues:
- Be mindful of your own attitudes and comments regarding food, weight, shape, and fitness. Consider how they impact your own well-being and how you might be conveying them to others.
- Respect the diversity of body sizes and shapes. Recognize that weight, like height, is inherited and that health is measured by many factors that are attainable at every size.
- Take the time to celebrate positive messages in the media and to express concern about advertisements that promote unrealistic standards or send negative body image messages. Be a critical consumer of media and teach others to do the same.
- Bullying – particularly about weight and appearance – contributes to the development of eating disorders. In fact, weight discrimination occurs more frequently than gender or age discrimination. Set a no-tolerance policy for teasing about appearance and challenge yourself to avoid commenting on weight at all, even if it’s intended to be complimentary.
- Get rid of your diet, throw out the scale, and encourage others to do the same. Besides not working in the long term, dieting perpetuates food and weight preoccupation, disrupts our body’s natural rhythms, and is considered a significant risk factor for eating disorders.
- Move beyond appearance and perfectionism as the goal by putting energy into more empowering sources of self-worth.
- Be aware of the signs and symptoms of eating disorders and the organizations in your community that provide help and support.
I leave my office and go home to my two-year-old daughter. She is joyfully skipping through the house, pausing every so often in front of a mirror to watch herself jump or twirl or make a face. She asks for a snack and receives it with glee. For the time being she is delighting in her body, the way we all did as very young children. I can only hope that the world she grows up in will help her continue to do that. May we be unified by NEDIC’s mantra, “It’s not our bodies that need changing: It’s our attitudes.”
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