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There is often stigma surrounding those suffering from eating disorders, based on the misconception it is a choice. As these illnesses are portrayed as having physical signs, there is a belief they stem from focusing on appearance.
Eating disorders can appear glamorous from the outside, or thought of as a phase or lifestyle pattern, instead of a disease.
In reality, eating disorders are incredibly complex, with many combinations of underlying causes connected with mental health.
Contributing factors can include genetic predisposition, personality traits, early life experiences, low self-esteem, family patterns, difficulty expressing emotion, and many others.
Eating disorders often meet underlying needs for sufferers, and the reasons can be as unique as each individual. These needs can include the numbing of overwhelming emotions, or act as a mechanism to punish ourselves. They can also be used as a way of escaping difficult situations by running into an internal inner world. Though weight loss can also be an external sign of distress, it is important to remember any visible changes are only the tip of the iceberg.
Despite not being centred around appearance, these illnesses are often triggered either by inadvertent weight loss or by trying to lose weight. From there, it can quickly spiral out of control. A person’s decision to diet might be based on wanting to become more comfortable with their appearance, or to look more like the images they see in the media.
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While most people either fail or succeed at their diet, there are some who develop an eating disorder as a result of it. Most often there is something different about those individuals and the way their minds work.
Media and size zero models might trigger diets, but I don’t believe they directly trigger eating disorders.
Those who have experienced them know eating disorders do not actually improve your appearance at all. They can cause thinning of the hair, brittle nails, damaged teeth and gums, bad skin, bloating, and additional hair growth. Individuals who purge often develop puffiness around the lower face and neck.
As a mental illness, those with eating disorders also have a wildly inaccurate perception of their own appearance. Even though I would say I am 90% recovered from my eating disorder, I sometimes look at myself and see or feel my body completely differently, though there has been no actual change.
An undernourished brain is also less capable of seeing things as they are — losing weight can appear to the sufferer like they are in fact getting larger.
From the outside, being underweight can seem attractive, but my memories of anorexia are very different. I would watch friends able to try on clothes and get ready for nights out while I shook with anxiety. My brain would go into overdrive calculating numbers or filling my mind with poisonous lies. In those times, the comparison between myself and them was full of sadness and shame, because I couldn’t be present in the moment in the way they could.
There is nothing glamorous or attractive about being unwell. In the past, I have found these misconceptions difficult and triggering. How can we, as sufferers, relatives or professionals, behave in order to help people move forward in how they see eating disorders?
We need to have grace for people’s misunderstanding and lack of knowledge.
Equally as important, we need to have grace for our own responses to it. We can recognise a lack of understanding is not something to condemn, but to use as a starting point. To choose to educate and not just defend.
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