Guest post by Alice Savoia
Try to imagine a situation when you felt embarrassed by the way you look, disgusted by the image you saw in the mirror, and eager to disappear. A moment when people around you didn’t understand how you were feeling, or, perhaps worse, they didn’t recognize your discomfort as real or meaningful.
According to NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association), 20 million women and 10 million men will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Furthermore, a 2007 study found that:
- 0.9% of women and 0.3% of men had anorexia during their life,
- 1.5% of women and 0.5% of men had bulimia, and
- 3.5% of women and 2.0% of men had a binge eating disorder.
In general, eating disorders are caused by a complex interaction of multiple elements including genetic, psychological, culture and environmental factors – so researchers can only point to some reasons that make individuals more susceptible to develop an eating disorder.
Concerning gender differences in eating disorders, there are disparities not only in the tendency of developing the disorder, but also in a set of behaviours typically related to such disorders, such as low self-esteem, reasons to do exercise, and body image dissatisfaction.
A personal journey
As a young woman that is going through a recovery from bulimia, I have always felt my relationship with food and my body as something that was not under my complete control, but much more like something that had to follow some “guidelines” decided by someone else. I used to think that life was easier for those who were “skinny-and-oh-so-pretty” and, because my stomach was not flat and my thighs touched each other, I had to make an effort in other areas of my life (such as studies) to demonstrate that I was able to fill the gap, to prove that I was worthy even if I was not skinny. Food was just a way to calm the anger I had against myself.
It is to underline that you don’t wake up a morning and, suddenly start to eat everything you find in the pantry and then force yourself to throw up. Developing an eating disorder is a gradual process that starts from avoiding certain foods, then excluding completely every kind of food or, in the case of bulimia, falling into a vicious circle of overeating and then purging and restricting.
Other personal stories have been shared as memoirs, such as “Perfect: Anorexia & Me”. This story emphasises the struggle for control that goes hand in hand with anorexia, and the difficulty in accepting loved ones or even a medical diagnosis when your reality has shifted and you think the world is against you.
What do the researchers say?
Some researchers point out that gender differences in food intake and selection first appear in adolescence. Furthermore, women experience more pressures to be thin and thereby tend to go through more food-related conflict than men. Women also often like what is called “fattening foods” (junk food, chocolate, candy, etc.), but they perceive they should not eat them.
In a questionnaire completed by two hundred and thirty-five adolescents, boys were as likely to want to be heavier as lighter, and their self-esteem was not affected by body dissatisfaction. On the other hand, very few girls desired to be heavier, and they all associated the concept of body satisfaction or dissatisfaction with that self-esteem. Women’s motivation for exercising was more often related to weight and tone reasons than men’s. Thus, sociocultural factors appear to be greatly relevant in the development of eating disorders, and women are clearly more influenced by perceived pressures to be thin or to seek a body image they consider acceptable.
What can you do about it?
What a lot of people still have to understand about eating disorders is that they are not a choice; they do not completely depend on your willpower. They are about pursuing an ideal self that is happy only with a certain weight or body shape, influenced by popular culture and an almost infinite number of cues that come from social media, magazines, Hollywood, and beyond. These kinds of disorders are about planning in your mind an ideal future in which you are happy and accepted just because you are skinny.
Also, in eating disorders, food is just the tip of the iceberg. The real problems causing the problematic relationship with food lie below the surface. That means that the problem is not strictly related to food, but is more about what a certain type or amount of food caused, or can cause to us in our life.
In the healing and recovery process from eating disorders, the awareness of having someone (family and friends) by your side is significant.
In relating to someone who is recovering from an eating disorder, sensitivity and understanding should be used. Remember that the person in front of you did not choose to have the eating disorder and that she can even feel guilty for having disappointed her family. As a result, parents should demonstrate comprehension and openness but, at the same time, they should be ready to kindly point out things or behaviours that might take the person back to the disorder. Knowing that the people around you are not judging your problem is critical in the recovery process.
In conclusion, people should be educated to understand the causes and the consequences of an eating disorder in order to be more understanding of the thoughts, struggles and behaviours of those dealing with such issues. It is also important to remember – and remind the person going through such challenges – that asking for professional help is not a weakness or a shame, but a strength. Recovery is a journey that means being honest about what you want, what you need, and what you feel.