Tag Archives: eating disorders

Young person looking at their phone

Can a film about eating disorders be made “responsibly”?

Recently, while in conversation about the good, the bad and the ugly of mental health portrayal in film, I said, “although it divided the eating disorder (ED) community, I thought , To The Bone was a good movie”. The person I was speaking to responded saying that they didn’t think it had been made responsibly because it showed eating disordered behaviours. “Fair enough”, I thought, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Read my thoughts on To The Bone here.

To The Bone character Ellen looking concerned at weighing scales

I’ve been reflecting on this and I’m wondering why ED’s are treated differently to other mental illnesses when it comes to portraying behaviours in the media.

There seems to be a fear that ED behaviours can be caught and that if the media gives hits and tips, a “how to…” develop an ED, maybe there’ll be an epidemic. No one thinks that a portrayal of a psychotic episode with someone experiencing a delusion they can fly will lead to an epidemic of teens jumping out of windows, pretending they have bipolar disorder!

I’ll spell it out, if you show someone doing sit-ups, running, counting calories or carrying out food rituals, you’re not going to give anyone ideas about how to get anorexia. If someone is predisposed to anorexia, they will be able to come up with these weight loss schemes all by themselves!

Board of sliced food

I’m not naive though, I know young people can be influenced by what they see. We are seeing a concerning rise in self harming and we need to consider whether talking openly about these things is making such behaviours seem more acceptable. We’re in a precarious position in trying to raise awareness of all mental illnesses. While we want to normalise discussion of mental illness, it’s important that mental ill health does not become normal!

Of course, there needs to be careful consideration when depicting any illness; there needs to be sensitivity given we’re making other people’s pain into, let’s face it, entertainment.

It is important to recognise these imagines may be triggering for people who are already suffering but there comes a point where it’s your responsibility to decide if you can manage this. The media company can put a warning at the beginning of the content, they can do no more. If someone is in the mood to trigger themselves, there’s plenty of content available.

Of course, care has to be taken when showing particular behaviours to show the reality and not to glamourise it. Anorexia isn’t about getting thin, then getting care and attention. Doing sit ups with a boney spine, you will get painful bruises. I even started to get pressure sores on my buttocks. Also, there’s the everso attractive lanugo – excess hair to keep your body warm. Nothing about eating disorders is pleasant. To The Bone showed the ugly side to eating disorders, the guilt, the shame, the grief, the physical and emotional turmoil, it was not pretty.

Young lady liking sadly at a small slice of bread and glass of water

If someone has a genetic susceptibility and environmental factors lead to them being on the cusp of an eating disorder, they will not need hits and tips. I, for example, had no media input to my eating disorder, I naturally knew how to lose weight, I cut food out of my diet and I moved more. Food rituals develop as a way to reconcile external pressures with internal turmoil – if I absolutely had to eat in front of someone, if I cut my food into factors of 3, it was more manageable (for example).

If I’d watched a film depicting eating disorders accurately when I was struggling as a teen, I think I would have felt less alone and might have felt able to seek help sooner.

We’re relying in mainstream media to bring the unmentionable and the unexplainable into the open. If they don’t show behaviours, if they gloss over them with clever edits and subtle hints, they’re not giving an accurate portrayal and this would be unhelpful and they’d be criticised. It’s never going to be easy and it’s going to divide opinion but at least we’re talking about it!

Eating disorders pictogram

EDAW myth busting! #4

This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week and this year I’m taking some time to bust some myths!

Eating disorders only occur in young people

A YouGov poll commissioned by Beat found that 60% of respondents thought eating disorders predominantly affected young people. It is true that eating disorders occur in adolescents and children as young as 6 years old but the largest group of sufferers is adults.

A myth like this perpetuates the idea that eating disorders are a fad or a phase and that young people will grow out of it. This is harmful for young people, as it risks them not getting the full support they need but it also put adults at risk of not getting any support.

An adult may suffer a relapse or they may experience an eating disorder for the first time; triggering events may be parenting, work capabilities, relationships difficulties or bereavement. Specific difficulties may include events that target identity or changes in bodily appearance such as:

  • Pregnancy
  • Children leaving home (empty nest)
  • Slowing metabolism leading to weight gain (middle-aged spread)
  • Menopause
  • Retirement
  • Age related appetite decrease (important to differentiate biological causes from mental and emotional appetite decrease)
  • Physical illness (relationship between physical and mental illness can be complicate)

Co-morbid mental illnesss such as depression or anxiety are common.

It’s important that an eating disorder is recognised in an older adult. The physical consequences, such as nutrient deficiency and malnutrition, are dangerous as their bodies cannot manage the physical strain as a younger body might be able to. Older people are more at risk of developing diabetes and osteoporosis, conditions which can be severely exacerbated by an eating disorder.

Eating disorders pictogram

EDAW myth busting! #3

This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week and this year I’m doing my bit to bust some myths!

Eating disorders are more prevalent in affluent societies

This may be based on the assumption that someone would only deny themselves food, binge or purge food if they had enough.

However research shows that eating disorders occur equally across all levels of income and education.

Hey, Newsflash! Eating disorders are nothing to do with eating or food! An eating disorder is a mental illness, a complex neurological disorder where memories of the past, feed into our emotions and thoughts and lead to behaviours in the present.

If someone is living on the poverty line, they may find themselves spending the little money they have on binge food, they are not making a logical decision, their actions are powered by emotion that feel uncontrollable.

If someone is more affluent, they may have plenty of food. Avoiding food and restricting for days isn’t being deliberately difficult. Their mind is fighting a civil war, trying to figure out which path to take – deciding what to eat when feels complex and all consuming.

Eating disorders are a serious mental disorder, not a lifestyle choice

The time when affluence makes a difference to an eating disorder sufferer is when seeking treatment. All too often I have heard people needing to find a private therapist because the NHS waiting list is simply too long. Private therapy is way beyond most people’s means. We should be proud of our National Health Service – treatment, free at the point of delivery, for all. But it’s letting a lot of people down because it’s under resourced.

When it comes to mental health services, the resources we need are not fancy machines or expensive drugs, we need trained doctors, nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, psychologists and psychotherapists. Quality time with these experts is in short supply. The average eating disorder sufferer takes over a year to seek help, waiting lists can then sometimes be a year to 18 months long. Of course, if you’re in crisis, you’ll (hopefully) get help sooner but no one should have to get to crisis point to get the help they deserve.

We know that early intervention is vital for a better chance of full recovery. While it’s fortunate that some people can afford private therapy. It saddens me that people from poorer backgrounds have no choice but to sit on the waiting list. It is not ok that people who have no choice but to wait for therapy are at risk of poorer outcomes.