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The Stigma and Stereotypes Surrounding Eating Disorders

*Content warning: discussion of eating disorders*


National Eating Disorders Awareness Week ran from 25th February to 3rd March, to raise awareness and reduce stigma around eating disorders. I think it’s great that this week is used to reach out to people who are suffering, but I also think it’s a shame that they only receive much needed attention for one week of the year. In the UK, around 1.6 million people are suffering with an eating disorder. Although the typical demographic of sufferers is white women in their teens and early twenties, an increasing number of people over 35, people of colour, and men, are being diagnosed too. They are devastating diseases that have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. I wanted to write a post to both educate and raise awareness of eating disorders, and let you know what there is that you can do to help people suffering with such a heart-breaking illness.

First off, I want you to forget everything you’ve ever learnt about eating disorders online and start to understand them as sets of behaviours, rather than named illnesses with specific symptoms. Whilst there are named eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, there are thousands of people with a combination of symptoms, or with not quite enough symptoms to be able to diagnose them, which leaves them alienated and often not being taken seriously. Just because someone doesn’t exhibit all of the symptoms of a specific illness, it doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering massively. I think the important thing is to start thinking about eating disorders simply as an unhealthy relationship with food, or as ‘disordered eating’ rather than trying to categorise them. If we start to view the illness on a spectrum, rather than through categories, people suffering will feel less alone, and have more people to relate to and work through their illness with.

Like I said, there is a keen stereotype that eating disorders only affect young, Caucasian girls, and it’s about time that this myth was busted. Not only is it not true, but it marginalises other demographics who are battling these problems too. It’s misinformation, and it’s harmful. If we associate the illness with a certain group of people, then anyone who falls outside of that category may feel like they can’t discuss what they’re going through, or even feel like they shouldn’t be going through it. This will mean that people will suffer in silence and not reach out for the help that they need. We all need to use our voices more to help create an environment that is safe for people suffering with eating disorders, or any mental health problem for that matter, to speak out to. Busting unfair stereotypes is the first, and one of the most important, places to start.

If speaking out isn’t something you feel like you can do, then there are other things you can do to make a difference, and raise the profile of eating disorders and combatting them. You can donate to a number of charities, like BEAT, ABC, and SEED. Even a couple of pounds will help in organising campaigns and events. You can even volunteer your support for these charities too, by participating in fun runs or sponsored walks and things like that. BEAT have a fun run every year, click here to find out more. Nottingham also has a group called EDISS, which you can participate in facilitating. All you have to do is sign up and then you’ll receive training for it! Go to the EDISS website to learn a bit more about this.

Someone who is making an impact in a big way regarding body image and disordered eating is Jameela Jamil. Just over a year ago, she started an Instagram page called i_weigh, which was designed to help women change the way they think about themselves. Instead of placing her worth on how much she weighed in stones or kilograms, she weighed herself in her qualities and personality traits. The image went viral, and the account now has 415k followers, sharing pictures of all kinds of people who celebrate the things they love about themselves. The page beams with positivity and sticks two fingers up at anyone that contributes to the unhealthy and distorted image that so many people have of their bodies. She is helping to dismantle the rigid, unattainable beauty standards that are perpetuated in popular culture, and to help people relearn their worth ‘beyond the flesh on our bones’. Of course, eating disorders are psychological illnesses that run far deeper than an unhealthy body image, the link between eating disorders, poor body image, and the way that beauty is represented in popular culture in indisputable. The kind of thing that Jamil is doing is working to sever these links and help people to appreciate themselves, just as they are.

Finally, if you feel like you’re struggling with an eating disorder, please speak to someone about it. There are online chatrooms if you’re not confident enough to talk to someone face to face, and of course your GP is there too. The university’s counselling service is also available as well, and EDISS run a support group every other Monday at Nottingham Trent city campus. It seems scary to talk about such personal and emotional things but opening up is the best thing you can do to help yourself start to feel better. Remember that there are people around you who care so much, and that want to help too. Be kind to yourself. If you’re not suffering, then be mindful of the people around you, as you never know what they may be going through.

National Eating Disorder Awareness Week is great, but its even more important to remember that there are people suffering with these devastating illnesses all year round. It’s time to talk about them, reduce stigma, be supportive of those in pain, and remind ourselves that we’re worth more than the number on the scale.



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Siobhan Fitzsimons

Nottingham '19

Hey! I'm Siobhan, and I'm a History student in my final year. I'm a lover of all things food, fashion, and travel. Expect much appreciation of denim dungarees and an awful lot of rambling about university life!
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