Body Image vs. Illness
Eating Disorders are psychiatric disorders; they are very challenging to understand, hard to treat, and even harder to recover from. Body Image concerns—or, more specifically, feeling uncomfortable in your skin, wanting to change a part of your body, being consumed with thoughts about how you look—are a cultural problem. It is entrenched in our society, and as a result we live in a world where it is normal to hate your body and judge people based on their weight and shape.
Eating Disorders and having negative body image are often used interchangeably and they should not be. It has long been a bone of contention for me when individuals blur the lines between the two for as long as I can remember. My urge to write about this has likely been fuelled by a discussion that I had while away at a NIED meeting last week. I am sitting on a committee trying to figure out how to educate people about Eating Disorders. One of my goals was to try and educate people on the severity of this illness. How deeply it impacts every facet of life, not solely an illness based on wanting to be a certain size. Not only an illness that is most severe when you are desperately thin—my goal is to try and educate people on the REALITY of the illness and the wide variety of people it can impact. I feel that in order to do that, we need to try and differentiate between the illness and a negative feeling that is felt by the majority of the population at some time in their lives. I by no means want to minimize the shame, guilt, sadness, stress, and all-encompassing obsession that happens to anyone who struggles with poor body image; that is not what I am trying to do.
I am trying to bring light two main issues.
1. That our culture is completely obsessed with the way we look. This obsession has led to a wide variety of problems for men, women, children, and individuals of any age or gender. This includes increased anxiety, self esteem challenges, bullying, fat shaming, millions of dollars spent on products to change and shape the way we look.
2. Eating Disorders need to be understood as something quite different in order for individuals to get the understanding, proper attention, and treatment they deserve.
I will now elaborate.
I want you to think about the last time that you looked at yourself in the mirror and said out loud, "I absolutely love what I see, my body looks amazing" Now, if you do that is awesome—please keep up the great work. My guess is, however, most people are not doing that. My guess is that more often then not, you are thinking about and maybe even make it known to others what part of your body you want to change, and how you wished that something was different. This is natural. This is the way we are conditioned to think. This is a huge problem. We are taught from a very young age that anyone who is overweight is not healthy, that we are to be slim and that if you are not you have a problem. The focus from the media on the "obesity epidemic" has done that to us. We do not focus on the fact that there are more young people being diagnosed with Eating Disorders now then there are young people who are obese. We don't do that because as a society we look down on people that are overweight. I want to make it clear that this is not how I think, but this is fact. There is lots of research to show that individuals who are overweight are not given the same job opportunities, are often times overlooked in social settings, or are shamed into feeling like there is something wrong with them when in actual fact there is far more evidence to say that health can be achieved at any size.
Everywhere you look you see ads for weight loss, dieting, botox... the list goes on. Everywhere you look the individuals in the ads are all slim. If they are not, chances are it is an ad for weight loss, or a plus size store of some sort. We are completely surrounded by messages teaching us to fix something, or hate something. This has inevitably helped to create a culture of people who spend far too much time, energy, and stress focussing on needing to look a certain way. This has really hurt our youth in particular because now more than ever you are taught that you can get a lot of great attention instantly from a simple snap shot of your life. Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat have done this for us.
Having young kids around really helps you to truly see the world through new and innocent eyes. I will never forget the first time my daughter pointed out a woman by calling her fat. "Look at that fat lady, momma." She was just under 3. My immediate response was to tell her to "Shhh, don't say that, honey." then I thought more about it (shocking, I know) and realized she had no idea what that meant. She doesn't have the context that we all do. I asked her what she saw and she commented on her long and curly hair (not about her weight at all); she noticed this women was larger then the other women in the area, but she didn't see that as a bad thing. I then had to explain that word can be hurtful to some people, so we need to be careful. So I ask, When did being fat become such a sin in our culture?
My husband thinks I am nuts. Obviously, given my line of work and my own challenges with weight, when I gave birth to my daughter I started thinking about what I could do to try and keep her safe. So the obvious answer is to walk around in my underwear talking about how much I love my body (my kids are both under 5). "You are going to mess her up if you keep doing that," he says to me. My response is always, "She has to learn it somewhere and she is not going to learn it anywhere else; I'd rather her think her mom is nuts than watch me judge myself."
It is the wrong assumption to just think that everyone is born with the ability to see the good in themselves. That is just nonsense. It is quite the opposite. We are born with genetic and biological predispositions. Some people really and truly do not ever think about the way their body looks; it is not a thought they ever had. I feel that this population of people is getting smaller.
We need to teach each other, especially our young ones, that health and happiness can be achieved no matter what size you are. If your body is naturally more curvaceous, if you are of the male gender and you are smaller—you are going to face more pressures to change. You are going to find it difficult see images of people in similar times, ages, etc that look like you.
The reason I spent the first part of this article venting about my irritation with individuals using Body Image trouble and Eating Disorders interchangeably is obviously because of the field that I work in. But equally it is because as much as I am concerned about the Body Image crisis in our culture, I do not want anyone to think that just because their loved one has challenges with their image that they are going to develop an Eating Disorder. It is just not the case. The way I explain it is simply this. Eating Disorders go FAR beyond wanting to look a certain way. There are a lot of individuals that have Eating Disorders that do not have the concern or obsession about their weight. If we were to compare Eating Disorders to other illnesses like OCD, the fear of contamination that individuals with OCD have that struggle with the compulsion to wash their hands, would be similar to the fear that people with Eating Disorders have about gaining weight. They know logically that it doesn't make sense, but they have safety behaviours, rituals, and compulsions around food that do not fit in line with those beliefs.
Eating Disorders are complicated because of the fact that on the outside it looks like they are only about food and weight. Food and weight impact absolutely everyone. This leads to a lot of shame, guilt, confusion, and sheer agony for sufferers because they have to face the thing they are afraid of everyday, wherever they are, no matter what. It is further complicated by the fact that other people seem to have some of the same concerns. I cannot tell you how many times I have had someone sit in my office and say, " You cannot tell me that every person wouldn't want to be thinner." And that is right, I can't. But what I can say is that I can guarantee that it is not to the depths, despair, and degree to which the Eating Disorder drives.
This post could likely last another several pages, so to try and sum up: what I am saying is that we need to stop making assumptions that hating our bodies is normal and look at how we feel about our bodies more critically. Secondly, I hope that you have appreciated my take on trying to bring light to why I want to differentiate between a life-altering illness and hating our bodies.
Thanks for listening as always,