The topic of eating disorders has been in the media a fair bit recently, and a recurring theme is that of ‘choice’. So for what it’s worth, here are my (unfinished) thoughts on the subject. I wonder what it will take for society to realise that eating disorders are no more an active choice than any other mental health problem. I also sometimes whether we need to think differently about the role of choice within recovery.
We hear a lot about how controlling weight and eating can be motivated by the desire to appease a general sense of not being good enough. If you have unrelentingly high standards, weight loss is measurable evidence that you’re doing ok somewhere. This is especially relevant in a society where women are socialised to value thinness as attractive. I know for me, controlling food became tangible proof that I could definitely achieve something, albeit in a very distorted way. These are the ‘usual’ issues we hear about. However there are other important themes. Things we don’t often hear about in the media, because they aren’t convenient and they don’t fit the (more palatable) narrative of the white, appearance focused, over achieving young woman. Contrary to the popular myth that anorexia is narcissistic, it is more often about a person being silenced, feeling unheard, or having a lack of control in areas of life that really matter. Turning to, or away from food can be a way to manage feelings of worthlessness, an attempt to ‘fix’ a constant, nagging sense of never quite measuring up.
Of course, dominant narratives around being female prime us early for a disordered relationship with food and our bodies. The message that thinness is synonymous with attractiveness and power sits heavily. But not everyone exposed to the ‘thin ideal’ develops a consuming eating disorder. Often, it is where difficult relationships or experiences outweigh our ability to cope, that weight loss all too easily comes to provide tangible, measurable evidence of achievement. ‘At least I’m doing ok somewhere’. People with the psychological and practical resources to manage difficult experiences and painful feelings usually don’t develop eating disorders. But for some, controlling food is the only available way to manage an overwhelming sense of confusion. It isn’t a choice, it is about survival.
I began to write partly because I believe that when we talk about mental health and share experiences, such issues can become part of normal conversation. They stop being something hushed up or hidden away. I really think experiences of poor mental health are just part of the spectrum of being human. That anyone, given a particular vulnerability or circumstance, can experience distress. I also think that with time, empathy and respect, anyone can return from a place of extreme distress, to rebuild their life. For many, accessing the right help at the right time can be a key part of this journey. What helps is different for each of us. Continue reading →