When thinking about Eating Disorders’ development, it is important to bear in mind that each of us are unique and that we all interpret and experience life events in different ways. For this reason there are a myriad of motives which can lead to the development of disordered eating and poor body image.
It is generally accepted that when going through difficult patches in life we all try to cope in ways which are familiar to us and that we know best. Some of us will attempt problem-solving, others will speak to friends and have a drink or two, or go for a jog or use food in order to self-soothe and to achieve a sense of control. These are some amongst the many different ways of coping and are all valid possibilities. However, any can become problematic when used in excess. In such cases we lose control precisely over what once gave us a sense of control, and our unique ways of coping become an issue to be addressed as it starts interfering with life and daily functioning, also impacting on our mental health. This is one way of understanding the development of Eating Disorders.
Traumatic events (physical and emotional) and high stress levels can also be associated with eating difficulties. No two people are alike and people will respond differently to the same event. Eating disorders therefore may develop as a way of coping with trauma. It is not uncommon to hear of people who struggle to pinpoint when their eating problems started, and at times they will go to great lengths in order to justify what happened to them in a less painful way. However, there is evidence that emotional distress can be physically expressed. A good assessment can help us to start understanding more about your eating difficulties and its development.
Meanwhile, the media bombards us with ideal images, the perfect body, skin, hair…. Marketing beautiful images can increase sales as we buy into the belief we can achieve the same visual through using the same products.
Over the years media images have been increasingly modified with the use of modern computer packages. Although most of us are aware of this practice in principle, many of us do not realise the extent with which it is employed. As a direct consequence we grow and age in the belief we can achieve a particular look if only “we try hard enough”. It is not surprising that such unachievable media portrayals can lead to body image dissatisfaction with a trend towards dieting and shape modification.
Although Eating Disorders and Body Dysmorphia were originally perceived as female disorders there is significant evidence that these are on the increase amongst the male population and ideal male images also abound. Unrealistic media portrayals of both genders not only can impact on our own self-esteem but also on what we come to expect from our potential partners, thus potentially affecting our relationships.
Some big companies, realising the difficulties faced by the lay population, have started campaigns of awareness, including Dove’s “self-esteem fund”, producing videos of image manipulation of women and men. They hope to increase our self-esteem by helping us to become more informed about the advertising process and more critical of what we see rather than more critical towards our own selves. With ideal images proliferating at astonishing levels and the high expectations to conform, is it at all surprising we are dissatisfied with the perfect bodies we have?
Still, in the absence of such awareness, and faced with our own high expectations, as well as societal pressure to conform to ideal beauty standards, we often opt towards modulating our own bodies in the way we have been led to believe it works: through dieting. Yet, dieting is one of the strongest risk factors in the development of an Eating Disorder.
Capitalising on our dissatisfaction with physical appearance and our striving for the perfect body, magazines and popular media are replete with diet recipes promising quick weight loss. What is not explained, however, is that changes in fat only happen over a prolonged period of time and that initial drastic changes in weight are due to dehydration. Also metabolic rate is decreased in the absence of necessary nourishment, and the body starts working towards preserving energy. As a consequence, as soon as normal eating is resumed, the body will re-hydrate whilst the metabolism continues to be decreased. Thus, the scales will quickly revert to the pre-diet reading with increased chances of additional weight gain. Repeating this cycle can lead to what has become known as yo-yo dieting or indeed developing into a full blown eating disorder, such as Binge Eating Disorder and Bulimia Nervosa and their co-variants.
Magazines also do not tell you that the dieting industry is a multi-billion profitable business and that it is in their interest to keep producing another miracle diet and help you to believe that this next one will surely work for you…..
Moreover, a real concern with increased obesity levels has given “fat” a bad press, leading to the general impression that it should be cut out from a “healthy diet”. But fat is necessary for healthy functioning. Did you know that the brain is the fattest organ of our body, consisting of around 60% fat and using around 500 calories daily alone to function? Fat is also essential for strong bones. How? In order to have healthy bones we need calcium. However, to absorb calcium we also need vitamin D3, which is a fat soluble vitamin. Thus, we need some fat so our body can also take in Calcium in order to have the healthy bones greatly needed as we age. Restricting fat intake can lead to weight loss and, together with restrictive eating, towards the development of Anorexia Nervosa and its multi-faceted psychological and health complications.
The human body is a complex system and has evolved over millions of years to survive environmental hardship (including food scarcity). Current aspirations towards shape and weight modulation often represent a fight against this fine-tuned wonder that is our body. In order to make the most of what nature equipped us with, we need to ensure adequate energy intake through “balanced” eating.
It is apparent that the reason why some people develop an Eating Disorders or struggle with Body Dysmorphia is not straight forward, and many factors (including many not mentioned here) become intertwined facilitating the disorder’s development. A thorough assessment can lead to better understanding of your problems and inform the provision of a tailored piece of therapy. Therapeutic work can be aimed at disentangling your life history so as to make sense of the meaning and purpose of your eating difficulties. Doing so can help you to find more adaptive ways of coping with life stressors and a healthier way of relating to your own body, often leading to an improved mood, self-esteem and sense of control.
Living with an Eating Disorder is distressing and, depending on the type, it also requires a lot of effort and self-control, but it is incredibly debilitating. Letting go of your Eating Disorder, at times, requires even greater willpower (either to re-gain a sense of control over eating or to let go of rigid self-control) and many people who have worked with us have likened therapy to a battle. Addressing your eating difficulty is likely to be one of the biggest challenges of your life, so it is important that you feel ready to engage with therapy in order to make the necessary changes. Although it is not uncommon for people to feel ambivalent about giving up a coping system which worked once, those who have gone through with treatment and made the necessary changes believe recovery is certainly worth the effort. At Oxford Mind & Body we would like to support you in this unique journey, exploring your mind and your perception of your body, in search of healthier ways of living.
“I have seen in my wanderings great temples and shrines,
but none are as blissful as my own body”
(Mahasiddha Saraha, 8th C)