Polari talks to Harriet Parsons of Bodywhys a national organisation that supports people affected by eating disorders and discusses whether ‘healthy lifestyle’ messages are being delivered in the wrong way.
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Be Body Positive
Our bodies and appearance are under scrutiny on a daily basis. Between health campaigns, magazines, television shows, peers; there is a continual promotion or suggestion of how one should physically look. More specifically, there is a strong emphasis in our culture on how much a person should weigh or how “big” or “small” they should be. Since obesity has emerged as one of the world’s leading health problems, strong efforts have been made to make people aware and monitor what they eat, exercise more and watch what our weighing scales stares back up at us. Although these messages may be created with good health intentions, there is a question whether they could be causing more harm than good. For those who may have issues around their body and eating, these campaigns may only serve to validate their negative beliefs and behaviours. Whilst obesity may be rapidly increasing, so too are eating disorders, both in the UK and Ireland.
Bodywhys was established in 1995 by a group of people concerned about the lack of services available for people with eating disorders in Ireland. Since then, the organization has grown from strength to strength and worked to support an estimated 200,000 people who have an eating disorder in Ireland. Their aim is to help, support and educate people with eating disorders and body image issues and those around them. Polari chatted with Harriet Parsons, the Service Co-ordinator of Bodywhys, to discuss the issues around body image today. She explored the reasons why people may develop eating disorders, the common misconceptions around them and the contentious relationship between the media and body image.
Could you tell us what Bodywhys is all about?
Bodywhys is the National Eating Disorders Association of Ireland. We provide support and information, as well as education and awareness raising, to people affected by eating disorders. Our services are aimed at people who have an eating disorder, family, friends, or basically anyone who comes across the issue as part of their life or work. We also get calls from a wide variety of people such as teachers, school counselors, psychotherapists, doctors, and social workers.
There is a whole spectrum of eating disorders and body image issues. What are the most prevalent ones?
The most ‘well known’ would be anorexia and bulimia. There is also Binge Eating Disorder, and a category of eating disorders called ‘NOS’ (Not Otherwise Specified), which basically is a diagnosis for a person with an eating disorder that doesn’t fit in with the criteria for anorexia or bulimia.
What are some of the reasons people develop them?
People develop eating disorders for any number of reasons, and there can be multiple risk factors that come together at a time when a person is vulnerable. For some reason, food control and disordered eating may take on the function of helping them to cope with their life. Everyone’s experience is different and there is no single cause to someone developing one. We think of an eating disorder as a coping mechanism, and in this way the reasons why a person develops an eating disorder are entirely individual, in the same way that everyone copes with life in various ways.
There are some risk factors that are common though, and I would hear these in the stories people tell me about how they developed an eating disorder and why. But, as with everything it is so important not to assume that these are the same for everyone. Influences you would frequently hear are dieting, bullying, dealing with a difficult or stressful time, such as the transition between primary into secondary school. But these are just a couple of examples.
What’s the biggest misunderstanding about eating disorders?
I think the main one is that an eating disorder is all about food and weight, and that you have to be really underweight to have an eating disorder. Eating disorders are not primarily about food or weight, but are rather intimately connected with the person’s sense of self and how they cope with life.
You in no way need to be really underweight or even underweight at all to have an eating disorder. People with bulimia typically have a normal weight, and people with binge eating disorder would often be overweight, and they suffer in exactly the same way as a person with anorexia; they relate to their world in the same way and have similar thoughts about themselves. The only difference is the type of disordered eating that they engage in.
It’s also very common for people to think that eating disorders only affect women and girls. This is simply not true, and this myth makes it even more difficult for a man to come forward and look for support.
What are your thoughts on the awareness and education about body image, both in Ireland and abroad?
I think that ‘body image’ is sometimes used as a catch-all phrase that doesn’t really mean anything. When you really think about how central our perception of our physical selves is to how we interact with the world, we can understand why it is such an important part of our identities. Also, we can’t deny that our body image can be vulnerable and at different times in our lives it can be more vulnerable than others. Put this all together with the constant exposure we are all susceptible to in terms of how products and beauty is marketed can have a pretty negative impact. We need to keep that internal ‘reality check’ as to what is realistic and normal, compared to what may be promoted as perfection.
Young people are particularly susceptible to pressure to look and ‘be’ a certain way, and this pressure can intensify when their sense of identity is challenged by whatever life phases are presenting to them. A big part of the work we do at Bodywhys, with young people is about educating them about understanding what ‘body image’ is, how we build up a sense of who we are, and how we can manage and filter the messages that society throws at us on a constant basis. For example, educating young people about media literacy, like how photos are air brushed and manipulated is one of the core features of the education tools that we have developed.
Sometimes magazines and other media outlets have special editions or supplements to promote the message of loving your body and self-acceptance; yet they will still put a touched-up image or a bare-chested Adonis on the cover. Do you think some awareness-raising efforts are lost in translation?
I think that understanding the subtlety of what is being communicated in many of the messages is difficult. When there are special editions focusing on “Love Your Body” or “Self Acceptance”, it is often not considered that for those in the population who either have an eating disorder, recovering from one, or vulnerable to developing one, the messages can both compound and intensify the ‘eating disorder thinking’ or ‘disordered distorted thinking’.
For example, a generic message promoting dieting or losing weight, increasing exercise and being happier might seem harmless and seem conscientious for those who might be unhealthy and overweight. However, these messages can influence the eating disorder thinking which drives a person to eat less, exercise more in thinking that then their life will be perfect. And for a person in recovery, who may have been ‘really good’ at eating less, exercising lots, feels that they are being excluded from ‘normal’ society because everyone else is trying to diet, to do all the things that the eating disorder was telling them to do and which they ‘excelled’ at, but now they can’t do that anymore. So, these messages can make recovery extremely hard, and make it feel for the person like they are a failure and getting worse.
It is also important to think about the simple connection and assumptions these type of messages can create about people and their behaviours. Often times ‘good’ and ‘happy’ is aligned with being a certain weight, typically ‘thin’. Whereas, being overweight is often associated with not being such a happy person or being lazy. What I mean is that equating a person’s value and their life with their weight in this way allows ‘weight’ to take on this hugely significant role in a person’s life; when in reality it is only one aspect of themselves and their life and should not be measured by it.
Eating disorders are typically framed or known as a female issue or condition but it seems that more men are coming forward and speaking up about bodily issues and anxieties. Do you think it’s becoming easier for men to speak up?
I’m not sure, maybe! It is hard to tell. It is certainly not unusual for men to use our support services, the amount statistically would reflect the general stats that one in every ten people with an eating disorder would be a male. I think it is still difficult for men to come forward, and I think that often a lot of the eating disorder pathology is masked by men in terms of behaviours like keeping really fit, going to the gym excessively, muscle building and such which might not be as obvious in terms of being linked with eating disorder pathology.
Why do you think eating disorders are still stigmatized in society?
I think a lot of the stigma comes from not understanding that an eating disorder is not simply about food. There are also lots of misconceptions about people who develop eating disorders due to the role control plays in an eating disorder. For instance, it is not unusual for me to hear a person with an eating disorder being described as manipulative, or super controlling.
Can someone be cured of an eating disorder?
Yes, a person can recover from an eating disorder. It is not for life, people can and do recover. Having this message and understanding is really important to provide people with the hope that they can live in a different way, one that is not ruled by food and body control.
What advice would you give someone who may be worried about their physical appearance or may think they have eating disorder?
Try to articulate and talk out what the thoughts that are in your head. We often feel trapped by incessant negative thoughts in our heads, and this is a strong feature of how the eating disorder keeps itself thriving in a person. If they can find someone, or some way, to let those thoughts out, to see them for what they (distorted, untrue, frightening), they will find relief and will open up a space where there true selves can breathe and grow stronger so that they can think about living in a way free from the torturous rules that the eating disorder controls them with.
There is no one treatment that suits everyone, and sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error to find the type of treatment that will work for you. This is normal, and if one thing doesn’t work out it doesn’t mean that nothing will work, it just means that you need to try something or someone else.
What’s been the most memorable or biggest achievement since working with Bodywhys?
This is a tough one, as in the past 8 years I have experienced so much. For me the most memorable, or the moments that mean the most to me are when I have talked to someone who for the first time wants to talk about their eating disorder. It is a privilege to be able to listen to that person, and to hear the relief in their voice that they have been able to acknowledge there is a problem with what they are doing and that they can find the strength to begin to think about letting it go. I also feel that I’m doing my job when I never assume I know what anyone is going through with their eating disorder, when I remember that everyone has a different experience and to respect that and allow them to tell me what it is like for them. Allowing people to openly describe what they are going, without trying to intervene or ‘fix’ it for them is a very powerful experience and one I never ever take for granted.
For more information, advice or support about any of the issues raised in this interview, click here to visit the Bodywhys website.