Almost one and a half million people in the UK are suffering from some form of eating disorder, based on reported cases alone. It is estimated that the true figure is somewhere closer to three to four million when accounting for those who do not seek treatment.
Eating disorders can manifest as binge eating and restriction to any other psychological state that causes unhealthy eating habits. They result most commonly from distorted body image, food obsession or often no single cause.
Environment, cultural influence, genetics or pre-existing mental health conditions can all contribute to the development of an eating disorder and the likelihood of an individual seeking and receiving treatment.
Stereotyping and treatment
Extremely thin, white, teen females are often the faces of disordered eating, preventing those outside of this framework from believing they have a disorder or confidently reaching out for help. When my own disorder became almost unmanageable, I didn’t believe I needed and was never recommended support until years later, due to not being underweight.
A YouGov poll found four in ten people (39%) believe eating disorders are more common in white people, a following study finding that “higher-weight individuals, racial/ethnic minorities, those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, and males” are significantly less likely to seek help, be properly screened, referred for treatment and get a diagnosis compared to “skinny, white, affluent girls” (SWAGs).
This is especially disturbing when almost a quarter of sufferers are male, and black teenagers are up to 50% more likely to display bulimic behaviours than white teenagers.
Eating disorder culture
Gaining traction on sites such as Tumblr and Instagram, the underground ‘Pro-ana’ movement has reached mainstream reporting.
Pro-ana is a subculture of websites and online accounts created with the purpose of sharing ‘thinspiration’: images of severely emaciated people, alongside tips to vomit up your food, secretly starve yourself while living with others and celebrating eating disorders, centrally anorexia. The movement romanticises anorexia, and almost creates a competitive environment relating to who is the ‘best at their eating disorder’.
An Instagram account I once came across shared food diaries amounting to 250 calories per day, many commenting how jealous they were of her self control and how their own 600-calorie diets must be why they are “still so fat”.
Some even praised her for sharing a plan people can follow to reach her unhealthy weight and shared their belief that they can’t be ‘good enough’ at their disorder as they weren’t as restrictive as she was.
Stricter regulations are now in place on social media sites, including ‘resources that may help’ pop-ups for those searching ‘pro-ana’ or eating disorder keywords, and the ability to reach out to users that may need mental health support.
Triggering material and ‘thinspiration’ can still however come in the form of extreme fitness bloggers, ‘fitspo’ and prevalent influencer uploads, recently Kendall Jenner’s viral bikini selfie, factors that are almost impossible to regulate.
The limitations surrounding identifying and effectively treating eating disorders is extremely dangerous, with eating disorders being of the highest mortality among psychological disorders. Eating disorders also have extensive health consequences for the cardiovascular system, brain, hair, skin, organ health, and are potentially deadly disorders.
Social media sites have begun to promote healthy body content, provide sensitive content warnings and have limited access to dangerous search results. Eating disorder charities are vocalising accurate information and advice for every sufferer, and resources like Beat have helplines available 365 days a year for adults and young people.
Eating and all other mental disorders present in any shape, size, gender, race, background and are all worthy of effective treatment.
If you would like to discuss any of the issues mentioned in this article with someone who is trained to listen, you can call Samaritans on their free, 24-hour helpline at 116 123 or call Beat for free (9am-8pm) at 0808 081 0677.