An anorexic teenage female is the image which is usually conjured in one’s mind on hearing the words eating disorder. But eating disorders are not actually a one-type-fits-all issue, and should not be naively misconstrued as so. The latest Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders actually found that, of those suffering with eating disorders, 10% were anorexic, 40% bulimic, and the rest fall into BED (binge eating disorder) and EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified). In reality eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, affecting both genders and all ages.
I cannot work out whether it is ironic or makes perfect sense that eating disorders are at their highest in today’s age where, in the UK at least, we have access to virtually any foods we could wish for. Nor can anyone, it seems, point to a single reason for the sudden rise. Perhaps eating disorders have simply become a more acceptable topic to openly talk about in society; they have always existed but a previous lack of sympathy or understanding led to individuals masking their disorders, and therefore living with them being medically undiagnosed or recorded.
Equally it is likely that, with social media being as influential and all-consuming as it is today, the sight of celebrities and models plastered everywhere means that an increasing pressure surrounds the idea that we are what we look like. This serves to create an obsessive and competitive atmosphere surrounding body image; in turn this can encourage an addictive attitude towards eating habits or to forms of exercise such as the gym.
Almost everyone nowadays knows someone who has struggled with an eating disorder at some point in their life. And this is particularly the case when living in a University environment. I’ve been in contact with Francesca Baker, a former student at Durham, who suffered with anorexia during her three years at University. She offers insight into the root of her eating disorder and her journey to recovery:
‘Durham is an amazing university, full of incredibly intelligent, able, creative, beautiful, well educated, widely travelled, privileged young people. I had low self-esteem and came from a far less privileged, although very loving background. I found this tough, and food was one way of escaping those feelings.
It was part of my ongoing desire to change myself. To be like all the other cool girls who seemed to have life all together. By the way students, NO ONE has life together. We’re all muddling along.
I had always had a very healthy relationship with food and exercise. Another slice of cake, yes please! Pizza before bed, why not? Toast and cereal in the morning, sure it’s fuel for the day! However, the catered halls made for a competitive environment where saying no or bragging about your exercise achievements became the norm, and I think this was one of my biggest triggers.
I went to the local GP to get help, and I would urge anyone struggling to do the same. It can be difficult to recognise the symptoms yourself, or feel that you can reach out. At the time my college welfare did not come to me until my final year, even though I had been unwell for two years before that. I think college welfare officers, lecturers, student union reps and all students should be better educated on the matter. One of the things about eating disorders is that the sufferer either does not recognise they are ill, does not want to reach out, or feels too ashamed and unable to. External support is crucial.
In hindsight I wish I had taken the time out and fully recovered. The more time you spend with an eating disorder, the more entrenched it gets. Instead I ended up not really having the full university experience; it’s something I deeply regret and has plagued me ever since. The phrase ‘nip it in the bud’ sounds trite, but there are elements of truth in it.’
Since finishing at Durham, Francesca has gone on to produce a recipe book, ‘Eating & Living’, aimed at helping those in recovery from an eating disorder. Profits from the book are being donated to b-eat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity.
Comprised of a collection of personal recipes, ‘Eating & Living’ has been a collaboration between those who are in recovery or have recovered, the carers, friends and family of sufferers, professionals, and health experts. Each recipe tells its own story and emphasises the importance of looking after your body and mind through nutritious meals. As the sysnopsis of the book explains, ‘born out of conversations by patients on an inpatient ward, it is a testament to resilience, hope and belief that recovery is possible’.
Eating disorders may be at their record highest, but that is not a prerequisite for them to remain this way. Our advancements in technology, communication, healthcare and welfare services should be preventing disorders from occurring, not letting them slip into becoming part of the norm.
For more information and help on eating disorders, below are links to the b-eat website, the Eating & Living webpage, and where you can purchase a copy of the book: