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Eating Disorders Awareness Week: Why Diet Culture Has A Lot to Answer For

Updated: May 26, 2022

It’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and as always, I’ve been moved by words of strength, support and solidarity shared in its honour. I join the conversation because, whilst eating disorders still carry so much stigma, we need to talk openly about our experiences. In doing so we can help these illnesses be better understood and, the more discussion and education there is, the more eating disorders we may actually be able to prevent. I need to caveat this blog in saying that mental illness is individual and eating disorders are very complex; I can only speak from my own individual experience.

Although there is rarely one single thing that results in an eating disorder, there are risk factors that I think we can mitigate to reduce the number of people suffering from eating disorders (which is currently an estimated 1.25 million people in the UK*). Diet culture is one of those risk factors and one that, certainly from my experience, has a lot to answer for.

For as long as I can remember I saw my body as a problem. There was a lot of diet conversation in my household (as I’m sure there was in most households at the time). I was part of that dialogue from a really young age, dieting in primary school and checking my weight as a measure of ‘success’. I was dieting to lose weight for a holiday as young as 11, the idea of which feels pretty devastating now I have a young daughter of my own.

I felt shame about my body from such a young age, perpetuated by media outlets that praised women for weight loss and shamed them for weight gain. I watched shows like ‘America’s Next Top Model’ where already slim girls were told they needed to lose weight or ‘tone up’. I don’t recall any diversity in the body shapes I saw on the television or in magazines - certainly not the ones that were presented positively, anyway. I saw my body as fat and I so desperately wanted to be skinny. When I reached my early teens and boys weren’t interested in me, I assumed it was because I was fat. I’ve always been outgoing even so I started to feel insecure in friendships, like I was lesser because I wasn’t ‘skinny’. It felt perfectly logical to believe that all of my problems would be solved through losing weight.

It came to a head during my summer holiday between school years 9 and 10. I made a decision that I needed to lose weight. I stopped eating during the day except for dinner with my family to avoid suspicion. After a while, as these things often go, that stopped being enough and I started purging my dinner, too. I was complimented a lot when I first started losing weight, I looked great! How did I lose all that weight? and it reinforced that I was doing something good and becoming the person I wanted to be. Disciplined, strong, skinny. At the time I felt in total control. I was adamant that the steps I had taken were entirely my decision, which in a sense, they were. I did make a decision to stop eating. It’s really common for those suffering with eating disorders to be met with anger and frustration from those closest to them - it’s hard to understand why someone (especially someone you love) would decide to stop eating and why they can’t just decide to eat normally again. But, certainly for me, that didn’t feel like a reasonable option. I couldn’t let go of all of the things that had got me to the point of avoiding food altogether

- the desperation to be in a body that was worthy of love.

It’s my story, and the story of many others who experienced similar, that incentivise me to fight tooth and nail against diet culture. A culture that idealizes slim bodies and marginalizes anything that doesn’t fit that mold. A culture that values weight loss over health and wellbeing. A culture that tells our young people that their bodies are anything other than perfect as they are. We have the power to reject this narrative and make a real difference for young people growing up today. Stop talking about weight loss and start talking about being strong and healthy. Stop talking about how much you hate your body and start talking about what you love about it. Stop talking about eliminating or labelling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and educate our young people to eat a varied and plentiful diet of nutritious food, including treats like cake and chocolate without associating them with guilt or shame.

I’m not saying this will eradicate eating disorders altogether, but with 30% of diets ending in disordered eating, I’m confident as hell that by fighting diet culture we can make a difference. Let’s watch a generation of young people grow up with the self esteem and self-love we’ve had to work so hard to form.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, or you are concerned for someone close to you, visit Beat Eating Disorders for a whole host of amazing information and resources.

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