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The truth about eating disorders

Ilona Burton shares her experiences and asks us all to be more aware...

Published on February 17th 2011.

The truth about eating disorders

How much do you know about eating disorders?

Judging by the amount we see and hear about them in magazines and on TV documentaries, we should be pretty clued up by now. But the media has a nasty habit of feeding us with only the most extreme stories, shocking photographs and unbelievably low or high weights. There’s the 10-tonne man or the 3-stone skeleton and nothing much in between.

The stereotype of the well-off, young, white perfectionist anorexic is old news. Over 10 per cent of those affected are actually male, but statistics are unreliable and many cases go unnoticed, undiagnosed and untreated.

We think we know more than we do, causing misconceptions and a lack of understanding of people who suffer from them. We think that all anorexics walk around with chopstick legs and lollipop heads – but the truth is that absolutely anybody, at any weight, could be suffering from an eating disorder at any time in their life.

The stereotype of the well-off, young, white perfectionist anorexic is old news. Over 10 per cent of those affected are actually male, but statistics are unreliable and many cases go unnoticed, undiagnosed and untreated.

Figures suggest that the number of males with eating disorders is on the rise and it could be suggested that as there is still so much stigma attached, those numbers could be much higher.

As somebody who has spent (too much) time on a specialised eating disorder unit, I have seen men and women of all ages, sexualities, race and religion receiving help for their illness. From a 68-year-old wise woman, crippled by a lifelong addiction to bingeing, to a 24-year-old, straight (people presume males with anorexia are probably gay – far from true) football fanatic who lied to his family about where he was because he was so ashamed to admit the truth. It is truly sad to see how many people suffer from such a horrible illness that, in my experience, nobody chose to have. Eating disorders do not discriminate.

That brings me swiftly onto another point; an eating disorder is a serious mental illness - not a lifestyle choice, not a diet, not a fashion statement and about a million miles away from glamorous.

Over 1.1million people in the UK are directly affected by eating disorders – it is more than likely that you know one of them, and that is why awareness is so important. It isn’t just about spotting the signs, but about how you can help through showing understanding, support and respect.

The less shame and stigma there is attached to having an eating disorder, the more people will be able to speak out and seek help – much better than shutting themselves away until they have to be dragged, kicking and screaming. It isn’t pretty and it isn’t fun.

When we think of eating disorders we tend to associate them with vanity, the fashion world, the size zero debate and magazines plastered with celebrities either flaunting bones or trying their best to cover up their wobbly bits. Cellulite is a crime after all.

There has been the odd attempt by model agencies and designers - such as Mark Fast - to go against the grain and dare to use models who don’t resemble zombified coat hangers, but the majority of catwalks and ad campaigns still feature women and men who look half-dead. It doesn’t give us much to aspire to and no matter how much we’d like to, it’s hard to ignore their jutting cheekbones and washboard stomachs.

It’s too easy to place the blame on fashion though, and too obvious. It’s like blaming violence on computer games; it makes sense but is far too simplistic a way to explain a much more complex issue. We have a natural urge to point the finger, to find an explanation, but this kind of scapegoating takes away from the seriousness of eating disorders.

The fact is, there is no one cause, no one kind of victim and no one treatment that will work in all cases. If only life were that simple. Unless a person has been through it themselves, it is impossible to explain how it feels to be so entrenched by something that, rather than giving a person control, it takes it all away.

The more we learn about eating disorders, the better. No person should ever have to feel ashamed of their illness, hide, lie or live with the guilt that comes with that. Eating Disorders can be beaten.

To learn more about the writer go to www.independent.co.ukEating Disorders Awareness Week is from 21-28 February. For more information about understanding eating disorders, please visit www.b-eat.co.uk

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