A spate of recent media articles point the finger at Kim Kardashian’s recent weight loss, the return to ‘heroin chic’ models and Y2K fashion of low-slung jeans and crop tops for a global spike in eating disorders.
Reports of hospital admissions for people with eating disorders have jumped almost 85 per cent in England and a shocking 290 per cent in Canada, while here in Australia the Butterfly Foundation, a national charity for those impacted by eating disorders, reports that calls to their helpline increased by 105 per cent in the first school term of 2021, compared to 2019.
These are alarming figures, and a real cause for concern. As a Clinical Psychologist who researches and treats eating disorders, I don’t subscribe to the idea that social media and societal body ideals are the root cause of all eating disorders – these are often myths and misconceptions. Leaving aside for the moment how appalling it is that any woman’s body shape should be considered, let alone written about, as a ‘fashion trend’, research in this field tells us the relationship between body ideals and the development of an eating disorder is complex and more likely to be an indirect one.
The problem with attributing eating disorders to body dissatisfaction alone is that it contributes to a longstanding societal perception that eating disorders are the result of vanity and attention seeking. Sadly, this perception of eating disorders as a voluntary or self-inflicted condition has not only been observed in community, but the health profession too, and can prevent people from seeking treatment.
Eating disorders are serious and complex conditions often caused by a combination of genetic, biological, psychological, and social factors. In fact, they are so complex the exact cause, and interaction between these different risk factors, is still not entirely understood. They are not a “lifestyle choice” or a “diet gone too far”.
So what is actually driving this spike in the development of eating disorders, particularly among young people? Research suggests the COVID-19 pandemic is largely responsible. Here are a few ways the pandemic has contributed to this increase:
Increased stress and anxiety can exacerbate or trigger disordered eating thoughts and behaviours in some individuals and can also impact their entire support system. Parents are a key part of supporting the treatment and recovery process for children and adolescents experiencing eating disorders but many parents struggling with their own pandemic-related mental health impacts found it very hard to provide their usual level of support.
Social isolation and disrupted routines such as being unable to attend to school or engage in extracurricular activities like sport, combined with increased anxiety and stress, may also have been a tipping point for people who had never experienced disordered eating symptoms before.
Limited or reduced access to treatment during the pandemic made accessing treatment more difficult. Even short-term disruptions can have significant negative impacts on treatment and recovery due to the complex nature of eating disorders.
So what can you do if you are concerned about a friend or loved one? Here are some suggestions:
- Educate yourself – seek information about eating disorders, the different types, and how they present (particularly early warning signs). It is important to understand that an eating disorder is not only about food. There are lots of resources available online via the Butterfly Foundation, InsideOut Institute for Eating Disorders, and the National Eating Disorders Collaboration, among others.
- Make a plan – Having a plan of when and how to approach can help in what can be a nerve-wracking situation. Find a place that is private, quiet, and comfortable and try to avoid situations that may elicit strong emotions such as when the person is tired, at mealtimes, or in a place surrounded by food.
- Express your concerns in a non-judgemental and supportive way – Let the person know that you care about them and that you are there to help in any way you can. Try not to focus solely on weight, appearance, or food. Instead, focus your concern for their health and how they might be feeling. Try to use ‘I’ statements such as ‘I’ve noticed that…’ rather than ‘You are making me worried’.
- Be a good listener – Listen to the person without judgment and try to understand their feelings and experiences, without blame or assumptions. Avoid giving advice or trying to fix the situation.
- Encourage them to seek professional help – Reassure the person they are deserving of help and your friendship or love. Offer to assist them in getting the help they need but be careful not to overwhelm with information and suggestions.
- Be aware of your own emotions – These conversations can be tough and create strong emotions for the person expressing concern. Try to remain calm, no matter how your loved one or friend reacts, and remember it may take more than one conversation for them to accept your support.
Dr Amy Bannatyne is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Bond University.