Written by Project HEAL Southeast Pennsylvania chapter, Suzanne Brier.
Eating disorders are physical and mental illnesses that are frequently spoken of yet are still simultaneously dismissed and misconstrued. While the causes of an eating disorder are complex, explanations that are offered are too consistently simplified and often presented as if the disorder results from a single variable. More often than not, I will hear well intentioned individuals minimize the severity of an eating disorder by making it to be simply about poor body image and the media’s effects. The reality is that eating disorders are not simply caused by internalization of the thin ideal or poor self esteem. There are many potential factors that can put an individual at risk of this form of illness. While these factors can contribute to the problem, there is much more that needs to be considered and understood. Through my own observations, conversations with sufferers, and review of published scientific articles, the media, in fact, has much less power on how an individual perceives their body than we believe. Body dissatisfaction is far more affected by one’s perception of peer values and actions. Discussions about the importance of losing weight and striving to look a certain way in order to accumulate value in their eyes are much more likely to impact the likelihood of developing the disorder than a magazine or movie. While the media does not have as significant of an effect on the formation of beliefs, the media can have a powerful effect by confirming what a person at risk for an eating disorder has already internalized though other life experiences.
In eliminating other possibilities for development of an eating disorder, we silence the voices of individuals who struggle with this particular mental illness and in doing so perpetuate stigma. As indicated above, the answer to the question of what causes an eating disorder is complex and varies from individual to individual. Not only do causes vary, but like coping with any hardship, how people feel while struggling with an eating disorder will differ. Eating disorders can be motivated by a desire to want to control one’s body because they feel an immense lack of control. It can be motivated by a desire to have a body type that will make you feel you deserve love. Other motives include an attempt to regulate emotions, to avoid appearing attractive to keep others away, especially after a trauma, and to feel worthy by getting praised for your body particularly when nothing else about you makes you believe that you have that worth.
Eating disorders, just like all other mental disorders, are complicated and affected by an interaction of social, psychological, cultural, and biological factors. Among mental disorders, eating disorders are difficult to overcome and come with no known quick fixes. Yet, there is always hope and people do recover. I have witnessed this personally when my best friend sought help for the first time and confided in me as well as those she cared for. It was the seemingly miniscule, but critically important step loved ones made when saying, “I am ready to try recovery.” I believe that we can do better in understanding the nature of eating disorders and avoid making assumptions of what causes the disorder that is by no means one size fits all. This can be how we begin to more effectively provide empathy individually to those who struggle and learn how to better exhibit compassion to those we love deeply and are suffering. In continuing the conversation with new found awareness of various causes, we can work towards erasing stigma and allow for sufferers to share their stories without the shame.