You posted an Instagram photo 5 minutes ago and you still haven’t received a single like or comment. Your brain goes into overdrive. ‘Do I look bad? Do I look ugly? Am I ugly? Was this a bad decision?’. You’re seconds away from deleting the post and curling up in bed and then suddenly the likes pour in and you instantly feel at ease, satisfied and ready to get on with your day. Welcome to the life of most of the young people of this generation.
Today, physical appearance is subject to instant scrutiny on a daily basis due to the obsession with social media applications such as Instagram and Facebook. With the swipe of a finger an individual’s physical appearance can be judged within literally a second of posting. This terrifies me. Social media applications send chills down my spine when considering the damage such reliance on constant instant approval (or criticism) could do to young people of all genders in the long run. When I was growing up it was the outbreak of the gossip magazine, with its constant analysis and criticism of celebrities’ bodies that held the deepest danger to young people’s perception of themselves. However, today the danger has reached such an intimate level that anyone around the world with access to the internet is able to judge and comment on your appearance first hand.
What frightens me the most about this situation is that, combined with the many added pressures young people face today whilst growing up (grades, friendships, identity, amongst a few), the concept of maintaining the perfect appearance seems to be starting younger and younger. A real danger of this is that it can trigger and sometimes even promote eating disorders amongst individuals from the age they are able to get their hands on the Internet. Reports have shown a disturbing number of cases to appear in children as young as 7 or 8. However, I have been pleasantly surprised to see a recent growing awareness amongst the media of the dangers social media can cause to young peoples mental health. Yet whilst the public has been able to identify social media as a trigger, it has often been the case that in doing so many have slipped into the trap of over simplifying eating disorders to the dissatisfaction of appearance. Through this current social media revolution is has become clear to me that stigma of eating disorders as being a vain and image obsessed choice, is becoming more prominent than ever. This is why we MUST talk about eating disorders more than ever before.
Through recent media attention it has become clear to me that there is an increasing misconception within our society as to what eating disorders are. I have come across many people who believe anorexia and bulimia are a result of extremely vain individuals, risking their health for their appearance. However, there is so much more to eating disorders than this and it is dangerous that this appears to be the commonly believed view. Not only do such misconceptions promote an over-simplified explanation of eating disorders, but also this can pose the risk of preventing individuals with an eating disorder from admitting they have a problem. As public perception of what an eating disorder is becomes more fixed, those suffering can fear admitting to the problem as they are afraid they will be automatically shoved into a box, looked down on and judged due to something they cannot control. People need to be educated and taught that no mental illness is as simple as this, we must remove the taboo and stigma of mental disorders within our society in order to actually make a change and cause awareness. It is incredibly important to do so in order to understand those who are suffering, rather than dismiss their ongoing struggle to a version that is more palatable and easier to understand. It is easy for those who have never experienced and therefore do not fully understand the complications of eating disorders to dismiss the disease as attention seeking, vain or deliberate.
Yet eating disorders are a complex mental illness, an ongoing daily struggle, a constant internal fight with oneself.
Although I am not denying that in some, if not most cases, a strong element of body dismorphia plays a role, it must be realised that this is only a small element of the many internal struggles that play out within the mind of someone with an eating disorder. Eating disorders can arise from stress, depression, anxiety; the feeling of lost control within life. In some cases an individual may not realise for a while that they have even been overcome with the disease. In many cases it can creep up slowly and therefore become a coping mechanism for when things go wrong unintentionally. The most common misunderstanding of eating disorders is the idea that those suffering can just turn it off and on when they choose. The reality is that an individual suffering with an eating disorder has actually lost that element of control; the disease soon begins to take over and dominate that individual’s life. This is why it is so important that we are all aware and educated on the complexities of the disease, so that we can help and understand that individuals suffering are not CHOOSING to do so but have actually lost control.
If anorexia and bulimia were discussed more widely and frequently, it would become clear that eating disorders, such as any mental illness or addiction, are if anything, an unintentional cry for help. Rather than reducing one with an eating disorder to an image obsessed, chronic dieter, we must look further than this, further than what might be comfortable. The cruel truth is that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder, that, as shown by ANAD (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders), 1 in every 100 with anorexia who have sought treatment die each year, and that, up to 20% over a 20 year period will die from secondary effects of the illness, such as heart failure and also, suicide.
There was no choice for those accounted for in these statistics. Eating disorders are not a choice.
This is why, in light of the current social media discussion, we must emphasize the importance of eradicating these common misconceptions surrounding eating disorders. Although it is great step forward that awareness for young people and body image are being discussed, we still must watch our steps as to not promote eating disorders as a purely physical issue and this can only be achieved through openly talking about it. Who knows where this current social media revolution will take us? I am definitely intrigued and terrified at the same time, yet as long as we remember to tread carefully and remind ourselves of the dangers, we can attempt to prevent it from spiraling out of control.
Featured Photo: Ralph Aichinger
[Below are some links to webpages if you would like more information on or help with eating disorders]
BEAT UK: https://www.b-eat.co.uk
CHILDLINE: 0800 1111 OR https://www.childline.org.uk/Pages/Home.aspx