Katherine Atkinson

Eating disorder awareness week will take place from 26 February to 4 March 2018. February is therefore dedicated to creating awareness of and breaking the stigmas which surround eating disorders.

The National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC) say that eating disorders are “serious mental illnesses” and are not simply “diets that have gone ‘too far’.” Hanlé Kirkcaldy, a clinical psychologist at Student Support and Counselling at the University of Pretoria, says that academically speaking, “an eating disorder is when an individual displays a persistent disturbance of eating or eating related behaviour”. This includes Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating and Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). Kirkcaldy says that eating disorders are not only about “eating and dieting” and can more accurately be thought of as “a way for someone to [express] unhappiness about themselves and who they are”. This unhappiness then reflects through “the way the person manages food and eating.”

Students “have presented with both Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa at Student Counselling,” says Kirkcaldy. While Bulimia Nervosa is characterised by “repeated episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviours” such as vomiting or taking laxatives, Anorexia Nervosa is characterised by extreme food restriction, fear of gaining weight and a disturbed body image says NEDC. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all eating disorders due to its “very damaging health effects such as brain damage, multi-organ failure, bone loss, heart difficulties, and infertility” says Eating Disorder Hope.

A senior student at the University of Pretoria, who preferred to remain anonymous, has admitted to struggling with anorexia “on and off” for “about 16 years” and believes that eating disorders are less about the physical side effects and more about “the mental battle”. It is said that eating disorders are about “trying to find control in chaos and trying to find comfort when you feel like everything is falling apart”. Despite the student’s lengthy battle with the illness, they say that it has “only been in the past 18 months that people have become aware of [their anorexia].” The student admits that it took a long time to find treatment “because [they] didn’t look sick and [they] didn’t present with the typical symptoms.” They state that eating disorders are “very easy to hide” because “sick doesn’t have a look”.

It was only in August last year, when the student’s anorexia started to majorly impact their academics that “it ever came to light”. This is because the student was issued an ultimatum to either gain weight or be hospitalised, which would interrupt their studies and could risk losing funding. The student reinforces that eating disorders are “definitely a mental illness” and that you “may not be clinically underweight” but you may still not have “a healthy relationship with food”.

Kirkcaldy notes that depression “often appears together with an eating disorder.” This was true of the student’s experience with anorexia. The student says it is “difficult to tell which came first” because anorexia perpetuates depression. They state that “you restrict your body so much that you don’t actually have any energy left to feel anything”. The student says the illness causes “complete anhedonia” and it feels like “the joy is sucked out of your life”.

Kirkcaldy says that eating disorders “typically develop during adolescence and young adulthood” which is a “student demographic”. She claims that students are “not more at risk [of developing eating disorders] because they are students,” rather, “they are just in a sensitive phase of life.” The senior student, however, notes the stressors of student life to be a large contributor toward their eating disorder. For them, these stressors included “being away from home,” being in residence where “[their] whole routine [was] different” and being faced with “fierce competition”. The student says that their Bachelor of Sciences degree was “intensely high pressure” and their busy schedule made it easy to skip meals.

Although stressful student life contributed toward the student’s eating disorder, Kirkcaldy states that the “contributors are multi-factorial”. She says that “uncertainty during times of transformation can trigger an eating disorder as a way of trying to regain some form of independence and focus.” Other contributors noted by Kirkcaldy include social isolation, trauma, childhood influences and our society. Kirkcaldy says that our society “bombards us with images where a certain body shape and look is welcomed, condoned and depicted as the norm”. She adds that “the prevalence of unhealthy dieting, problematic eating habits and concerns about the [unattainable] perfect appearance are certainly very high in the student population.”

Internet sites such as MyProAna, ‘pro ana’ meaning pro-anorexic, “promote anorexia as a lifestyle” and show “resistance to recovery,” says the senior student. These sites use hashtags such as #thinspiration and #bonespo, as well as quotes and blogs, which promote weight loss and an emaciated appearance. The senior student believes that although sites like this will not necessarily trigger an eating disorder, they may still “plant the seed”, “make you feel the need to compete” and “make you feel like a failure if you start recovering”.

Besides their prevalence in our society, eating disorders are highly stigmatised. Although eating disorders can affect anyone regardless of gender, class, age and culture; there is a misperception that anorexia is only “a middle-to-high class, white woman’s disease,” says the senior student. The harsh stigma against mental illness may also cause some to believe that if you have an eating disorder you are “unstable,” “unreliable” and “a risk,” says the student. The student believes that this stigma may cause people to not seek help or treatment.

In addition to the stigmas, treatment and the recovery process can be very testing emotionally, mentally, and physically. The senior student says that the most difficult thing about recovery is learning that they are “not able to control life, that weight and shape matter less than the presence you bring into a room” and “that actually no-one cares what’s on your plate” because “it’s what you project”. They say that “to take a step into recovery” they need to rewrite their identity and leave this part of them behind which is “quite frightening”.

The student says that their anxiety is elevated at the moment because their “body suddenly has fuel” and “emotions are intense” especially because they have gone from “not feeling anything to now feeling everything”.

Despite the recovery being incredibly gruelling, the student says they have learned that “you don’t need to kill yourself in order to be recognised” because “there’s enough of you left without the eating disorder to be able to belong”.

Kirkcaldy advises anyone with an eating disorder to “seek help from an informed psychologist or ask your GP for a referral to a psychologist” as eating disorders can be “enduring and debilitating”. The student, who personally went to the Student Support and Counselling centre at UP, said that the centre has “been amazing and so supportive” as it enabled them to find “someone to click with and someone to work with”. This gave the student the “space to just say what was on [their] mind.” If you are battling with an eating disorder, the student says, “try find at least one person” who you “don’t mind taking constructive criticism from” to “walk this journey with [you].” The student ends by saying that you must learn “to be patient with yourself, because it’s going to be tough and you’re going to have to learn to be kind to yourself.”


Image: Rhodeen Davies

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