By Tiyani Rikhotso
Monday the 26th of February marked the beginning of Eating Disorder awareness week. This year the theme is ‘Let’s get real’. The idea being that when it comes to the awareness of and the conversation around eating disorders, we need to ‘expand the conversation and highlight the stories we don’t usually hear’. Another important part of being “real” comes down to shedding a truthful light onto the situation that will break down the stigmas and stereotypes that surround eating disorders.
The idea that eating disorders are a western problem that only affect American teenage girls is just one example of a harmful and limiting stereotype. The very fact that there are barely any updated statistics on eating disorders in South Africa is particularly alarming.
For this reason and more, it is important that we rediscover what it means to suffer from disordered eating habits and educate ourselves so that we can support loved ones who may be battling with an eating disorder or help loved ones to accept that disordered eating is a part of our lives. Let us not forget to listen to the soft hum of the stories and truths that often go unheard such as:
- Men suffer from anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders too. The most prevalent amongst them is muscle dysmorphia which is rooted in the ‘bulking obsession’ of many young teenage boys. With this disorder, individuals obsess about being inadequately muscular. Compulsions include spending many hours in the gym, squandering excessive amounts of money on supplements, abnormal eating patterns, or the use of steroids; these dangerous and obsessive behaviours all carried out in order to fit into a societal ideal of male physicality. However, boys often suffer from anorexia and bulimia too. Having an eating disorder is not limited to your gender in the same way that having one as a male doesn’t make you ‘less of a man’. Your story is still important, and so is your recovery.
- Over exercising as a means to compensate for calories eaten counts as an eating disorder. Induced vomiting after eating or periods of bingeing is not all there is to bulimia. Other purging methods include excessive exercise, laxative use or fasting. This is important to note because there are many people, specifically young girls who over exercise or use physical activity as a means to compensate for eating or punish themselves for eating ‘too much’ or eating ‘bad foods’. Know that it’s not normal or healthy to go on runs after every meal or exercise for 3 hours straight. Breaking down the notions we have around eating disorders makes it easier to recognise these harmful behaviours in ourselves and our loved ones.
- There is no ‘poster girl’ for eating disorders. The image that comes to mind of fair skin wrapped around a body consisting of mostly rib cage and protruding hip bones is a very harmful and stereotypical one that shuts out the stories of a lot of peoples’ suffering and prevents many from accepting that they have an eating disorder at all. You can have a healthy body, be overweight, be black, be a male or be 47 years old and have an eating disorder. It is not about looking a certain way but about the harmful habits and negative relationship you have with food, exercise and your body. No one should ever feel as though they won’t be believed if they speak up or won’t have access to recovery because they don’t fit the eating disorder mould.
- Recovery isn’t easy, but it is possible. Undoing oftentimes years of disordered eating habits and self-hatred is not a walk in the park. Recovery is an every day battle with your thoughts, fighting to relinquish harmful behaviours and ideas. Something as simple as taking a rest day, eating a meal cooked by someone else or a piece of cake at a party may be monumental in your recovery journey. Remember not to compare it to anyone else’s journey and to never give up on yourself if you find yourself falling back into old habits. Speaking up and telling friends or family what you are going through is the first step (after accepting it yourself). Then seeing a therapist, attending group sessions or even checking into a rehabilitation facility may follow.
The following are places you contact that offer services that can help you on your journey to recovery.
- RecoverySpace.org as described by Eating disorder Hope, ‘is an online resource for those struggling with eating disorders throughout South Africa. This includes local articles and referrals to treatment centres throughout the country, including those in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Pretoria.’
- The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) on 011 234 4837 or 0800 20 50 26