Eating disorders have become synonymous with the pressure to be thin from society, emaciated runway models, photoshop and body image issues. While each of these may be facets that contribute to setting off an eating disorder in the sufferer's life, there is more to an eating disorder than weight and an obsession to be thin. Eating disorders are serious illnesses with diagnostic criteria, symptoms and medical complications and cannot simply be defined by the influence of media or external appearance.
Eating disorders are mental illnesses characterized by a severe disruption in thoughts and behaviors specific to each type. There are several categories of eating disorders, the most widely known being Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder. When describing or even spreading awareness for eating disorders, the focus often shifts to the influence of media and the preoccupation with attaining a certain appearance or weight. While these are a part of eating disorders (and the world in general), so much attention is often placed on these aspects that other causes and issues behind these illnesses such as genetics or complex thought processes accompanying an eating disorder can feel as though they are thrown in as an afterthought in comparison. This can falsely represent eating disorders as choices or extreme dieting.
There are various components that factor into the development of an eating disorder, such as genetic and environmental factors, as well as societal influences. Studies show that there is a strong genetic link that predisposes an individual to the development of an eating disorder. The triggers that ignite the eating disorder within the sufferer's brain are unique to the individual. It can be a comment, an image, trauma and an endless list of other possibilities. Dieting can also trigger eating disorder behaviors, but the mechanism behind it is complicated. Often, it is a combination of triggers rather than one specific thing. The images and ideas the media inundates us with as well as pressures to look a certain way can also be contributing factors, but this is not the case for everyone and eating disorders were not created by Hollywood and tabloids.
Psychologist Wade Berrettini explains in his article on eating disorders and genetics that cultural influences contribute to the development of disease, but seem to fail to account for the actual origin of it in the sufferer's life. This seems to suggest that the propensity to develop an eating disorder already exists within the sufferer's brain and certain triggers can set off the disease, with one of those triggers being the societal issues. Berettini also cites the rarity of actual eating disorders compared to dieting behavior and the fact that Anorexia Nervosa can be traced back to the 19th century as evidence that eating disorders are not a product of our modern culture.
Eating disorders are disorders of the brain and the possibility of developing one lies within the individual. No doubt the presentation of thin, beautiful women and use of photoshop have damaging effects, but there are a number of people that feel the weight of these issues that do not have eating disorders.
Additionally, while it is true that body image issues are a part of eating disorders, as many sufferers have a distorted view of themselves, just because an individual has a poor body image or engages in extreme dieting, does not mean they have an eating disorder. Distinguishing between these issues does not diminish the pain and struggle a poor body image can cause or the potential danger of dieting, it just means they are different.
Eating disorders are grossly misunderstood by the general public, which makes education all the more important. Some do not even view eating disorders as diseases, but decisions. Establishing eating disorders as illnesses instead of diets or lifestyles does not diminish the prospect of healing. Just as with any mental illness, with treatment and hard work the sufferer can take back control of their lives. Some can move past their eating disorder and not be ruled by it anymore, even though the eating disorder will always be a part of them in some way. Others may have continued struggles but manage to live normal lives. Still, others may continue to be consumed by their disease. Some will die.
You do not decide to have an eating disorder, but you can choose to get help. With help, there is hope. With hope, there is life.