Time to put our eating disorders on the menu

By Joyce Fegan

Shame and stigma have always been the big silencers in our society, but as a people, we have shown time and time again that we have the courage to blow many whistles.

We havecome a long way in Ireland. We are now in a position where we can have public conversations about anxiety, depression, and even alcoholism.

Ruby Tandoh: A contestant on ‘Great British Bake Off’ who has just released the acclaimed cookbook, ‘Eat Up’. Tandoh, having suffered from an eating disorder, decided to write a shame-free manifesto about eating and has sparked debate.

As musicians, athletes, and politicians openly discuss their own mental health challenges, decades of collective stigma slowly begin to slide away.

These testimonies, publicised through traditional and social medium of radio, newspapers, TV and social media, validate the experiences of private citizens who then carry the conversation to their own kitchen tables.

As a society, we have progressed from one that condemned a person who died by suicide as a sinner to one where tens of thousands of us don yellow T-shirts and walk from darkness into light each year.

Shame and stigma have always been the big silencers in our society, but as a people, we have shown time and time again that we have the courage to blow many whistles.

Last week, in the space of four days, I had separate conversations with two people who had suffered from a severe eating disorder. One, aged 71, is a public figure in Irish life and the other, 33, runs a well-known business. Both are now fully recovered and neither fit the stereotype of a severely underweight teenage girl.

When are we going to start talking about eating disorders with the same frankness we have brought to depression, anxiety, and alcoholism?

Next Monday marks the start of Eating Disorder Awareness week and according to the Department of Health, 200,000 people in Ireland suffer from an eating disorder — that is one in 20 people.

So what do these one in 20 look like?If we drill down into the national data, we see that the majority of people reaching out for help are aged 36 and older.

A total of 46% of sufferers have lived with the condition for 10 years or more. And it is not just women.

Bodywhys, the eating disorder association of Ireland, which collects the data, found that 10% of the people who contact them for help are male.

Harriet Parsons the organisation’s training and development manager, said the real figure of male sufferers is higher. Furthermore, when it comes to binge-eating disorder, it is estimated that there are as many male sufferers as female.

Last month, a new cookbook came out which has sent waves around the world. It has been written about in the Washington Post, has hit the bestseller list and yet it only comes with a handful of recipes, one of them being a soup made primarily from tinned tomatoes.

Eat Up, by Ruby Tandoh, a former Great British Bake Off contestant, has been heralded as a revelation.

This young woman, having suffered from an eating disorder, decided to write a shame-free manifesto about eating, and in doing so she has struck up an international conversation.

We may not all have direct or even indirect experience with eating disorders, but how many of us label our food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’? On your social media feeds, how often do you see a fanned avocado placed next to the perfectly poached egg?

Or when was the last time you confessed your sin and called yourself ‘bold’ because you had a croissant from the petrol station for breakfast instead of your usual pinhead porridge?

Ms Parsons, from Bodywhys, has something to say about this.

“None of us eat the same everyday, how we feel affects how we feed ourselves — this is what we would call ‘normal disordered eating’ and where a person crosses over into ‘eating disorder territory’ is when ‘compulsion’ comes into play — when the person feels compelled to, (they have to) eat a certain way or else or else they will ‘get fat’ and be a ‘terrible’ person, they will be ‘lazy’; all those negatives words. This is when you are talking about an eating disorder, and not just normal disordered eating.”

Food plays a huge physical, social, and emotional role in all of our lives. We need it to survive, first and foremost, to fuel our bodies to carry out all the activities that go on beneath the surface of our skin, not to mention the things we do each day like walk, talk, study, or work.

Food marks out our day, we break our night-long fast upon waking, a few hours later, even if we are at our desks, we pause to eat again, and then in the evening we share a meal with family or a loved one.

Socially, we meet friends for dinner and celebrate birthdays and weddings with cakes.

Emotionally, we make each other cups of tea and hand over biscuits in order to conduct an important conversation. We cannot underestimate the role that food plays in our lives.

And yet, when it comes to eating disorders, it is not about food at all, that is just the outward manifestation or the symptom of the condition.

Eating disorders emerge from a place of “not good enough” or “I am not OK as I am”. With these thoughts come the pursuit of perfection, be that through restriction, over-exercising or so-called clean eating, which can then swing to bingeing and purging behaviours.

These compulsive behaviours are further fuelled by the bombardment of images we see in films and TV shows, billboard ads, and on our Instagram feeds — photos of muscular human bodies that have been filtered to perfection.

Irishwoman Sarah Doyle delivered an inspired TEDx talk about this very topic last year called “How to Love your Body”.

She details her experience of overcoming an eating disorder. When she talks to people now who suffer from poor body image or an eating disorders, she asks them to stop talking, lift their arms up, and place a hand over their chest.

As they feel the repetitive beat of their faithful heart against the palm of their hand, she asks them: “Since when was that not enough?”

Eating Disorders Awareness Week takes place from February 26 to March 4.

Bodywhys — the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland: bodywhys.ie

Tel: 01 2834963 Helpline: 1890 200 444 Email support: alex@bodywhys.ie

Eating Disorder Centre Cork:


021 4539900, Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm. Email: info@edcc.ie

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