Joyce Fegan: Dismantling society’s murky immersion in diet culture

Counting steps, commenting on other people's bodies, and congratulating people on restricting their energy intake all feed into an illness that takes lives and rules lives
Joyce Fegan: Dismantling society’s murky immersion in diet culture

Nikki Grahame, with her award for Most Popular TV Contender, at the National Television Awards 2006 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The ‘Big Brother’ star died last Friday, at the age of 38, having just left treatment for an eating disorder.

The death of Big Brother star Nikki Grahame seemed to pass without much notice over here.

The 2006 Big Brother star died last Friday, at the age of 38, having just left treatment for an eating disorder — an illness she had been affected by for 30 years.

We devoured her life and struggles when she was alive, her photos sold the tabloid magazines that we bought, and behind all of it there was a real-life woman suffering from an illness known to many.

In the same week as her death, we obsessed over filtered and unfiltered images of the Kardashians, trashing them for altering their own image, something which drew our notice in the first place and kept us coming back for more.

And in the same week, we have celebrities popping up on our social media feed days and months after giving birth and what is it we congratulate them for? The loss of the baby weight, of course.

We are absolutely obsessed with weight, size, shape, the human outline, frame, aesthetic. 

We talk about it like the weather, we offer up unsolicited comments about others' appearance, we quiz people about the fad diet they lost x amount of adipose tissue on and then congratulate them for their loss.

And at the same time, the pandemic has seen a sharp rise in people suffering from eating disorders both here and in England, especially children.

Yet we seem to be able to achieve some kind of gymnastic cognitive split in divorcing our diet talk from the existence of eating disorders in our communities and families.

In Ireland, Bodywhys — the Eating Disorder Association of Ireland, has noted an increase in eating disorder behaviour due to the pandemic.

"The pandemic has impacted and intensified people’s behaviours, thoughts, and feelings and, ultimately, their lived experience of eating disorders," said Bodywhys.

And people who had previously recovered from the illness reported having resurfacing thoughts, said the organisation.

"It has affected people’s thinking in relation to, and experience of, recovery and relapse. For instance, old or prior eating disorders thoughts coming back to the surface, a sense the eating disorder has re-emerged which brings up feelings of punishment, letting yourself down," said Bodywhys.

Another key issue affecting people is the "environment" becoming more stressful: "this is a mixture of factors, such as diet talk/fitness routines on social media, a focus on constant self-improvement, and casual food or weight talk from others".

'Tsunami' of eating disorder patients

In England, psychiatrists have warned of a “tsunami” of eating disorder patients amid data showing soaring numbers of people experiencing eating disorders during the pandemic.

Agnes Ayton, the chair of the Eating Disorder Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK, said the number of people experiencing problems had risen sharply with eating disorders thriving in the isolation of lockdown.

“We expect the tsunami [of patients] is still coming. We don’t think it has been and gone," said the psychiatrist.

Dr Ayton said that in Oxford, where she works, about 20% of people admitted were usually urgent referrals but this proportion has risen to 80%.

She also said there were “unhelpful” messages around “weight loss and exercise” targeted at obesity “but triggering to those with existing difficulties”.

And if you look at scientific research on eating disorders and their cause, it is often linked to trauma, and the behaviours are an attempt to regulate oneself and cope.

Numerous studies indicate that people with eating disorders report a history of childhood trauma more frequently than the general population.

Irish designer Sarah Murphy has spoken openly about her experience with an eating disorder and her recovery. She gives educational talks and has engaged with politicians on the issue.

Trauma link

Recently on social media, she spoke about the link between trauma and eating disorders.

"It [post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)] is a side of eating disorders that's rarely discussed, and it's far more common than you might think, with nearly one in three women with an eating disorder also suffering from PTSD, almost exclusively related to trauma arising from sexual assault or rape," said the designer. "You can't really have a conversation about eating disorders without talking about it.

"It might not fit with the standard narrative around eating disorders. We live in a world obsessed with diet culture so I understand that it is easier for people to see eating disorders in that same light, and for some sufferers those societal pressures do impact them, and there are lots of people with an eating disorder for whom PTSD is not a factor. But for many it is the truth of their reality," said Ms Murphy.

She marries two points — trauma and diet culture.

We rarely link or talk about the role of trauma when it comes to eating disorders. 

And our society bathes in a warm, murky bath of diet culture, where thin has become synonymous with health, not your blood markers, heart rate, or social or emotional wellbeing.

We need to undo the cognitive split we've managed to master and remember that counting steps, commenting on other people's bodies, and congratulating people on restricting their energy intake all feed into an illness that takes lives and rules lives.


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