Chances are we all know someone who has been affected by eating disorders or disordered-eating patterns if we, ourselves, haven’t experienced it firsthand through periods of our lives. Eating disorders in the United States affect 5-10 million people and funding for research on eating disorders is minimal at best.
Not only is funding less prevalent, but negative attitudes toward eating disorders as well as misconceptions can be immensely damaging and isolating to an individual who suffers from an eating disorder. It seems when stigmas and assumptions are created out of misconception, empathetic understanding and support are replaced with negativity causing further damage.
From “See Me” Scotland’s national campaign to end stigma and discrimination associated with mental disorders:
• Eating disorders are often intensely private, and hidden from view. When it becomes clear that something is wrong, people often get cruel comments, and a lack of understanding from people who do not have adequate information to be supportive.
• Sometimes stigma is motivated by fear of the unknown, such as in schizophrenia. For eating disorders, one of the most important aspects to the stigma is disgust.
• Because the consequences of eating problems are often visible, onlookers tend to find it so hard to feel any empathy or understanding with the behavior that they react by stigmatizing.
• Verbal abuse, or comment is very common. Often people are called names, or their appearance is remarked upon. This abuse comes from friends, family, and even passers by in the street. This type of stigma is especially damaging because eating disorders are so closely linked to body image and self-esteem, the main targets of comments.
• The term “anorexic” has started to become a common adjective to describe very slim people, which can lead to a misunderstanding of what it is really like to have anorexia nervosa.
• Eating disorders are often described as a modern day problem, arising from the catwalk culture of the last thirty years. Although images in the media have been shown to influence some people’s body image, clinically significant eating disorders were first described by Physician and Minister John Reynolds in 1669 and Philosopher Thomas Hobbes in 1688.
• Eating disorders are sometimes dismissed as phases or fads, not serious and something that a person will just grow out of. Eating disorders have many long-term physical and psychological consequences. Anorexia nervosa carries a 13% mortality rate, from physical complications and suicide.
• Eating disorders are often thought of as middle class attention seeking behaviour, something that wilful teenagers do, that could be sorted by eating properly for a few weeks. This is not the case. Eating disorders are very complicated, deeply held routines that for the person involved seem like a perfectly logical way of coping with a difficult situation by controlling one aspect of life. Returning to a more conventional relationship with food may take years, and careful support.
And to further clarify, I want to also say that eating disorders are not really about food. What? Eating disorders aren’t about food and eating? No, eating disorders are much more complicated, and assuming it only has to do with difficulties with food minimizes the felt toxicity in an individual with an eating disorder. This targets the behavior without questioning it.
If it’s not food, then what is it? If eating disorders are thought more in terms of coping mechanisms, or ways to self-soothe/-medicate, or even as defenses for larger problems then maybe it would be more useful to look at them as addictions. Addictions come in all shapes, forms, and sizes. Addictions help people dissociate or “check out” of life, or problems at hand. Unfortunately, the instant gratification of an addiction seems to only increase longer lasting damages and critical views of the self.
Factors that can lead to eating disorders from the National Eating Disorders Association:
- Psychological factors that can contribute to eating disorders:
- Low self-esteem
- Feelings of inadequacy or lack of control in life
- Depression, anxiety, anger, or loneliness
- Interpersonal factors that can contribute to eating disorders:
- Troubled family and personal relationships
- Difficulty expressing emotions and feelings
- History of being teased or ridiculed based on size or weight
- History of physical or sexual abuse
- Social factors that can contribute to eating disorders:
- Narrow definitions of beauty that include only women and men of specific body weights and shapes
- Cultural norms that value people on the basis of physical appearance and not inner qualities and strengths
- Other factors that can contribute to eating disorders:
- Scientists are still researching possible biochemical or biological causes of eating disorders. In some individuals with eating disorders, certain chemicals in the brain that control hunger, appetite, and digestion have been found to be imbalanced. The exact meaning and implications of these imbalances remains under investigation.
- Eating disorders often run in families. Current research is indicates that there are significant genetic contributions to eating disorders.
Why art therapy in the treatment of eating disorders? Art therapy helps reveal truths that may be difficult to verbalize for individuals with eating disorders.
“When we speak, we are taught to be polite in a way that compromises the truth,” says Mirasol art therapist Donita Dixon. “But in art, there’s no way to lie. When I ask someone to make a drawing, the truth is there, and the subconscious puts it on paper.” –Mirasol Eating Disorder Treatment Center.
The art creates a space of expression when words are difficult to find or even fail. Non-verbal expression allows the therapist to listen and see the patient without the use of any words on the client’s part. In many instances, being seen (understood) is therapeutic in itself. Aside from the understanding elicited in the therapist from the clients’ revealing nonverbal expression, the support and containment provided by the therapist can create a safe, controlled, and less threatening environment for a patient with an eating disorder to explore and gain insight into the disorder.
To sum all this up:
- You probably know someone who suffers from an eating disorder or eating-disordered patterns.
- Eating disorders seem to be grossly misunderstood and underestimated.
- Eating disorders are not about difficulties with food.
- Many factors in development can contribute to eating disorders.
- Art therapy can be beneficial as an outlet and safe environment to explore the roots and toxicity of the disorder.
[all photographic images from Eating Disorders Art @ Flickr]