Monday 22 January 2018

Wishful thinking: The idea of a perfect body poses dangers

Harriet Parsons, a psychotherapist with bodywhys, explains how we all suffer from some degree of disordered eating.

Distress: Angelina Jolie loses weight during times of stress. Photo: Getty
Distress: Angelina Jolie loses weight during times of stress. Photo: Getty
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eating diets

A few years ago Bodywhys ran an awareness campaign focused on disordered eating. The tag line was 'Skipping meals, fasting, over-exercising, vomiting: Sometimes life gets complicated'.

On the surface, this was highlighting a very simple fact, that in some way or another, we all have a disordered relationship to how we feed ourselves. Nobody eats in the same way every day.

Eating disorders are often thought of with trepidation and confusion. How can we understand that someone might starve themselves into an emaciated physical state?

Well, if we think of ourselves, the way we feel does influence how we feed ourselves. A guy breaks up with a girl, and her friends rally around with ice-cream tubs to help her feel better, to help her talk it out.

Nothing about that seems out of the ordinary, and it isn't. We can very easily understand this link between feeling a certain way, and eating a certain way.

diets graphic
diets graphic

However, as with all things in life, nothing is ever as simple as it seems, and the basic idea that was being highlighted in the awareness campaign was actually raising a much more important issue.


Sometimes, life does get complicated, and this 'normal' disordered eating, also, can become very complicated - to the point where a person loses all sense of who they are, and becomes very ill as their whole life is played how they do or do not feed themselves.

It may be quite easy to flick through this body image survey and think: 'Well, women aren't that satisfied with how they look or their weight, so what's new?'

But thinking through some key aspects of what this survey is telling us is incredibly important for understanding how women think about themselves, how they see themselves in the world, and what is it about this world that we live in that influences how they think and feel about themselves.

This issue - how each and every one of us thinks and feels about ourselves - is what produces the collective in which we all have to find a space.

While we are looking at averages and percentages throughout the survey, we can't ignore that an overarching normative discontent with ourselves is providing fertile ground in which conditions such as eating disorders thrive.

Just in case this does not seem important, let's remind ourselves that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric disorders, and that the female mortality rate for anorexia is 30 times the female suicide rate.

So let's stop and think about what we can learn from this survey.

At the end of the survey of 1,000 women, five particular questions were asked, and for every 'yes' answer a point was given. Two or more points raises the suspicion for an eating disorder.

The five questions are known as the SCOFF questionnaire, and are a tool used to give an idea of the level of concern a professional should have about an individual and their eating habits. Thirty percent of respondents to our survey answered 'yes' to three, four or five questions.

Twenty percent answered 'yes' to three questions. So, although only five people surveyed actually identified themselves as having an eating disorder, the survey shows that 300 of our respondents would raise serious concern about their eating habits if they were sitting in front of a GP.

The aspect that jumps out from the survey is that there is a very clear discontent amongst those surveyed about how they see themselves in the world, but not about how they think the world sees them.

Eighty two percent of people surveyed wanted to look good for themselves, rather than for anybody else, and only 30pc felt that their partner would find them more attractive if they changed body shape. Fifty per cent said it would make no difference.

What this survey is telling us is that our body image is not just about how we look, or how we think we look to the rest of our world, it is much more than that.

Body image is tied up with our sense of self, of how we feel about ourselves, our sense of self-worth and our capacity to live our lives in the way we wish.

Eighty seven percent of people surveyed said they would feel more confident with themselves if they achieved their ideal body shape, 74pc said they would feel healthier, and 70pc said they would be happier.

It is this point that offers another interesting idea to unpick, because isn't this what the distorted simplistic message that every beauty product, new diet, and health craze is telling us? 'Lose weight and you will be happy!'

If only it was that simple!

But, it is this simple, insidious message that is one of the core causes for the normative discontent that we are all susceptible to, and by all, I don't only mean people in their 20s, 30s, 40s. I mean children, teenagers, and people in their 60s and 70s.


We can gloss over this; we can say it has always been like this and it's never going to change. Or we can begin to take responsibility for it, and begin to think about how we can help our young people build resilience within themselves.

We all need to build resilience in ourselves, we need to complicate the message and communicate that being happy isn't an end point, it is something fleeting and it certainly isn't dependent solely on looking a certain way.

Body image, how we see ourselves in the world, is something that is built up in us from the world around us. Layer upon layer of clues we take from the world we are born into help us to form an image of who we are, right from the moment we are born.

We appear in the delivery room and immediately the narritive is something like 'she has her daddy's eyes' - so 'she' grows up believing she has her daddy's eyes. She doesn't form this opinion herself - we all take on our sense of who we are from outside ourselves.

In this way, it is up to each and every one of us to filter the message that an ideal is the magic answer to our suffering.

We must stop and think about what we have taken on, and what messages we carry for those around us, because wouldn't it be an easier world if there was a normative contentment and satisfaction with ourselves?

Harriet Parsons is services co-ordinator with Bodywhys - The Eating Disorders Association of Ireland; www.bodywhys.ie; Helpline: 1890 200 444; Email Support: alex@bodywhys.ie

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