A reminder that an eating disorder isn’t a choice

Girl with Tape over Mouth --- Image by © Corbis
Girl with Tape over Mouth — Image by © Corbis

Recently comments were made by broadcaster Joan Bakewell, who outrageously claimed that ‘you don’t find people with Anorexia and Bulimia in Syria’ and went on to say that they are caused by ‘narcissism’ as people are now very self-concerned and self-absorbed, meaning these self-inflicted, self-indulgent eating disorders are inevitably now a ‘modern day’ illness. She’s since apologised after plenty of backlash from sufferers and those who have been through an eating disorder like me, who kindly pointed out to her that she was way, way off the mark with these wildly inconsiderate allegations.

The problem with this is that people with eating disorders already face plenty of backlash from ignorant people in their day-to-day lives. This ‘well you could just eat so don’t be so bloody selfish/ungrateful’ mentality is unfortunately shared by lots of people, young and old, who don’t properly understand what an eating disorder is like and how it affects someone. In fact, many mental illnesses are misunderstood in this way, because people think there is an element of choice involved. I often was told to ‘just eat’ or that I was being ‘selfish’ or ‘self-obsessed’.

Although Bakewell has since apologised and says she recognises that actually the things she said were hurtful, false and far from reality, the damage has already been done. What public comments (made by prominent people) like this do is reinforce the mistaken beliefs people hold about Anorexia and Bulimia, so they believe they’re justified then to try and ‘guilt’ a person into recovery by saying things like ‘you’ve got lots of food here, but they have nothing in third world countries, don’t be so wasteful’, or ‘you could eat and you choose not to, but think about all the people who can’t’ ‘people are so concerned with how they look these days’. The saddest thing for me is that her opinion mirrors that of many of a certain generation who inadvertently make recovery very difficult for someone really struggling with Anorexia or Bulimia.

Why is an eating disorder not a choice?

These mistaken opinions all come from one root cause – ignorance. And where eating disorders are concerned ignorance often manifests itself in the form of people assuming an eating disorder is a choice, or that the person involved has a choice in the matter and therefore wilfully decides not to eat – much to the inconvenience and frustration of everyone round them. And then they go taking up resources on the NHS and make themselves incredibly poorly. How selfish.

An eating disorder, like any other mental or physical health issue, is not contracted through choice. Nobody decides to get an eating disorder. They’re deadly and they’re a horrendous thing to go through – with lasting consequences for many. The idea that people are ‘playing up’ or ‘being selfish’ is just plain wrong – and it’s not something that should be publicly voiced to a large audience by someone who knows absolutely nothing about what it’s like to go through an eating disorder first-hand.

Anorexia and Bulimia aren’t ‘new’. Like many mental illnesses, learning difficulties and conditions such as Autism and ADHD, eating disorders are often made out to be ‘new’, when in fact they’ve afflicted people for hundreds of years, yet back then they weren’t recognised officially or treated appropriately. Years ago people with acute mental illness were packed off to asylums and concealed from the outside world, and those who could hide it did so for fear of being ostracised. And I’m pretty sure that there are plenty of people in refugee camps struggling with all sorts of mental illnesses, including eating disorders, as a consequence of the trauma they have been through and the dire living conditions and situation they are in.

So a little more consideration and sensitivity please Ms Bakewell. And a reminder that when you don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s best not to open your mouth at all.

 

If you liked this blog, take a look at When will people realise eating disorders aren’t aesthetic?

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