But what effect are these campaigns having on those with eating disorders?
When you are ill with an eating disorder you often find as many ways as you can to justify your behaviours to yourself-you tell yourself ‘I’m just being healthy; it’s fine-being overweight is so bad for you so I have to do everything I can to avoid it happening to me‘. Of course, this becomes much easier when you are constantly exposure to messages which tell you how fat the nation is, how many frightening health consequences are associated with obesity and how we’re all going to die young from obesity-related consequences. Scary statistics are printed on the front of newspapers and billboards everywhere; and alongside them come the government guidelines on how many calories we should eat and how much exercise we should be doing. These guidelines and the press coverage of how obese the nation is make thrilling reading for the sufferer; firstly it confirms their distorted view of themselves; yes they really are just fat and lazy because the government has just told them so, secondly, the association made between being overweight and suffering horrible health consequences as a result further adds to their intense fear of fatness and their view that fat people are lazy and undesirable whilst the guidelines on calorie consumption and exercise can be manipulated by the sufferer to ensure maximum weight loss. The dieting and exercise advice which often accompanies these reports on obesity instantly attracts a sufferer and we have ended up with a situation where the local newsagent can become a pro-anorexic haven to those already suffering with an eating disorder.
The notion that anti-obesity campaigns provide a source of ‘justification’ for eating disordered related behaviours isn’t a particularly new one; in 2008 researchers (Burns and Gavey, 2008) found that amongst their sample of bulimic women, several concluded that their purging behaviours were ‘healthy’ as they provided a means of weight management and remaining slim. In a society which is frequently faced with a new campaign to help us shed excess pounds we have come to equate ‘healthy’ with weight loss behaviours and dieting and the concept of good health has been distorted and lost amongst the noise of dieting and anti-obesity campaigns.
Obesity is unfortunately a big threat to us; it is associated with heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, reduced mobility and so on. Therefore when the major supermarkets such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s signed up and agreed to start putting food labels with calories, fat, sugar and salt content on the front of every product with their respective GDAs (Guideline Daily Allowances set by the Food Standard Agency), they were applauded and praised for taking such a strong stance in this ‘war’ on obesity. The initiative was really quite straightforward; ‘make people aware of what they are eating and hopefully they will make better choices’. I’m sure for many individuals this ‘front of package’ labelling system had the desired effect and positively impacted their diets. However, for me, the readily available information just helped ‘catalyse’ my anorexic weight loss behaviours as I strived to consume fewer and fewer calories every day. I spent hours walking round the supermarket every single morning reading these labels to work out the lowest in calories and fat versions of the small amount of food items I still deemed acceptable. This ‘food label land’ had me mesmerized and helped me ‘keep on track’ with starving myself.
Similarly, recovery from an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia often involves behaviours which conflict with anti-obesity campaigns. Recovery may involve weight gain and the consumption of foods deemed ‘unhealthy’ to eliminate food-related concerns; both of which are demonized by the public. Eating a high energy diet is an intense struggle for a sufferer as it is, when you add in the guilt and the feeling of ‘badness’ we are taught to associate with weight gain from these campaigns it can feel near enough impossible. Many treatment clinics ask patients to consume foods like chocolate and pizza before they leave as a way of challenging their eating disorder and getting rid of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food categories. However, when they have been repeatedly faced with orders in the past to replace snacks like chocolate with lower calorie items like fruit and the nutritional content is staring them directly in the face the whole task must become much more intimidating and scary than need be.
I recently heard from another recovered anorexic who described how the posters up around her school on healthy eating and exercise led to the ignition of eating disordered related thoughts such as “I’m better than them as I can control my intake”. Recognising that this was not a healthy mind-set for recovery she asked for them to be taken down.
I feel as if there is a need for us to unite and draw attention to the fact that government campaigns can be extremely detrimental to those suffering from eating disorders; we also need to question why the health consequences of being extremely underweight are omitted from such campaigns when in reality being underweight actually poses more immediate dangers to one’s health than being overweight does although both are equally dangerous.
It is clear that whilst obesity rates rise and campaigns to combat it become more high profile, the incidence of anorexia and bulimia also increase and it has left me quite fearful for the future. Anti-obesity campaigns in schools may unknowingly be breeding the potential for eating disorders in susceptible individuals meaning young people will be growing up with a phobia of being fat opening the doorway for anorexic and bulimic behaviours to develop.