The UK Has An Eating Disorder Epidemic. How Do We Stop It?

photographed by Eylul Aslan.
The number of people seeking hospital admission for potentially life-threatening eating disorders has doubled in the past six years. According to new research published by The Guardian, that number soared to 13,885 in the year to April 2017, up from 7,260 in the period 2010-11. Alarmingly, these are the highest figures in a decade. And they may not even give us the full picture. Director of External Affairs at the eating disorders charity Beat, Tom Quinn, says that many other people will be living with an eating disorder but be undiagnosed, receiving outpatient treatment or no treatment at all. That is to say that the incidence of eating disorders in Britain could be even higher than these statistics indicate.
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Drawing on figures from NHS Digital, journalist Sarah Marsh wrote that “a surge in the number of teenage girls and women in their early 20s lies behind the dramatic rise”. In the year to April 2017, admissions for people under the age of 19 soared from 1,050 to 2,025. Beat agrees that the most vulnerable age group is between 13 and 17. This has long been and continues to be a particularly vulnerable demographic when it comes to eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Experts agree that we are failing these young people, abandoning them through lack of funding, a shortage of beds and a pervasive misunderstanding of the illnesses they suffer.
In response to The Guardian story, founding leader of the Women’s Equality Party, Sophie Walker, tweeted:
As a survivor of anorexia, I always find these stories particularly harrowing. Equally, I am profoundly relieved when someone in a position of power shows some sign of anger, hope and resolve. I got Sophie Walker on the phone to find out a little more about her vision for treating eating disorders. She, like so many of us, recognises how dire the funding situation is and calls for better support for the NHS and specialist services. But – and this is a nuance many politicians wilfully ignore – the situation with eating disorders is more complex than that. As well as desperately needed resources, we have to address the social triggers for these disorders, including the subjugation of women that inspires them to vanish by starvation.
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“We need an understanding of where these conditions are coming from,” Sophie says. “There are more than 28 published studies that prove media images have a direct impact on how we view our bodies, and negative body image puts a person at greater risk of an eating disorder. There are currently 1.6 million people with an eating disorder in the UK and something like 90% of them are female. This is a gendered issue.”
Anorexia is the deadliest mental health condition in the world. Twenty per cent of anorexia sufferers will die prematurely because of their condition, their bodies and minds ravaged by a cruel illness that so often gets mistaken for a diet. It does affect men, but the overwhelming majority of victims are female, which should prompt us to ask: what are we doing wrong that so many women, particularly young ones, want to endanger their lives just to shrink their bodies?
“We need to urgently examine the limits we put on women and the oppression of women and young girls. We are routinely belittling women to the extent that they literally want to be as small as possible,” Sophie says.
Here, she echoes something I’ve been thinking about since my years as an anorexic young woman. Research suggests that anorexia has genetic roots and that some people may even be predisposed to the illness, but it is also exacerbated by the pressure we put on women to be perfect, to be shiny, to be thin. When we strip women of their autonomy over their own bodies and lives – by ignoring their complaints about sexual abuse, taking away their reproductive rights, dictating how they should behave and look – we create an environment in which they crave control. Sometimes, that inspires them to restrict their eating, cut out food groups, count calories obsessively, binge, purge, starve and weigh themselves to measure the space in which they take up on this planet. They are forced to equate their physical presence with their moral significance, and it’s extremely dangerous. They feel they must be diminutive because they are told they are not worthy of respect or agency, and so they take that anxiety out on their bodies.
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We must, according to Sophie, fight this epidemic of eating disorders with feminism.
“My vision here is to use feminism, to design politics to reach the vulnerable and the marginalised. Funding for social care is dropping to one per cent of the GDP and that is not acceptable. Feminism values social care. Feminism sees women. Feminism wants to get to the root of anorexia and work from there. We’ve just seen the Me Too movement, which has been brilliant for voicing women’s experiences. In the same way that sexual assault is about power, eating disorders are about power. They’re about not having power. We need a similar movement in society to understand what is going on here, where it comes from, and what we can do to protect women.”
Every time distressing statistics come out, like the ones published by The Guardian, we have an opportunity to capitalise on the shock they cause to affect real change. Please, this time, may we listen to people like Sophie Walker and urgently campaign for greater understanding, increased compassion and better resources.
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