When body image isn't seen as a 'real' problem

Ninety per cent of 12-17 year old girls have been on a diet of some description, which would indicate dieting and image ...

Ninety per cent of 12-17 year old girls have been on a diet of some description, which would indicate dieting and image obsession are now normal.

"In light of all the people in the world living with disabilities and serious illnesses, your obsession with your appearance is inexcusable."

"And that'd be a first world problem right there.....
Perhaps if you moved to a developing or third world nation you'd have other things to concern yourself with."

"Surely we have something better to talk about at this point than the shape of our bodies and the clothes we put on them?"

Despite the Butterfly Foundation stating that eating disorders are highly complex and serious mental and physical illnesses; despite the mortality rate for anorexia being 15-20 per cent; and despite body image disturbance being recognised as a significant mental and physical health issue – the comments above, (plucked from a variety of Daily Life posts on body image), suggest there are plenty of people who think body image is not a 'real' problem.


And that pisses me off. Really. Because 90 per cent of 12-17 year old girls and 68 per cent of 12–17 year old boys have been on a diet of some description (The Butterfly Foundation), which would indicate dieting and image obsession are now normal.

"You are indeed fortunate - or perhaps not - if you have the time to analyse and ruminate over such an issue."

Do these desk chair commentators really grasp that idea? Do they really understand the years of trauma and obsession many of these teenage dieters will go on to suffer, along with their families?  Do they really think anyone chooses that kind of life for themselves?

I don’t expect sympathy, and I certainly don’t expect total understanding. But is it too much to ask that men, women and children suffering from heinous body-image disorders be able to live their lives and seek help, without coming across views such as this? :

"Watch Bulgaria's Abandoned Children and issues such as those covered in this article really get put into perspective."

Let me tell you I would have given anything back when I was sick to have just stopped it, to focus on 'real' problems and break the routine I was accustomed to repeating every single day. I’d give anything to not still be facing the repercussions of my daily life back then, every single day, right now.

Recently, when I gained the nerve to tell someone close to me that I was still getting treatment to deal with the psychological effects of eating disorders, their response to the fact that there was a time I did not eat was; “That was silly’’. 

Yes. It was f*cking silly! Sand-papering my hips (which is basically trying to show your hip bones by using sand-paper to grind down the skin), sneaking out of my house to go for runs at 3am, poisoning my food so I couldn’t eat even if I wanted to, breaking bones in my foot through malnutrition and over-exercise, losing my hair, being unable to leave the house, hiding treatment from my family (and footing the bill as a poor university student), spending hours and hours each day making myself sick to the point of exhaustion and blacking out aren’t just silly behaviours. They’re embarrassing.

They are also are real, traumatising and agonising. They’re not a choice. They’re the result of a serious illness, the causes of which are complex and not always to do with wanting to be thin or to look like a model. That’s right - sometimes, those two factors have nothing to do with body image disorders at all.

Make no mistake, the media, magazines and models play a powerful role in many body-image cases. A study published in the open-access journal, PLoS One, found  viewing one type of figure, either smaller or larger, increased women’s preference for that body type, regardless of whether they were depicted as something to aspire to or not.

The lead author of report, Linda Boothroyd, said, ''this really gives us some food for thought about the power of exposure to super-slim bodies. Furthermore, it seems that even so-called ‘cautionary’ images against anorexia might still increase our liking for thinner bodies, such as those featuring the late French model Isabelle Caro, which is a sobering thought.”

I'm glad there are people who have never experienced the kinds of life experiences that lead to poor, distorted body image issues and disordered eating. It’s a shame some of these individuals assume the problem is insignificant, purely because it is predominantly occurring in the 'first-world'.

"Being thin is healthier than being fat and it opens more doors, nuff said."

But it's even worse that they choose to voice their opinions via ignorant comments below articles on body image issues. Articles people suffering from these disorders might consult, desperate for some understanding and solidarity in the lonely world of mental illness.

The Butterfly Foundation: 1800 334 673.

Melissa Davey is a health reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald.

Follow Melissa on Twitter: @MelissaLDavey


  • "They’re not a choice"

    The illness that our society perpetuates is this incredible idea - that people perform any voluntarily actions without making a choice to do so.

    See your arm, right there, connected to your shoulder? It doesn't do anything unless you tell it to!

    Date and time
    November 15, 2012, 9:04AM
    • While you have a point here Christian, I think it is too simplistic. You can't deny the role of anxiety and compulsive behaviour to reduce anxiety in shaping some people's behaviour.

      Miss C
      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 9:44AM
    • And by the way. this is speaking as a man who has suffered from anorexia in my early teens until my early 20s.

      Ultimately I recovered, learning to eat properly and to accept my body for what it is, not because I had some special treatment and certainly not because anyone wanted to help me. Yet I still managed to come to understand over several years that I needed to take responsibility for my choices and *I* needed to make the right ones, instead of pretending, blindly against all evidence, that it wasn't really a problem or when I knew it was a problem, that I couldn't help myself.

      The power to make the right decision is always inside each person - even if they've been taught and sucked into the myth that they're helpless to make decisions.

      They need support, yes, god I wish I had had some, but at any moment when the support is given in a way that allows the sufferer to avoid responsibility for their choices, you're facilitating and perpetuating their illness, NOT helping them.

      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 9:53AM
    • Miss C - absolutely those emotions play a huge part, I know this from first hand experience.

      But the problem I think is the exact reverse of you suggest I'm guilty of - that we actually way overcomplicate these issues. That's often one of the manifestations of the kind of extreme anxiety we're talking about - a deep-seated feeling that issues we are facing are terribly complicated and don't have an easy, or even any, solution.

      Again, it's these feeling of helplessless that are the problem and which need to be overcome by taking self-responsibility for, and actually making, choices. Pretending you don't have a choice is the exact opposite of solving the problem.

      What we then find, is that the solution is astounding simple - when it comes time to eat, make the conscious choice right then to eat properly. Next meal time, make the same decision. And again, and again each mealtime. Before long, our habits are changed. It's only that our anxiety and mistaken beliefs that it can't possibly be that simple that prevents us making the good food choices which anyone is capable of making.

      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 10:16AM
    • Christian, I don't know your story, but I was bordering on an eating disorder for years. Never had any treatment. I binged and purged, starved myself, exercised compulsively, and hated myself, my entire life revolved around food and it was an obsession that just consumed me. As I said, never treated so never formally diagnosed, but the messed up way I thought and behaved leads me to believe that that was what was happening.

      I recovered, pretty much by making the same choices that you did. I had to decide for myself that I would be fine no matter what size I was, and no matter what my mother thought of me (my mother was an anorexic). However, looking at how my mother continues to suffer some (milder) symptoms at the age of 60, and considering that people actually starve themselves to death with these issues, how can you say the issues for some people are not complex and probably worse than yours? When people commit suicide in other ways do you have the same views as you do with this one?

      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 10:50AM
    • Christian, I do agree with you that most people do have the power to choose behaviours that lead a happy and healthy life. I am so pleased to hear that this has worked for you in your battle with anorexia.
      I do, however, disagree with the notion that people choose to be mentally unwell/suffer from an eating disorder. People are capable of extraordinary behaviours to alleviate their anxiety above and beyond disordered eating. These include checking, washing and pulling out their hair. I think the assumption that people "choose" to do these things and therefore can "choose" not to is a simplistic theory that ignores the complex psychological factors at play. It also belittles people who do want to stop but can't.
      Once again, I think it is so so fantastic that you have overcome your eating disorder by empowering yourself to make healthy decisions about food. I would just hate to generalise this by saying what has worked for you will also work for a diverse population of people.

      Miss C
      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 11:25AM
    • Sally, the reason I can say that, is because of what I have learnt about the nature of anxiety.

      Anxiety is an bio-chemical emotional state in the brain that exists to cause us to hesitate, to inhibit action and to question our own perceptions and model of the world before making a decision. In general, its a useful emotional function, designed to save our lives, prevent us making bad decisions and to look before we leap.

      The problem is when we get in the habit of automatically reacting with anxiety whenever we start thinking about something. That's basically what food anxiety related disorders are about. The result is, people end up constantly feel anxious and constantly questioning themselves, going around and round in circles, unable to make a decision due to their state of high anxiety every time they think about food, or their weight or their appearance etc.

      Certainly some people end up with more severe cases, and unfortunately some even commit suicide because they can't handle the constant anxiety anymore.

      The bio-chemical effect of the anxiety emotion is normally balanced in the brain by effect of the opposing emotional state, what we commonly call confidence. Confidence is chemically triggered by decision-making - this normally occurs even if the decision turns out to be bad, only because a bad decision helps us develop up our models of cause-and-effect and we can therefore better predict the outcome next time we make the same decision.

      What this means, is that anxiety and compulsive behaviours can be overcome by simply making conscious decisions about the issue, because over time this retrains the brain to decrease the anxiety response and replaces it with confidence. It's actually the only way permanent way to fix this issue.

      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 1:04PM
    • Can I just say, No-one "chooses" a mental illness, including an eating disorder. Christian, you & your ilk just encourage the ignorant to assume that a sufferer can "just get over it" , "if they really want to". While I am delighted that you appear not to have had an uncontrollable case, that is not everyone's experience. Almost 20% of anorexia sufferers die. Fact. A mental illness is not "all in the mind", to the extent that it can be controlled with willpower, positive thinking, etc.. That's why it's called an illness: you didn't cause it, nor can you always recover from it without serious assistance.

      I have never had an eating disorder, but am interested in mental health as an overlap with my job, and ALL mental illnesses are agony for the sufferer and their close ones. Anorexia seems to be a very slow suicide. Why do the ignorant think "attitude" has anything to do with it? New age twaddle. Would you suggest to an diabetic that their "attitude" is the problem or solution???

      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 2:51PM
    • Maybe what Christian means is that though a mental illness is extremely difficult to get over, ultimately it takes an effort of will, a commitment on the part of the sufferer to improve their mental health to the extent that they can lead a fairly normal life without too many problems.

      Making an effort of will however, is a long call from the usual moralising claptrap you get from ignorant (and perfectly well) people about 'pulling your socks up' and 'getting on with it'. Separating the delusions from reality and letting go of compulsions is a far harder exercise than what most normal people can imagine. And in fact judging the person as weak-willed or irresponsible only makes things worse. The sufferer can internalise this kind of recrimination, adding to their self-hate instead of coming to grips with the problem of how to survive this.

      I speak from personal experience of serious mental illness (though not anorexia) and hope this helps the discussion.

      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 6:48PM
    • Actually Christian, '[t]he illness that our society perpetuates is this incredible idea' - that people like you experience and deal with something a certain way and then feel entitled to abuse and demean everyone who doesn't doesn't have that experience in exactly the same way and deal with it in exactly the same way as you did.

      It's not all about you honey. It's good you learnt so much about yourself. How about doing a bit more growing and learning to listen to other people's experiences and feelings without judging?

      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 7:07PM

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