Guest post: Eating disorders are not a lifestyle choice.

// 23 February 2010

In this guest blog, Bethan Jenkins highlights the launch of Beat Cymru. Bethan is Assembly Member for South Wales West, and chairs the cross-party group on eating disorders at the National Assembly for Wales. She also sit on the Beat Cymru steering group.

bethan-jenkins.jpgHere in Wales, a new charity, Beat Cymru launches at the National Assembly for Wales today. It is part of the UK charity Beat, the re-branded Eating Disorders Association.

As part of the launch process, the new charity carried out research with the company Beaufort to establish people’s view on eating disorders in Wales. Very little research on perceptions of eating disorders in Wales exists, therefore this research is to be welcomed. It is an attempt to gather information towards setting up an anti-stigma campaign, and in establishing who the charity should target support services to, and self help groups.

The research was shocking indeed. Of the 1,000 people surveyed across the country, one in five said that they did not think of eating disorders as a mental health issue. Only one third think people with eating disorders are more likely to die than people with other psychiatric disorders, and a significant proportion believe eating disorders are a lifestyle choice, are brought on by sufferers themselves – particularly older respondents and (older) men.

It’s clear that an anti-stigma campaign is essential, especially given that more than three quarters agreed in the survey that “talking about eating disorders is often a taboo subject”, and that many thought that an eating disorder was brought about by a diet gone wrong.

An estimated 56,000 people suffer from eating disorders in Wales, and we know that there is a rise in men who are suffering from eating disorders – many showing symptoms of compulsive exercising. But despite the gloomy findings from the statistics, Wales is moving forward on this agenda.

In conjunction with the launch of the new charity, the cross-party group on eating disorders which I founded and chair at the National Assembly – a group which provides a voice for those with eating disorders in Wales, has successfully lobbied the Welsh government for change (health is devolved to Wales).

We have secured a framework on eating disorders in Wales from the Health Minister, with £1m of funding for community services for the next three years. We are also campaigning for self esteem and confidence lessons to be a main part of the National curriculum in Wales as a way of seeking to stop young people from developing eating disorders later in life. We are dedicated to calling for a national in-patient treatment unit in Wales, as currently people who need specialised treatment must apply for private treatment in England.

I have met many people who suffer from eating disorders since my involvement with this campaign, and this evening at the Senedd we will hear the story of Sarah Perrot from Swansea, a young ice skater who had an eating disorder.

Young women I have met are pressurised to be thin, to look attractive, and we need to educated them to believe in themselves, and to recognise that the images on their screens and the airbrushed pictures in their magazines do not reflect the normality of the people we see every day on our streets.

I look forward to working with Beat Cymru in the future, and to tackling the stigma associated with eating disorders.

Comments From You

Mair // Posted 23 February 2010 at 5:46 pm

Good to see the issue getting some attention in Wales.

Kristianna Berger // Posted 23 February 2010 at 6:27 pm

Just posted this article about National Eating Disorder Awareness Week: http://www.survivormanual.com/2010/02/national-eating-disorder-awareness-week/

Horry // Posted 23 February 2010 at 9:10 pm

Much of what you’re doing sounds fantastic. To be honest, though, I find the assertion that young people need “to recognise that the images on their screens and the airbrushed pictures in their magazines do not reflect the normality of the people we see every day on our streets” slightly patronising and simplistic, and undermining of what you write about earlier. The notion that anorexics are on a quest to reflect airbrushed perfection makes anorexia sound very much like a lifestyle choice. In terms of personal experience, I can of course only speak for myself, but having suffered from anorexia and bulimia for many years, I would say that for me it was very much about not looking “perfect” or sexually attractive, but about avoiding that pressure entirely in order to make my own rules. You are right that the images of what the ideal woman should look like are bad for all women and their self-esteem, but wrong to suggest that eating disorder suffers are just naive about what it is and isn’t possible to look like (we know what people “on our streets” are like due to plenty of experience of, um, being “on our streets”). The point is not that we don’t realise most people can’t look like Keira Knightley, or that even she gets airbrushed; the point is that we live in a society in which, amongst so many other things which reduce us to no more than empty shells, the images of ideal women so often suggest there is something unacceptable about freedom or excess or even taking up the slightest amount of space. Or it is suggested that if we do take up space, we have to bear unreasonable consequences (upon gaining weight following a hospital admission, I remember feeling betrayed by the fact that my figure, now far closer to “ideal woman” than at my illest, left me far more open to sexual harrassment. It didn’t feel like the post-anorexia freedom I’d been promised).

I’m sorry if that sounds a bit like nit-picking when you’re doing something good. I just think the message of the image, regardless of whether the image is real, is so much more important.

The focus on self-esteem and confidence is of course valuable, and I’m glad that is being recognised as an element in eating disorders. I would add, though, that it’s worth remembering that all the things that crush the self-esteem of young women today can’t be counteracted by lessons alone, and it shouldn’t be allowed to drift into victim-blaming. I’d hate to think young women have to choose between “working on” their self-esteem at school or “working on” their abs at home, rather than just being! Or be told “No wonder you’re unable to rise above of society’s messages about how worthless you are – you just didn’t pay attention in confidence class!”

saranga // Posted 23 February 2010 at 11:11 pm

Excellent news! I wish you every success and i’m really glad that Beat has expanded into wales.

Claire // Posted 24 February 2010 at 8:57 am

Horry, totally in agreement with you. B.eat is a great charity which I’ve been following for years in England and good to see they are moving into Wales. But the stats are that we shouldn’t be blaming the fashion industry and airbrushing for eating disorders (though I’m sure that for some the pressures of conforming to rake like celeb looks are an important factor). In my work for an NHS Mental Trust I was told more than 50% of the women eating disorders patients had disclosed sexual abuse in childhood. Far from wanting to be thin to be attractive and sexy like magazines suggest we want to be in their advertising, sometimes the eating disorder is caused by the desire to deny oneself sexual attractiveness or to deny it in the way you look now. To turn eating disorders into a feminist issue against the fashion brigade is a disservice to sufferers.

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