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NewsroomPlus.com – OpEd by Rupeni Vatubuli In the 21st century where “looks” are apparently everything, it’s an everyday trap to feel motivated or intimidated by the appearance of others. Society has always been influenced by media and it is from here, that under-reported issues like ‘eating disorders’ grow. New terms are created to cater for the everyday expression of the human appearance. Terms such as “P.H.A.T” (Pretty Hot And Tempting) are used in music videos to express women’s appearance. Though it would be ignorant to say that media plays a huge influence on lifestyles without substantial proof , mental health has been proven to be one of the contributing factors to eating disorders. I had recently met up with a former work colleague whose health suffered due to her insecurities and later admitted that she willingly starved herself in fear of getting fat. That’s scenario that has been played out in movie scripts, where the popular, yet rather obnoxious villain often suffers a mental breakdown in the end and reveals that the only way to keep “Victoria’s Secret” was to forcefully make yourself vomit the food you had earlier consumed! This probably says two things: I may have horrible taste in movies and most men including myself, lack the knowledge of understanding the importance of appearance to women. In New Zealand 1.7 per cent population suffer from an eating disorder which means approximately 68,000 New Zealanders will develop an eating disorder  sometime in their lifetime. From these statistics, females represent approximately 90 percent and males 10 percent of those who experience eating disorders. With a high mortality rate compared to bulimia, anorexia claims one in a 100 deaths each year regardless of patients seeking treatment. Up to 20 per cent die over a 20 year period as a result of complications brought on by the illness and suicide. There are four types of eating disorders that are most often heard about:

  • Anorexia: is when a person believes they are fat, even when they are not and may have lost a lot of weight
  • Bulimia: Where a person eats very large amounts of food because they are starving.  Then they worry about gaining weight so they make themselves vomit, takes laxatives or exercises to extremes.
  • Binge eating disorder: Where a person eats an excessive amount of food within a short period of time (two hours) and feels a loss of control while eating.
  • Other eating disorders: Where a person has signs of either bulimia or anorexia but not enough signs to definitely state they have these conditions. This category is often called Eating Disorder not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) by doctors, and usually occurs at an early age. It is very common and doctors treat is as seriously as the other categories of eating disorder.

What causes eating disorders?

There is no clear cause of an eating disorder. This makes it more upsetting for the person, family and friends, as they all try to think about what could have started it and what to do about it, but that is not possible. Nevertheless, the following types of people do tend to have an increased risk of developing an eating disorder:
  • those whose career or sport requires them to be thin – dancers, gymnasts, models, jockeys or body builders
  • those who are overweight
  • those with a number of different problems including childhood sexual abuse or neglect, drug or alcohol problems and unstable relationships
  • people with diabetes
  • those with problems of self-esteem and identity
  • young people living within families that make them feel that they are only worthwhile when they are very good at study or sport, very well behaved, or thin and attractive and who feel worthless if they do not match up to the family expectations.
  • people who are depressed; feeling sad or irritable much of the time, avoiding doing things with friends.
  • people with high personal expectations – always striving to be perfect in everything.
Cultural factors should not be ignored when we think about what can cause eating disorders in vulnerable people. We are constantly bombarded with the message that women need to be thin to be considered beautiful, and men need to muscular and lean. Since a thin shape is normal and healthy for only a very few women, others must either struggle with feelings of not being good, perfect or self-controlled enough or begin to diet. Men tend to over-exercise. For people at risk of an eating disorder a number of things could set them off, such as:
  • a life crisis or the death of a loved  one
  • family changes
  • moving home or school
  • bullying
  • a relationship break-up
  • a change of job
  • school problems
  • a personal failure.

Signs to look for (symptoms)

There are many symptoms of an eating disorder. These may not relate to everybody, and sometimes it can be difficult to notice any signs at all. Signs of an eating disorder could include:
  • extreme concern about being too fat and thinking about food and dieting all the time
  • increasing isolation from others
  • secret eating and purging (vomiting or taking laxatives)
  • food disappearing from the house, especially high calorie foods
  • spending long periods in the toilet especially immediately after meals, sometimes with the tap running for long periods
  • shoplifting food
  • strenuous exercise routine, even exercising when injured or unwell
  • severe weight changes
  • sudden mood changes, irritability, depression, sadness, anger, difficulty in expressing feelings
  • poor concentration and being unusually tired
  • constant pursuit of thinness.
Professor Ted Ruffman, from Otago’s Department of Psychology, says “anti-fat prejudice is associated with social isolation, depression, psychiatric symptoms, low self-esteem and poor body image”. Previous research had indicated anti-fat prejudice could be seen in pre-school children aged slightly more than three-and-a-half years old and was well-established in five- to ten- year-olds. But the research by Professor Ruffman and his team suggests these attitudes have an even earlier genesis. Just when you think you have read all facts of this, new findings from the University of Otago suggest older toddlers—those aged around 32 months old—are picking up on the anti-fat attitudes of their mothers. The study, involving researchers from New Zealand, Australia, and the US, comes on the back of studies showing that obesity prejudice and discrimination are on the rise. The latest survey by Universal McCann showed that New Zealand women are less comfortable with their appearance than those in Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. Only 48 per cent of the 900 New Zealand women questioned were happy with their appearance ,compared with 60 per cent of Malaysian women and 58 per cent of Thai women. Who else better to explain eating disorders than Emma Wilson who was 16 years old when she suffered anorexia. It was here that researchers  believed anorexia nervosa begins – not as a media-fuelled unquenchable desire to be skinny, but rather a brain or gene abnormality. What ever reason lies behind Eating disorders, a good realisation to hold is this: “It’s Not As Simple As That”. –]]>