THE BLOG

Facing Up to the Reality of Eating Disorders and Social Media

11/06/2014 16:40 BST | Updated 11/08/2014 10:59 BST

The body. An anatomical term for the unified clumps of matter that signify our existence. We feed it, we breathe from it, and we give further life from it. It's our most valuable possession, so why do we give it so much hate?

I'll begin close to home, at university. It's no secret that the student population feels compelled to look and act a certain way, in order to 'fit in', shall we say, to the enormous jigsaw that signifies the maneouvre through university life. With 1.6million people suffering from eating disorders in the UK, it's no surprise that young people are especially affected.

Living in catered halls, my fellow residents and I eat together twice a day. We've joked about the perils of 'double carbing' (i.e. having more than one carbohydrate with your meal), but sadly our mock paranoia rings true with too many people.

Catered halls: how can one team of chefs can adapt the menu to the specific needs of 500 people. Answer: they can't. The food we're served is periodic, carbohydrate heavy and poor quality to make ends meet. There was once an infamous week where chips were served at breakfast (8am) and every single day at dinner. For students living in self-catered halls, the situation is no better - for many, making your own meal choices is a novelty.

The void of parental support that we're dropped into when we arrive at uni is a shock. We're immersed in the world of independence, and we're not always ready for it. The combination of a changing diet, social expectations, the absence of our parents and an increased workload create ideally stressful conditions for eating disorders to develop. An anxious disposition amplifies these further.

The evidence is readily available. In a survey by B-Eat, it was discovered that 32% of students who have been diagnosed with eating disorders were diagnosed at university. This, of course, does not include those that have not spoken to their GP and suffer in silence. Despite numerous studies, it appears that eating disorders are not always recognised by the university itself. 31% of those surveyed "disagree" with the statement "my university is taking action to prevent eating disorders and support those with eating disorders".

A student at King's College London, who prefers to remain anonymous, spoke to me of her struggle with her weight, which began when she arrived at university:

"When I came to uni, I gradually became more obsessed with my body and the food I ate, counting calories and being terrified of getting 'uni fat'. I wanted to look like the girls I saw on Tumblr.

"It was only when I got home for Christmas that it dawned on me that I was descending in to poor mental health. In December I was already stressed about what my body would look like in a bikini.

"Once I had my family around to support me, things got better. I was too scared to approach the university support services I knew nothing about. I thought they would turn me away because I didn't really have a problem. I see now this was just denial."

This student's case is sadly, is nothing new. Support for students from universities appears intimidating, and is often limited. Prevention, however, is better than a cure. Identifying the root of eating disorders and eliminating it is a strategy we should adopt just as ardently, if not more, than support and recovery systems. This is something we can all contribute to

It's specifically this time of year that our collective body image is at its lowest, an unfortunate phenomenon that affects young people the most. From as early as March, the "summer body" diet plans in magazines and release of summer fashions align like an eclipse blocking clear perspective. Social media fuels the epidemical nature of the quest for the "perfect" body for summer that sweeps across the country. With Instagram's salad obsessed, Twitter accounts devoted to fitness and 'I wish I could look like this' captions, and the disturbing "thinspo" hashtag, the "summer body" infiltrates our lives. It just so happens young people access social networks the most, meaning they are most vulnerable. I'm, not saying social media is the primary cause of eating disorders overall, but it certainly contributes, and is one of the few factors that we have the power to control.

Flashback to March and I spot two girls running in the park. "Keep going," I hear one cry to the other. "Think of the summer body!" They couldn't have been older than fourteen. And it's not just girls that are suffering. Not a day goes by when I don't see a fitness inspiration picture of a ridiculously toned man who has to be an athlete, not your Average Joe. "Leg day" and "arm day" are now recognised phrases. The pressure to look good is more intense than ever - but we can reduce it.

Students and all young people, I appeal to you more than anyone. I'm asking that we stop buying into this seasonal routine of a sudden obsession with, not health, but looks. I'm suggesting that we stop ordering the risky slimming teas that are laced with laxative, stop retweeting the thigh gap pictures and using derogatory hashtags and that we start embracing a positive body image. It's this public display of body obsession that fuels the negativity and insecurity associated with body image-induced eating disorders. It feels like every year the obsession with our bodies becomes more intense, encouraging the idea of our identities being represented by the just the surface, a disturbing focus on our exterior. The culture of perfectionism plagues social media, which has already become the vehicle for insecurity. The "No Make Up Selfie" - one of the most impressive outputs of social media, proves just how powerful the art of sharing can be. It is up to us to prevent the devastation, emotionally and physically, that eating disorders bring. We need to combine an increased sense of support, especially for young people, with the promotion of a liberal idea of body image. The power is in our hands, at our keyboards in fact, to catalyse the body positive movement, and quash body-shaming for good.