As we've entered into National Eating Disorders Awareness Week - a valiant annual campaign to encourage discussion around the taboo that is disordered eating - I find myself wondering about the nature of this campaign and where it derives from, although I really didn't wonder for too long as I've always known the answer - it's because we don't talk.
And neither do most people. Mothers, fathers, friends, colleagues. Everybody tiptoes around the massive hungry elephant in the room with caution, leaving it in peace; leaving it to starve. This lack of correspondence isn't caused by ignorance though - the term Eating Disorder normally invokes graphic imagery of living skeletons or vomit stained toilets. But how can one be expected to talk comfortably about living skeletons? From being the sole cause of many weighty silences and witness to a substantial amount of awkward glances, I suspect a barrage of questions and thoughts do run through most people's heads, but ones they dare not to utter:
"What would I even say anyway?"
"Do they want me to say something?"
"I bet even if I did say something they wouldn't respond."
"Why won't they just eat, what's so hard?"
"I wonder what they do eat - they must eat something."
"Is it properly serious?"
"Are they in therapy?"
"Do they mind me eating in front of them?"
"How can they have anorexia and bulimia at the same time?"
"So... they make themselves sick?"
And it's this 'why' that doesn't get the attention it deserves. It doesn't leave the lips of enough people; sufferers and non sufferers alike. We can guess the textbook reasons, but even then we'd most likely always be a mile off because everyone with an eating disorder is fighting an entirely different battle, using different weapons and a different strategy. I am one of an estimated 1.6million people suffering with an eating disorder in the UK, but I can guarantee that all have their own nuances that they themselves are struggling to understand and manage, let alone try and explain to the wider world. It's just easier not to talk, and here's why...
Many eating disorders begin as a secret, with denial taking the reign before cover-up allows for total manifestation. Our whole hearted attempts at keeping our disorder private can often become an obsession, so it's hard to let it out into the open for all to discuss because tied to it are all our emotions, our past and our dark or bleak outlook on life. This transparency is an exploitation of our mind, our safe place free of external judgement. Our minds make sense of the eating disorder and rationalise it, whereas society would find it difficult to see it as anything other than totally irrational, leading to yet another standoff where the glaring gazes of the sane defeat the never-tried-to-be-understood insane. Our disorders feed off the silence we so willingly give it; serving it up with lashings of time, allowing it to ferment. This way we also protect our loved ones from hurt and anguish. Why upset our family with tales of woe that they helped to write but could never fix?
This secrecy in turn creates barriers that are often too established for any outsider to either destroy or soften. Weak may be a commonly perceived trait inhabited by sufferers of eating disorders, be it physically weak or weak willed, but any attempt at breaking down their defences will be met with a response made of cold, hard stone. This doesn't help with the whole talking situation. The metaphorical walls we all build for ourselves are generally always built on strong foundations, as their purpose is to protect us, and hide us from situations we've experienced, or imagine, to be dangerous. For people with an eating disorder, the danger of talking is that it presents an avenue for the world to fix us - if people understand us, people can fix us, and if we talk, it must mean we're crying for help.
Admitting we need help in most life circumstances is shameful, or deflating to our ego in some way. Even a menial task like changing a lightbulb has scope to get tetchy as we strive to prove to ourselves and bystander that we're totally capable and that they do not need to 'take a look' or 'have a go'. A lot of people suffering with an eating disorder will deny that they need support, and trying to force this recognition is a wasted effort - trust me, I know - but behind quizzical eyes lies an underlying knowledge, never mind how small and insignificant, that what we do isn't normal. And we see that, whether in denial or at the stages of embracing change. We are the walking taboos. The unassuming 'nutcase'. And this is scary. There's no obvious attribute that quantifies our plagued mind. Our bodies and mind are a sheer reflection of the consequences of shame and guilt, and if this baggage were to be the first thing people see when hearing the revelation that this seemingly normal person is riddled with a - say it quietly now in case it's contagious - 'mental health disorder' - would be, well, quite shameful.
Most people want to know what type of disorder we have, how long we've had it, how much we eat or don't eat, what we eat, how we cope, or when it started. But asking 'why' is too invasive. It's too revealing. It's too unrelatable.
National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is striving to create a safe platform on which those awkward glances and weighty silences don't exist, so more people can be educated about the reasons why, with less of a focus on the 'hows' and 'whats'. But will this change the conversational tension between sufferers and non sufferers? Although I feel passionately about mental health being an open dialogue, revealing too much frightens me. Anything widely reported and consumed by the masses becomes mainstream, and I personally don't want something as complex and soul-destroying as an eating disorder to be perceived by young and vulnerable minds as a commercialised lifestyle choice that's easier to catch than a bus.
What do you think the reasons are for eating disorders being a taboo topic in society?