Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 6 August 2020

Eating disorders can be eradicated with better legislation

Why did anorexia and bulimia become so pervasive? The answer comes down to one word: pathoplasticity

Eating disorders can cause physical and emotional damage. Getty Images
Eating disorders can cause physical and emotional damage. Getty Images

Unforgettable conversations are few and far between. One of mine was with Yvonne, a mother who had lost her 14-year-old daughter Emily to anorexia nervosa.

At the time of the conversation, Yvonne was heading a support group for people with eating disorders, and shared her own story with me. She described the senselessness of watching her daughter starve, which was compounded by the fact they lived just across the road from a supermarket. Yvonne blamed the magazines targeting young girls and promoting an airbrushed and largely unobtainable body image ideal for her daughter's demise.

Emma Brown is yet another victim of anorexia. She was set to be an A* student before eating disorders took over her life at age 13. Her father described the onset of his daughter's illness as a "descent into hell". Emma battled with eating disorders for more than a decade, eventually turning her weight management routine – lots of running – into a positive. Emma won the under-18 British cross-country championships title and was hoping to compete for Team GB at the upcoming Olympics. Tragically, in 2018, she was found dead by her mother at her flat near Cambridge. Earlier this year, at the inquest into Miss Brown's death, the post-mortem gave the cause of death as lung and heart disease, with anorexia and bulimia nervosa as contributory factors.

Often glamourised or trivialised, eating disorders can wreak havoc on the people experiencing them, and on the lives of their families, friends and loved ones. Anorexia has a mortality rate of around 10 per cent. It is the deadliest of psychiatric ailments. Last week was eating disorders awareness week (March 2nd to March 8th). Under the hashtag #LetsBeatThis, the 2020 campaign shines a light on the families who are impacted by eating disorders.

First named by Sir William Gull in 1873, Anorexia is the psychological disorder most likely to affect the bodies and change the lives of young women. At the time, the disorder was incredibly rare. Today, however, anorexia and eating disorders such as bulimia and binge eating are sadly common, not only in the West but in the Middle East too.

In the Gulf, eating disorders were first reported in the psychological and medical journals in the 1990s. In her book The Death Diet, Emirati author Samira Al Romaithi recounts her own struggle with and recovery from anorexia. Samira may be one of a handful of people writing about this issue in the Gulf, but she is far from being alone in her struggle against anorexia. Rates of eating disorders symptoms in the Middle East are on par with those found in western nations.

A 2014 study on the eating habits of women in Jordan revealed that 86 per cent of those surveyed believed young women in Jordan struggled with body image. A total of 14 per cent of those who answered reported they have or currently are suffering from an eating disorder. A study I conducted in 2010 showed similar results for students residing in the UAE. A total of 24 per cent of surveyed people showed disordered eating attitudes and possible eating disorder. Additionally 75 per cent of participants were unhappy with their body image.

But why did eating disorders become so pervasive, threatening the lives of young men and women around the globe? The answer comes down to one word: pathoplasticity. This medical term means that social change can profoundly influence a disorder. Eating disorders are highly pathoplastic.The symptoms, illness expression and even the prevalence of these disorders are shaped and reshaped by shifting social norms and social pressures. The spread of anorexia and bulimia boils down, in part, to unattainable beauty standards that equate thinness with beauty.

Yvonne described watching her daughter starve, even as they lived just across the road from a supermarket

To limit the spread of such disorders and save lives, authorities must intervene to change the narrative. For example, in 2006, to the great dismay of the fashion world, Spain became the first nation to ban "excessively thin" models from its runways. By 2017 at least six other countries – including France - had followed suit. Such policies must be extended to advertising and models who appear in magazines.

Plus-sized and body-positive models are starting to make front-covers, and this is a positive steps towards deconstructing unhealthy standards of beauty, and promoting self-acceptance.

but if we are to beat eating disorders, this movement must be allowed to effect social change. The lives and mental health of our youth depends on it.

Justin Thomas is a psychology professor at Zayed University

Updated: March 9, 2020 02:54 PM

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