Eating disorders. A word that has become commonplace. It is no longer just a Victoria’s Secret model’s problem. This is no longer a celebrity problem either, but an issue that affects our friends, our family and our loved ones. It is in our homes, our community, our society — and it’s only getting worse.

Why is this happening?

In a recent article that was published by the Internal Journal of Eating Disorders 2020, 70 per cent reported increased shape/eating concerns, drive for physical activity, loneliness, sadness and inner restlessness.

But why? Why have these types of behaviours increased in recent years. And how is it that they are so easy to provoke?

Bad Education

More than 90 per cent of all eating disorders develop before or during adulthood, so it makes sense to examine where many young people spend a vast majority of their time — school. Young people go through an incredibly important stage of development during this time of life. A large number of them are discovering their identity and who they are as a person. And yet, more than 20 per cent of all 11–15-year-olds have been bullied, with hundreds of them experiencing this because of their appearance, likes/dislikes and personality — in other words, their identity. This pattern needs to change. Young people often aim to alter their appearance in an attempt to be liked, wanted and accepted by their peers. So the roots of a person’s body complex can quite easily be traced to the kind of school environment they had, and whether it was friendly and supportive or competitive and hostile.

Social Media ‘wellness’ cults

Then, there is the growing online cult of ‘wellness culture’. Disguised under the innocuous slogan of helping us ‘be our best self’. But this cult is promoted by people who are usually neither professionals nor experts. They are not dedicated to your health. And they’re certainly not following their own guidelines. Instagram is one of the biggest platforms for young people, with 37 per cent of all users on Instagram being under the age of 24.

It is very clear to see how social media can cause problems, especially to young people’s mental health. Just by typing #wellness in Instagram, more than 40.2 million posts appear. Many of them showing young, white women, sporting gym leggings and a crop top. What we’re not being warned about is that this is an altered reality, with 68 per cent of people photoshopping images of themselves before posting. Those tabletop flat stomachs and elegant thigh gaps are often digitally enhanced in order to create ‘perfection’. The issue here is not so much the distortion of reality, but the fact that many impressionable young people will walk away thinking the images are real and realistically attainable: enter the eating disorder.

In 2020, TikTok was the most downloaded app, with 850 million users. But how safe are these users, with over 26 per cent of them being under the age of 24?

Aside from the dances, lip-syncing and banana bread videos, there lies a deep, dark world. A place in which people can quickly and easily share their lives, and therefore, the ‘wellness’ world. The Kardashian family have been instrumental in this world, with many of the sisters promoting diet pills, weight loss teas, hunger suppressant lollipops and fat-burning patches. These products have not been scientifically proven to work, yet they are being advertised amongst the Kardashians’ millions of young followers. It is worrisome to think of the impact such promotion could have on the vulnerable self-esteem, body image and overall health of a teenager, for example.

Other influencers, (take HRH collection and All Things Adrienne) go a step further and admit to followers how their weight loss was achieved and kept off through dangerous ‘tricks’, such as drinking excessive amounts of water to stay full. Again, these methods are neither medically sound nor safe. The unfortunate young people who try them are little more than naive guinea pigs who may eventually not be so lucky.

An eating disorder can quite easily be provoked when a person becomes convinced that their diet is unhealthy. The dietary advice of some of these social media ‘gurus’ often sets unrealistic expectations of what a good diet constitutes. And yet young people willingly follow this skewed advice, going to any lengths to achieve the ‘perfect body’ or a ‘Kardashian physique’ that sets them up with an eating disorder for years and an obsession with their image.

But before you go deleting all your social media accounts, it’s important to stress that although there is undeniably a correlation between certain social media content and the possibility of developing an eating disorder, this is by no means the only trigger. Lonelinesscyberbullyinggovernment policy and overall social attitudes all affect the likelihood of an eating disorder being provoked. What’s more, nothing is stopping us from taking practical measures to stay safe when using social media. These can include limiting our comments and not engaging with ‘wellness’ videos, especially on platform like TikTok, where videos are generated on the basis of engagement or watching time.

A Rethink

Bullying and social media are often a recipe for disaster when trying to keep young people out of the cruel world of mental illness.

I always thought that the Western world was a good place, a better place, a beacon for health and prosperity. But this article by Richard Eckersley from Oxford university has made me think otherwise. Our great Western world may have become ‘a health hazard’. Until we put public health and mental health first, we will regrettably keep seeing a rise in eating disorders. What we need is to promote real human contact, fraternalism and realistic health; instead of isolation, competition and vanity — which are killing us.

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