Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Eating Disorders - Our Genetic Destiny?

Today, December 1st 2009, the Daily Mirror published new findings which suggest that anorexia and other eating disorders are genetic and I was invited to discuss this on BBC Radio Cambridge.

It’s a tempting theory, isn’t it?

As a society and as individuals it absolves us of all responsibility for the growing number of young people who are falling prey to these hideous, life consuming diseases. As an ex eating disorder sufferer, it allows me to tell myself that all the pain and heartache I subjected my family and friends to and the private torture I inflicted upon myself was all written in my DNA. As my genetic identity and not something circumstance led me to, I am not to blame, my recovery will never be permanent- Hello, my name’s Natasha and I’m a bulimic. And the bullies who taunt our young people in the school halls, the perpetrators of the emotional or physical abuse common in the histories of our eating disorder victims and the emaciated celebrities grinning gummily out at us from the covers of glossy magazines can all sleep easily at night because guess what? It’s not their fault.

What absolute codswallop.

I asked Mark for his take. He said:

"Eating disorders are a behavioural programme which someone has taken on board. It is possible for someone to mimic their parents in early life when they are particularly impressionable, between the ages of 7 and 12, which might be why eating disorders are perceived to be hereditary, but there is no genetic factor".

I’d take his point a step further and suggest that it’s irresponsible and downright dangerous to encourage the widespread belief that eating disorders are one’s genetic destiny. The work we do here at Winning Minds crucially hinges on allowing people to free themselves of the identity of their issue and reclaim themselves. As long as one defines oneself as “an anorexic in recovery” one entertains the possibility that one might relapse. And whilst that possibility is allowed to fester in the unconscious mind relapse becomes ever more inevitable.

It was as a direct result of this pseudo-scientific twaddle that Mark and I devised our unique “Shedding the Identity” workshop for ex eating disorder sufferers, which allows them to liberate themselves from the shackles of the eating disordered mindset. It should not be accepted by the medical community that it is enough to equip the patient with the rudimentary tools they require to “take each day as it comes” and send them on their way. Meanwhile the individual in question flails under the silent but stiffling pressure of negative body image and food still being their enemy. We are not born with mind based issues and neither should we have to live with them.

As a footnote to Mark’s thoughts, I’d like to add something which has been a view I (shockingly, for those who know me) have been too timid to venture in public, heretofore. It’s been accepted wisdom for years now that eating disorders are a complex psychological issue, often having its roots in childhood trauma or emotional abuse and thank goodness for that, because otherwise we’d all be told to “get over ourselves and pick up a fork”. But I wonder whether perhaps this is SO ingrained in our perception that we are blind to the increasingly prevalent, more straightforward elements involved with the issue?

Allow me to explain. As a Body Confidence Campaigner I have had the pleasure of speaking with lots of teenagers about their body image (and it is a pleasure, teenagers aren’t nearly as disrespectful and badly behaved as the media would have us believe) and I have come to realise that sometimes it is JUST about celebrity worship culture, competitive dieting and peer pressure. It is no more complex than a young person thinking their social standing and sexual attractiveness depend entirely on their looking like Victoria Beckham and their friends encouraging this deluded belief. Of course, at some stage, the calorie counting and exercising reach obsessive levels, the person in question starts to take treacherous risks with their health and by then it is no longer a question of persuading them that Victoria Beckham looks like ET in a frock because the issue has become far more integral to their mindset – It has become their identity (see above).

Whether or not it is an oversimplification to blame the deification of twig like celebs for the eating disorder epidemic, it is difficult to deny that it is a substantial contributory factor. And whilst it may be the simplest explanation, it is in many ways the hardest one to solve. When will we really take responsibility for the way our attitudes are condemning future generations to hate the feeling of being inside their own skins? We cannot continue to blame the media. The media, beauty fashion industries work on supply and demand. If we didn’t drink in airbrushed images and factsheets on the latest food fad which promise to magic us into a pair of size 8 skinny jeans in 2 weeks as through they were the elixir of life, they would not print them. It is up to us to adopt a balanced and healthy approach to our bodies. We must understand that our favourite television personality is not, in fact, a demigod and it is not realistic or productive to either attempt to emulate them in the first place, or to berate ourselves when we fall short of an “ideal” it took hours spent toiling on a treadmill, an unwavering devotion to the aesthetic which is not practical for anyone with rent to pay and a real job to hold down to maintain, not to mention an army of stylists, makeup artists, hairdressers, dieticians, beauticians, and because that’s still not enough, airbrushing, to “achieve”.

Women should cease bonding and communication using the language of self criticism. “I hate my thighs, I’m on another diet”. You never know who might be listening. Our children are susceptible to the way we think and behave, just as Mark said and by revitalizing our attitude, we can ensure their health and happiness.

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