Commentary | Toward a more open discussion

This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, to be marked by a series of events both at McGill and across Canada devoted to recognizing a diversity of bodies, and raising awareness about the nature of eating disorders.

Eating disorders are a largely invisible and very private phenomenon on university campuses nationwide. Statistics often put forward about eating disorders don’t even begin to capture their many nuances, fail to account for men, the number of people who never seek treatment, and those who don’t realize that their behaviour could be categorized as disordered eating. There is a wide spectrum of ways in which unhealthy relationships with food may manifest themselves, far beyond the media’s popular – and obscenely sensationalized – obsession with “shockingly” skinny women. Canada’s National Eating Disorder Information Centre explains, “If the way you eat and think about food interferes with your life and keeps you from enjoying life and moving forward, then that is disordered eating.”

This problem, then, can become very isolating, because people feel ashamed, depressed, or as if they need to hide their habits. Social stigmatization of eating disorders and a focus on what the ideal body type should be has contributed to widespread ignorance of the complex nature of eating disorders. According to McGill Mental Health, eating disorders “occur in a social and cultural environment that fosters unhealthy and often unrealistic ideas about weight and shape. Eating disorders are often coping mechanisms, used in an attempt to deal with stresses and traumas, and are often associated with underlying psychological issues.” These coping mechanisms, however, can be compulsive and harmful – people may use them as a way to control their own image, or their own lives, because they feel they do not have control in other aspects of their life. Eating disorders are not always a conscious choice.

Implicit in understanding the nature of eating disorders should be the realization that we are members of a community that can trigger some of these unhealthy relationships with food. As such, we have a responsibility to be informed about the signs, symptoms, and real mental, physical, and emotional implications of the whole range of eating disorders. This doesn’t mean that we have licence to project our concerns onto others, or to force someone to seek treatment. Treatment is in most cases, and should remain, a personal choice. That being said, it is important to recognize that if you feel that you or someone else may be struggling with an eating disorder, you should say something. This is a conversation we should be having, and an issue we should all be aware of, year round.

If you feel that you or someone you know may be struggling with an eating disorder, please don’t hesitate to check out the following resources:  McGill Mental Health services are located in the Brown Building, 5th floor in the East Wing. They can be reached by phone at 514-398-1050. Or find them online at mcgill.ca/mentalhealth/edp/


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