Eating Disorders should demand respect from all of us

25 February 2014

Ilona Burton is a researcher and journalist writing on eating disorders and other mental health issues. As part of Eating Disorders Awareness Week, she writes about stereotypes and misconceptions around eating disorders.

The last 12 months have been pretty good for the world of mental health; it feels as though, across the UK, attitudes towards mental health problems have been changing for the better. We have witnessed debates in the House of Commons, MPs opening up about their own difficulties with mental health and sports personalities speaking to the press about their experiences and the pressure to keep the black dog hidden away. We have also seen campaigns which have allowed less recognisable faces to tell their stories, BBC Three commissioned some incredible, realistic and heart-wrenching documentaries to form their 'It's a Mad World' season and who could forget the story that captured the attention of, and far beyond, the nation – Jonny Benjamin's #FindMike campaign. There's no doubt that we're getting somewhere in changing opinions about the importance of mental health and there is a strong and continuously growing momentum behind those who are so dedicated and passionate about spreading mental health awareness.

Of course, unfortunately, everything isn't perfect – far from it. This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week and sadly, many people still hold negative perceptions of these, the most deadly of all mental illnesses. There are so many myths, stereotypes and misconceptions that exist around eating disorders, despite years of campaigning to raise awareness of the reality and the facts.

I began writing about Eating Disorders ten years ago, after 10 years of living with anorexia and bulimia. At the time, I wasn't recovered, but never claimed to be – all I wanted to do was to share my experience in a desperate bid to change attitudes; to provide an accurate, raw and realistic portrayal of what it was like to live with an eating disorder and to shed some light on my understanding of what may have caused it. I hoped that I could play my part in shattering some of the common myths and challenging the narrow-minded or ill-educated people who seemed to think that a good burger would solve all my problems.

I like to think that I changed some minds, but there are still people who think that you have to be skeletal to have an eating disorder, that eating disorders are all about food, that everyone with an eating disorder is anorexic, that those who strive to be thin do so because the fashion world tells us that's how they should look, that eating disorders are a diet-gone-too-far, that they only affect young, white, gifted females, that they are just a phase and that recovery is quick and easy.

It's frustrating that, as we move towards a better understanding of mental health problems, these views about eating disorders seem to have stuck. What's more worrying is that every single one of us will know someone who is directly affected by an eating disorder; whether we know it or not. So many people with eating disorders suffer in silence, in part because they live in fear that whoever they tell may well be one of the many whose understanding of the illness is based upon some or all of the myths listed above. Finding the strength to finally ask for help with an eating disorder is hard enough, but to be shot down at that most vulnerable moment can send a sick person spiralling. Any one of us could find ourselves in that position, so I would hope that nobody would ever want to be that person, and I hope that in ten more years time, these misconceptions will finally, rightfully, be a thing of the past.