People who have an eating disorder often want to know why. Even though there is much more to recovery than understanding what’s behind your unhealthy eating behaviors, piecing together the different factors may give you some helpful insights.
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) presents three sets of factors that may contribute to eating disorders, and today we’ll discuss the social/cultural factors.
Whether you’re scrolling on social media, glancing at the magazines displayed near the checkout line at the grocery store, listening to commentary about people walking the red carpet at an awards ceremony, or just having a casual conversation with friends or work colleagues, you’ll hear people being judged based on their physical appearance.
Then there is our family culture. One family may be triathletes who are all into sports and value physical coordination and skill. Another family may be very tuned in to physical appearance and only appreciate the latest fashions. Another family may be very sedentary and watch a lot of TV. Whichever culture you’re raised in has an impact on your views about eating, weight and exercise.
When I was a tween, my father was diagnosed with high blood pressure and the whole family got swept up into his efforts to lose weight and get fit to improve his medical condition. So my family culture became one of thinness and dieting. This represented health to the family. I had an aunt who was on a well-known diet program for 45 years. When people greeted each other, the first topic wasn’t always how people were, it was who had lost or gained weight, and how.
This is such a small way of looking at things, and doesn’t put any value on all the other more important qualities that make us who we are. Maybe it helps to use the iceberg concept here. What if we went beyond appearances—below the tip of the iceberg—to see each other, and be seen for who we really are? Here are some ways we would each like to be seen:
- for our gifts
- for our experiences
- for our intellect and skills
- for our gentle, yet effective way of setting boundaries
- for our adventurous spirit
- for our courage
- for our ability to listen well
Here are the steps I take to support my clients in their recovery, even with the cultural pressures they face (note that prescribing a treatment and support team is woven into the fabric of this recovery process):
- I meet my clients where they’re at. Many clients come to me on a “diet,” or post-dieting. We start right there.
- We address depression and co-occurring addictions.
- We clear the early traumas before embarking on what happens day-to-day with using/abusing food.
- I help clients to manage a typical day of binge eating, restricting, purging, or other compensatory behaviors.
- We work on navigating future interpersonal interactions and triggers.
As you recover from disordered eating, keep in mind that the culture around you is not necessarily changing, though there are movements such as HAES (Health at Every Size) that support this change. It’s a matter of being able to be present with oneself and finding fulfillment in your vision of recovery, things like being healthy, happy and comfortable in your body.