A month into the new year, and it’s still just days past what Tara Hope calls one of the hardest times of the year.
The holidays are full of mixed messages she says – and for those suffering from an eating disorder, it’s a time filled with mixed messages.
“There’s not only the stress of the holidays, but there’s a lot of pressure with the messaging that we’re getting. There’s the perception that you have to look a certain way to be beautiful, but there’s a lot of the ‘eat, drink, be merry’ side of it. It’s an impossible thing.”
Hope is a registered clinical counsellor in the Valley who specializes in providing behaviour consultations for people struggling with and/or affected by food-related issues including compulsive overeating, bulimia, binge eating, addiction and anorexia.
She works with clients of all ages, but understands the additional pressures of adolescence, with her background working as a school counsellor.
This week – Feb. 1 to 7 – is Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and according to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre, 1.5 per cent of Canadian women aged 15-24 years old has an eating disorder.
Hope says not only do eating disorders affect the individual involved, but their family.
“Our culture has such a preoccupation with appearance. There are so many messages to try and get away from – it’s something we have to watch as parents and adults to gain awareness of the cultural norms.”
She notes eating disorders affect everyone – and the stereotype of “bone thin is just a myth.”
“One size does not fit all for eating disorders, the way they present themselves and the treatment. For those who are middle-aged and older, it’s usually that they’ve suffered and struggled for awhile and they come to a point where they are just done and are looking for help.”
With adolescents, Hope explains there are such huge changes happening in their life hormonally, socially, physically and cognitively. She adds many are vulnerable to messages from peers, social media and traditional media.
“I work with people from a positive perspective; that’s not to minimize the issues, but to focus on what can be done.
“The real focus is on the celebration of sizes and shapes and healthy lifestyles. We have to break down the stereotypical image of a person with an eating disorder.”
Hope says the week was created to bring attention not only to eating disorders, but to question a more general preoccupation with physical appearances.
She notes as adults, we have to ask ourselves where and how we can make changes and to be mindful of what we say to others.
“It’s really about love and support, and it starts at a very young age. Other kids look at each other, look at media and magazines and compare themselves with what they are wearing, if they are fat or thin, but it doesn’t end there. (As we get older) we have to see where do we fit into this? What kind of change can I make as adults?”
She hopes awareness from the week continues, with people looking at what makes a healthy lifestyle, and stresses it’s not just about weight that counts.
“There’s a social, emotional and physical component to that. It starts with me and how I interact in the world.”
For more information, visit the National Eating Disorder Information Centre at nedic.ca or locally at hopecounsellingandconsulting.com.
Eating disorders: Each case unique
Editor’s note: Elanor Bukach is a student intern at The Record. She was assigned to address the issue of eating disorders from the perspective of a teenager. The following is her report.
Perhaps one of the most dangerous aspects of eating disorders are the misconceptions we have aligned with them.
They have no target demographic, no perfect victims, spanning racial, economic and social lines. We seem as a society to have decided that each case is like the one before, a disease of sorts that affects only young teenage girls, as the media portrays it. But it goes so much deeper than that, affecting more than that, damaging lives around us. Just like any stigmatized issue, silence only causes it to grow.
As a high school student it is impossible to navigate daily life without putting conscious thought towards your weight in particular, as the media and even your peers bombard you with expectations regarding your appearance. As models get thinner, your effort to fashion the “perfect body” increases.
I see it when I walk down the halls, noticing girls anxiously unwilling to purchase chips from the vending machines in fear of being labelled “fat”. I see it when I walk down the halls, noticing boys being mocked by their peers for being “too scrawny”. Your outwards appearance is the first thing that is noticed about you and every day I see more and more effort being put into achieving the unachievable “perfect body”.
“I’ve definitely worked with a couple of students who have come forward and said what is going on, but mostly it’s not that cut and dry,” said Jill Kotapski, counsellor at Highland Secondary.
“It’s more about body issues or maybe some preoccupation with food, food intake or the way their body looks.”
A huge part of the issue is an unwillingness to talk about it, a fear of public knowledge and perception. However, for many, restricting their diet or binge eating isn’t nearly as much about food as it is about control. Food is just the medium in which it’s presenting.
“For those students I would do a lot of the things I do for anyone presenting with anything going on for them, because controlling your eating in some way, or controlling what you do or don’t put in your body is an attempt at trying to find control,” said Kotapski.
“So it wouldn’t be a big focus on the food part, but it would be more looking at the root issue, more of what’s really happening emotionally.”
Something we must remember is that disordered eating doesn’t always present itself in the same way; every person is different.
“My issues became apparent when I would go from eating one cookie, to two cookies, to eating the whole jar when my mom wasn’t looking,” said a friend.
“I talked about it with my mom or my brother sometimes. That’s about it.”
What we need to take away from this is that if we ignore these issues and we don’t find ways to integrate the discussion of eating disorders into our society, these issues will silently eat away at us from our core.