For Eating Disorders Awareness Week, mother, journalist and former eating disorders sufferer Liz Fraser writes poignantly about her experience, and suggests how we can help to reduce the risks for our children
I am 38 years old, I’m a mother of three children, I am happy and healthy, and, unlike many mothers I know, I love my body.
And I am a fully recovered former sufferer of bulimia nervosa and anorexia.
The most important word in that sentence is ‘recovered’. The second, for me, is ‘mother’.
With my history of body-image and eating problems, I am more aware than most parents of the potential causes of eating disorders, and of trying to protect my children from them. But I am also acutely aware that often there is no particular cause, no easy-to-identify reason for it, nobody to blame. And that seeking to blame, or feeling guilty about it, achieves nothing. It happens, it is extremely serious, and it needs a huge amount of care and time to make it better, for all members of the family.
This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week – 1.6 million people in the UK are affected by the associated conditions, which are not ‘diets gone wrong’ but serious mental conditions that can, and do, threaten and take lives. Girls and young women aged 12 to 20 are still most at risk, but the number of children affected is increasing and they are presenting symptoms ever younger. Which means that we parents need to be more understanding than ever of these illnesses, the risk factors, the warning signs, and the treatments available.
Mary George, from the eating disorders charity Beat, says there are quite a few common signs to be aware of. ‘Suddenly losing weight, or failure to gain weight, are certainly warning signs,’ she says. ‘But a child doesn’t always have to be losing weight to be at risk. Some children show signs of being afraid of becoming fat, and are afraid of the fat in food itself, and this would certainly be considered a potential risk factor.’
One vital thing to bear in mind is that eating disorders are not necessarily about body size; they can simply be a sign of deep unhappiness or unease somewhere in a child’s life that is being expressed through controlling what they eat.
Bullying, whether online or directly, is known to be a strong factor in causing body-image problems, even if the teasing has nothing to do with body size, so parents are well advised to keep an eye on any signs of bullying at school or at home.
From my own personal experience I would encourage parents to be aware of behavioural habits. These can include always going to the toilet within about five minutes of eating a meal; flushing more than once; sipping water throughout a meal; eating much more than usual, yet gaining no weight; and becoming hungry again faster than would be expected after a meal. Physical signs can include rough skin on the back of one hand, a swollen, ‘puffy’ face on a thin body, a husky voice, and enamel decay on teeth. Interestingly, it is dentists who often pick up on bulimia before doctors do. None of these is a definite sign of any problem, but they are something to be aware of.
A warning sign of anorexia can be a child who often declines food because they have ‘just eaten’ or are ‘about to eat’ with friends. And never trust an empty lunch box as a sign of having eaten the contents – mine went straight in the bin.
Many parents worry that exposure to images of skinny models in magazines can increase a child’s risk to developing an eating disorder, but little conclusive evidence has been found to support this, though this is partly because it is very hard to measure empirically. Certainly I used to pore over the pages of glossy magazines wishing I could be as thin as the models. But the problem wasn’t the size of the models, or of me – it was that I was unhappy, and I equated happiness with being a different shape.
That said, I try where possible not to expose my children to pictures of ‘perfect’, airbrushed models and actresses. It’s these images of completely unattainable perfection that can cause huge dissatisfaction, especially in one who already feels inadequate.
For many children the problem starts when they don’t lose their ‘puppy fat’ when their peers do. Losing that little bit of weight feels like the key to all happiness, to popularity at school and to being happy at last. But losing weight can be very addictive, and soon the target can stop being the body size itself but a number on the scales. I plotted my weight on a graph, and felt a huge buzz when the line had gone down again. Seeing it go up meant I was going to have an awful day.
Treatment varies according to each person. In the early days it can simply require better communication between parents and child. In severe cases hospitalisation is required, along with long-term care and counselling. But according to George, communication within the home is key. ‘Eating disorders can develop when children find it difficult to talk about or express their emotions in any other way, so helping your child to talk about any worries is really helpful,’ she says.
And, ironically, meal times can play a vital role in this, in a culture where more meals are eaten on the go, or in front of the telly. ‘Eating together as a family helps, too – not just because it is a way to notice what is being eaten, but because meal times are when families can talk,’ says George.
Having an eating disorder was the biggest waste of time, energy and money I have ever experienced. Like most, I only stopped at the point where I almost died. I don’t yet know the full physical effects it may have had on me, from osteoporosis to heart problems; only time will tell. I just hope that by writing about it, and raising awareness of it, I will help others to avoid that long, painful road, and to get off it if they’ve already started.
Writing about it now is like writing about another person. It makes me very sad to think of that ill, desperately unhappy girl, killing herself slowly and silently. But she is gone now, and has grown into a confident, happy woman who will never go back there again.
Because, as I discovered the minute I stopped, life is SO much better without an eating disorder!
For more information and support about eating disorders, log on to b-eat.co.uk