“The popular media, in celebrating skinny celebrities, is largely to be blamed for the problem. Its message has given rise to a phenomenon called ‘social obesity’, which shifts the healthy range of body mass index from 18.5-22.9 to 17-21” (Pre-Teens Go For Thin, The Sunday Times Editorial).
The Sunday Times Editorial “Pre-Teens Go For Thin” (December 5, 2010) brings much-needed attention to the worrying proliferation of eating disorders; with the report corroborated by facts and figures from the relevant hospitals and psychiatrists. Because of the stigma associated with anorexia or bulimia nervosa – as with many other psychiatric disorders – academic studies or awareness campaigns targeted at the aforementioned are, unfortunately, far and few between. Therefore, knowledge of the fact that the number of patients is on the rise should not only set alarm bells ringing, but also galvanise the relevant agencies or ministries to develop more comprehensive proposals.
However, to assert that the popular media should be “largely blamed for the problem” demonstrates a common misconception towards the actual causes of eating disorders. Elements of the media – parading stick-thin models, stereotyping “perfect” body types, promoting diet regimes et cetera – can be dangerous perpetuating factors, but are rarely the root causes per se. Establishing the basis to the problem is important, for it empowers individuals and groups to mould their eventual efforts more responsibly and effectively.
Interaction with a plethora of anorexia survivors has been beneficial in providing such insights. Many girls get obsessive about their weight and body size in the hope of reaching goals they have set for themselves, getting acceptance from their girlfriends or their parents and boyfriends. Quintessentially, these self-esteem and body image concerns can stem from perfectionist attitudes, excessive competitiveness within the society, schools or amongst peers, and also from sentiments of insecurity. More importantly, individuals and administrators should be cognisant that these risk factors cannot be casually generalised; and that each patient deserves a meticulous case-by-case approach.
For us, a support programme that takes girls through an actual or mental dialogue to discover the underlying causes of their unhappiness or insecurities would be more effectual than a hollow campaign against how girls are portrayed in the media, or needless scare tactics. This can be done through, for instance, healthy and candid dialogues between eating disorder sufferers and survivors, as well as the general public. A generic awareness campaign would be favourable in terms increasing public knowledge about the pervasiveness of negative body and food attitudes in society, enhancing the sensitivity of parents and youths to harmful messages and practices, and reducing the stigma of seeking early treatment.
We are currently in the midst of revamping Food Is Not The Enemy, an eating disorders campaign instituted by Food For All and Project WiTHIN since 2007. With the setting up of an online portal by early next year, and plans to expand outreach and promote dialogue, we hope to see more positive developments in the areas of eating disorders in Singapore in the near future.
Heather Chi (Miss) and Kwan Jin Yao (Mr.)
Food Is Not The Enemy
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.