Finding the order in disorder
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
“If the shoe doesn’t fit, must we change the foot?” - Gloria Steinam
In 2021, J.K. Rowling’s menstrual polemic woke me up to the fact that I hadn’t menstruated for almost a year.
This was because I had unwittingly joined the estimated two to five percent of Brits who are “directly affected by eating disorders”, 75% of whom are female. Relative Energy Deficiency and secondary amenorrhea is prevalent among women with eating disorders. Unlike famines and war, such mental illnesses lack clear causal dependence.
Perhaps eating disorders prevail in women because men suffer silently. Perhaps women attain shocking ‘lightness’ where men attain undisputed facades of strength. Giorgio suggests eating disorders are caused not simply by media representations of beauty, but also the ethical dilemma of professional pressure— women who seek ‘masculine social positions’ are more prone to eating disorders than those who do not.
What can a woman do to be in control of her health? If you consult social media or the internet (a teenager’s main resource for such queries during the pandemic) you will find contradicting opinions on health and weight management - eat more fruit, not too much, do cardio, do more than cardio, participate in online ‘flat stomach’ workouts, but not too often or you will become a doorknob (see Tik Tok page ‘Chloe Ting Turned me Into a Door’ with one million views).
Alongside the trans community, I was bewildered at Rowling’s insistence that gender identity should be defined by menstruation. However, I am grateful for the attention that it brought to my amenorrhea, because it caused me to take my eating disorder seriously. As it turns out, periods are indicators of overall physical health.
After sufficient hypochondria, I took myself to an Edinburgh Women’s Health and confessed my decreasing food intake and ever-increasing exercise. She condoned my “healthy slim physique”, much to my confusion. “If you want control over your cycle”—a gleam in her eye— “The Contraceptive Pill will help.”
My quest for autonomy and health was diverted onto a quick-fix contraceptive that put me at risk of side-effects (one being higher risk of blood-clots than the forbidden AstraZeneca Vaccine). In 2016, JAMA Psychiatry discovered that birth control triples women’s risk of suicide. Clearly, the Pill is not the answer. Why does reproductive control dominate all aspects of women’s health? BEAT stated “69% of people with an eating disorder felt that their GP did not know how to help them”. This seems plausible given my own experience. Health inequality is currently an impediment for treating eating disorders in women. Women’s health consultants have an urgent responsibility to provide specialist care. Teachers should also be trained so that health education is a priority in secondary schools. This is the first step towards lowering the soaring rate of eating disorders amongst young women.
In 2020, £70 million went towards the government's obesity strategy”. Meanwhile, eating disorder research is grossly underfunded, according to scientists. As of April 6th, 2022, restaurant menus in England are legally forced to show calorie count. Yet, it has been proved that calorie counting leads to eating disorders. In lockdown, there were limited exercise options and incessant reports on weight management, creating the conditions for eating disorders to grow. Our political culture is obsessively fearful of fat and hyper-focused on outdated weight-loss methods, while indifferent to eating disorder sufferers.
Women would be justified in listening to Menstrual Health Experts before GPs, since medicine students only get two hours of training on eating disorders throughout their degrees, insufficiently equipping them for the reality of eating disorder treatment.
Marie Curie’s famous quote “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood’’ applies to patriarchal fear of the natural female body that is only recently being deconstructed. The world of medicine seriously lacks an understanding of women’s bodies, and this perpetuates a complete absence of empathy and professional knowledge surrounding eating disorders, as an illness that predominately affects women. It was important for me to get my period back because this correlated to tackling my eating disorder and therefore becoming healthier, however, misunderstanding around my body put me at risk.
Books such as Period Power by Maisie Hill gave me a holistic understanding of the way my body worked and what it was telling me. Only then could I understand how my eating disorder was impacting on my health and thereby begin to recover.
Institutions of education and medicine have a duty to recognize and prioritise women’s health. Until then, the vital work of feminists and menstrual health experts protect our right to informed choices and adequate healthcare by ensuring that related issues, including eating disorders, remain at the forefront of conversation.
Holding women to stigmatised ideas of thinness, beauty and reproductive obligation continues to impede on our health and wellbeing, and it is time things began to change.
If you or a loved one are coping with an eating disorder, contact Beat’s Student Helplines at 0808 801 0811.
For more helplines and resources see https://www.mind.org.uk.