Not all eating disorders are visible – Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2022

21 February 2022

In February, Student Support and Wellbeing and UCL Mental Health Society joined forces to welcome author and speaker Hope Virgo to the virtual campus. Read on to find out more about eating disorders and supporting those around you to mark Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2022.

blades of grass

An eating disorder (ED) is defined by the NHS as “a mental health condition where you use the control of food to cope with feelings and other situations”. Eating disorders affect people of all body shapes and sizes, ages, genders ethnicities, and Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity estimates that 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder.

Hope, who is an author, campaigner and speaker and has experienced an eating disorder, made it clear that eating disorders are often a response to stressful or traumatic life events, and can be about control. They may be linked to body image, but negative body image doesn’t automatically mean or cause an eating disorder. In Hope’s words, ‘my body image is a projection of my fears onto my body’.

Furthermore, Hope explained that eating disorder culture has become increasingly prevalent in society today. Consider a societal obsession with exercise, ‘health’, calorific content, and diet culture and calorie counting – combined with many people in fashion, marketing campaigns and most recently on social media sporting a certain ‘look’. Think back to Kate Moss and the desirable emaciated look of the 2000s.  

Eating disorder culture not only has a detrimental effect on those with an existing eating disorder, but it can also contribute to the development of disordered eating and diagnosed eating disorders in others.

In Hope’s recovery, she explained that it was powerful to her to look to the future and find a driving factor. In her case, that was to look for hope in her future: joy, travel, have a family – rather than a future of ‘calorie counting, excessive exercise or that dull ache in your stomach.’ She also found it important to be able to sit with thoughts and process through media such as journalling, talking to a trusted person and/or a therapist to work through feelings.

Supporting a friend

If you suspect a friend is developing or has an eating disorder, Hope recommended that you simply ask. It’s likely that your friend may shut down the discussion, but it’s important you don’t make any assumptions about why they may have an eating disorder - remember that it is a sign and symptom that something else is going on. If they don’t respond, respond negatively or shut you down, be patient and check in with them after a few days or weeks.

It’s also important to remember you don’t need to be an expert in order to talk about it, and it’s not your job to fix them. Your role is to be there for them and offer them support. Google can also go some way to help you understand what might be happening.

If your friend has let you know they have an eating disorder, Hope recommends you be considerate and thoughtful when making plans. For example, try not to plan activities around mealtimes or restaurants – if you do, being able to see a menu in advance may help them out. Offering distractions during mealtimes can also be helpful, such as engaging them in conversation, moving on conversations that are about diet or weight.

In the end, your friend is still your friend, Hope explained. They are more than their eating disorder; you can and definitely should invite them along for activities, spend time together and create happy memories together. Finally, check in and ask how they want to be supported, and make sure you create the support and space to communicate with you.

Read Beat’s advice on supporting someone with an eating disorder.

Read the NHS’s advice on supporting someone with an eating disorder.

Support available

Whether you recognise any of these things in yourself or in someone else, there is lots of support available.

Visit Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity.

Find more organisations supporting people with eating disorders.

Visit Student Support and Wellbeing’s resource pages