I suffered from anorexia between the ages of 19 and 21. The January “health kick” period was my saving grace. No one would question when I would nibble meekly on the end of a wilted spinach leaf for lunch. No one would bat an eyelid when I would over-exercise and, of course, the weather was the perfect excuse to hide behind baggy jumpers, so no one would realise how frail I’d become.
As tradition dictates, the new year is a time when people make new goals to “better” themselves over the next 12 months. These goals are often shaped around dieting and fitness.
While there is nothing wrong with wanting to pursue a healthier lifestyle, there can often be cases of miseducation where “yo-yo dieting” and “crash course fitness” can actually have a detrimental effect on your health. And, when your relationship with food is slightly more complicated, the big elephant in the room during this period – eating disorders – can often rear its head.
Society has an insatiable interest in how people look. Personally, I blame the beauty industry and the narrow scopes of conventional beauty it propagates by making billions of pounds of profit every year based on people’s insecurities.
It’s the same in the fitness industry, the largest growing single sector in the UK, which also often makes its profit by encouraging people to conform to some non-existent ideal. As I write, celebrity fitness guides and adverts for “slimming” products have already been rolled out across the country – popping up as soon as you step into any high-street drug store.
The period immediately before and during Christmas and the new year is classically seen as a time of “over-indulgence” with people vowing to “get back on track”. But this can breed an unhealthy relationship with food, and those suffering from eating disorders are more likely to internalise those attitudes and suffer more extreme consequences.
And when it comes to younger generations, starry influencers tend to take precedence around this year too. Individuals can be paid a premium per post for advertising a product. And January is when there’s typically an influx of influencers flogging “weight-loss teas” and shady protein powders.
Khloe Kardashian recently caused outrage when she promoted a “weight-loss lollipop”. It sounds almost laughable, but when you take into consideration how many followers she has, it all suddenly becomes a lot less funny. A large proportion of these celebrities’ followers are teenagers, which is disconcerting at best and outright disturbing at worst.
Having these young people exposed to such confidence-damaging content at such an early age only paves the way to future body confidence issues, because in January, we are made to feel as though something, anything, about our physical appearance has to change.
There are plenty of different kinds of eating disorder. Anorexia and bulimia are well known by name, but there is also OSFED (Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders), where your symptoms can be an amalgamation of different eating disorders and so often the lines are blurred.
Eating disorders are also not entirely down to personal appearance. Often the crushing weight of stress and anxiety can be an appetite suppressant or feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy can lead one to create a test – sustain hunger for as long as possible.
During my penultimate year of study at the University of Cambridge, I would abstain from eating as punishment if I felt my studies were not going to plan. The latest trend of “clean eating” has also received a major backlash as it, rather obviously, fuels orthorexia, the restrictive eating disorder that doesn’t permit any food deemed “unhealthy”.
While January can be seen as an opportunity to achieve personal goals and ambitions, centring them around the way you look, or worse, projecting those expectations onto someone else, can create dangerous outcomes. So while people should feel free to embrace change if that’s what makes them happy, it should never come at the cost of being kinder to our bodies.
If you have been affected by this article, you can contact the following organisations for support:
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