Eating disorders: who’s affected and what is ‘Thinspiration’?

Young people and the concern about body image seem to go hand in hand, especially with the ‘selfie’ generation in full swing (don’t forget to add a filter). Getting to know your body and accepting who you are both physically and mentally is a part of growing up, but when does it go too far? When does focusing on body image become too much and how can this cause an eating disorder?

The facts:

 The most accurate figures regarding the prevalence of eating disorders are those from the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence. These suggest that 1.6 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, of which around 11% are male. However, more recent research from the NHS information centre showed that up to 6.4% of adults displayed signs of an eating disorder (Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, 2007).    

 Eating disorders are responsible for the highest number of deaths from psychiatric illness. Anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of age, sex, cultural or racial background, although the people most likely to be affected tend to be young women, particularly between the ages of 12-25.

The pressure on young people

 Dr Alex Yellowlees, Medical Director and Consultant Psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital Glasgow treats many patients with eating disorders and is fully aware of the dangers of unrealistic body images and the negative effects that the pursuit of ‘thinness’ can have on vulnerable individuals.

Dr Yellowlees recently discussed this issue within a Priory Group article ‘Searching for ‘Thinspiration’ online’  . ‘Thinspiration’ is a term which describes images and other media intended to provide inspiration and encouragement to lose weight, which has been taken to even greater extremes with the advent of ‘Skinneepix’ a smart phone app for which the description reads: "SkinneePix makes your photos look good and helps you feel good. It’s not complicated. No one needs to know. It’s our little secret."

Dr Yellowlees said:  “The pressure on young people, particularly young women, when it comes to their appearance is huge, as we're surrounded by wall-to-wall coverage of airbrushed models and celebrities.  

“Young women seeking a sense of self-esteem, self-identity and confident femininity are more vulnerable to society's seductive messages suggesting that in order to be worthy, sexy, successful, powerful and happy they must pursue the perfect body at all costs.

“When even an app on your smart phone is telling you that being 15lbs skinnier is a good thing that is a step too far, even in today’s image obsessed society.”

The reality

According to ChildLine, the charity received more than 10,500 calls and online inquiries from young people struggling with food and weight-related anxiety in the last financial year. It believes this dramatic increase could be attributed to several factors, including the increased pressure caused by social media, the growth of celebrity culture, and the rise of anorexia websites.

Sue Minto, head of ChildLine, said: “We are seeing increasing numbers of contacts about eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. These are complex issues, and the rise in contacts is unlikely to be down to any one thing.

“But we do know that in some cases the trigger can be abuse in childhood. We also know that the 24/7 nature of social media places huge pressures on our children and young people which in turn can lead to significant emotional issues. And society is increasingly bombarded with celebrities and airbrushed images which give an impossible view of what ‘beautiful’ is.”

Where to turn...

Dr Yellowlees said:  It can be difficult for anyone to acknowledge that they have an eating disorder but professional help should always be sought as soon as possible.  Anorexia needs specialist help to treat both the psychological causes and its physical effects.

“Contacting your GP is often the easiest way to get help and further treatment.  They may offer you psychological counselling or dietary counselling, or refer you to a specialist, such as the Priory hospitals for further assessment. This may lead to outpatient treatment or, if more serious, day or inpatient treatment.    

Enjoying a full recovery from an eating disorder is highly achievable, particularly when help is sought early on and treatment followed through a structured programme. Treatment for an eating disorder can be life-changing.”

For further information on the full range of Priory services please call: 0845 277 4679.