What Can Be Done To Prevent Eating Disorders?

What Can Be Done To Prevent Eating Disorders?

In the past twenty years, since I wrote the first publication in print about bulimia (Hall, 1980) and began working to increase education about eating disorders, I’ve come across hundreds of books written on the subject, countless newspaper and magazine articles, television programs, movies, radio talk shows, and public lectures. Numerous eating disorders organizations and treatment facilities have come in and out of existence, there have been informative conferences and workshops, and a whole new specialty has developed for health-care professionals. My efforts and those of other writers, speakers, organizers, therapists, administrators, and educators have helped real people. Also, due to increased public awareness, individuals with eating disorders are today able to find help more readily available and know that they are not alone with their problem.

Sadly, there are still millions of people who suffer with eating disorders and countless others who are preoccupied with weight and body dissatisfaction. In fact, after a brief rise and decline in the incidence of bulimia in the early ’80s, which may have been due to the early public awareness of this condition, the prevalence of this eating disorder has not diminished despite our educational efforts. It is apparent that although we have defined bulimia and developed a variety of successful treatment programs for it and other eating problems, our long term goal must be to prevent these disorders altogether.

Healthy eating and the dangers of dieting must be incorporated into every elementary, junior high, and high school curriculum. We should further educate parents, prospective parents, teachers, the medical community, fitness instructors, physical educators, clergy, the media at large, and others about the symptoms, causes, and consequences of eating disorders, with early detection and intervention in mind. However, in order to be successful, prevention programs must go beyond the presentation of basic information, which has shown to be largely ineffective (Piran, 1998). Despite our best intentions, an hour lecture about bulimia, for example, may only teach listeners how to become bulimic!

For prevention to truly work, the approach must be participatory, systemic, and long-term. It is ineffective to solely teach a student about the hazards of eating disorders without also educating her teachers, parents, and peers. Too frequently, a health instructor will offer information on healthy eating and the futility of dieting, only to have the student attend a next class with a teacher who is on a diet, then have lunch with friends who only eat carrots and celery, return home to a family that is weight prejudiced, and look at magazines and television commercials that advocate the false promise of thinness. To actualize prevention, the message must permeate an individual’s whole life; it must be integrated into all areas of our culture.

In a perfect world, free from eating disorders, all people would appreciate that love and self-esteem are their birthright regardless of shape or weight. Families, aware of the causes and consequences of eating disorders, would be a constant source of communication and sharing. Women would be safe from victimization in their homes, in the work place, on public streets, and in the media. Inner beauty and competence would be recognized and rewarded without regards to age, color, or body shape. Food would be a symbol of life rather than a tool for abuse. In other words, people would be allowed to be themselves without conforming to tight-fitting roles based on artificial limits.

There are so many different factors which contribute to an eating disorder that all contributing factors, whether they are cultural, social, biological, familial, emotional, sexual or other, must be addressed in order to achieve real prevention. This is a lofty goal that would require a revolution of contemporary thought. But I believe that every person who recovers from an eating disorder, every person who even embarks on recovery or who refuses to diet is just that—a revolutionary. And the repercussions of that person’s actions can be far-reaching. Certainly, institutional change is crucial, but even those are made up of individuals capable of transformation.

Obviously, we have a long way to go, but we must each move in the right direction. Striving for far-reaching goals means that we must first face weight prejudice in our own lives and learn to embrace ourselves and others, regardless of differences. It is only within an atmosphere of mutual love and respect that we will fully realize eating disorders prevention on an individual, and ultimately a societal, level.

Reprinted with permission from Bulimia: A Guide to Recovery
By Lindsey Hall and Leigh Cohn
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