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Content warning: This story discusses eating disorders and mental health
It’s a condition that affects over one million Australians from various walks of life, but 90 per cent of Aussies say they couldn’t recognise the signs of an eating disorder.
The shocking statistic comes from the latest research by The Butterfly Foundation, the national charity for all Australians impacted by eating disorders and body image issues, and for the families, friends and communities who support them.
The results come after the launch of their Butterfly’s Christmas appeal ‘An Eating Disorder Looks Like Me’, which aims to challenge prevailing stereotypes to show eating disorders don’t have a specific ‘look’, whether it be body shape, age, cultural background, gender, socio-economic status or even eating disorder presentation.
The startling statistics
The results from the latest research are startling, with the findings showing why so many people living with an eating disorder still deal with the stigma of living with the potentially life threatening illness.
A quarter (25%) of Australians still believe eating disorders are a choice and that people could stop their behaviour if they really wanted to.
Over half (57%) of Aussies also incorrectly believe only young women are affected by eating disorders, when in fact more than one million Australians – including males, females, LGBTIQA+, matured-aged, youth and people from all cultural backgrounds – live with an eating disorder.
That leads to 75% of Aussies living with an eating disorder deciding to not seek professional help due to stigma, stereotyping and a belief that they do not fit the mould of how an eating disorder ‘should’ look.
Butterfly Foundation CEO, Kevin Barrow, explains that the holiday season, for people with eating disorders, can prove a very daunting and challenging time of the year.
“For many of us, the holidays mean spending time with family, sharing gifts and enjoying meals together. However, for people living with disordered eating, it can be a triggering time,” he says.
Who could have an eating disorder?
The research also showed that more than one-in-three(37%) of people living with an eating disorder are male. Between 15-20% of people living with bulimia and anorexia are male. There are approximately as many males and females suffering from Binge Eating Disorder.
Almost two thirds (63%) of people living with an eating disorder are female. Women and girls are more likely to experience all types of eating disorders than males and boys.
People who are LGBTIQA+ are at greater risk of developing an eating disorder. Two-in-three trans people report limiting their eating because of their gender identity. 23% of trans people have a current or previous diagnosis of an eating disorder.
Close to 5% of women aged 45+ are currently living with an eating disorder, however, it is difficult to accurately estimate how many older people struggle with mid-life eating disorders. Periods of transition, such as divorce, menopause or retirement can present a risk factor for developing an eating disorder.
People from different cultural backgrounds, including migrants and refugees, are at-risk of developing eating disorders due to post-traumatic stress and prolonged exposure to Western ideals of shape and size.
As part of the campaign, Varsha Yajman, an Indian-Australian woman living with an eating disorder, says that she has suffered with an eating disorder since her teen years.
“I went to a school that was predominately white, so when I started having symptoms of an eating disorder, I didn’t think it would be possible for me to get one because I hadn’t heard of a single brown person having an eating disorder, ever, nor had my family I don’t think,” she explains.
"It was considered a 'first world problem' almost, so it was really difficult to say 'I’m struggling with having an abundance of food in my house.' There was definitely some guilt that came with that, because it’s definitely harder in other countries - even in Australia - for some people (to afford food).
"I’m lucky to have family at home that did come around to understanding, but I know so many that could never have that conversation about seeing a psychologist or any of those things."
Varsha also says you don’t need to be a certain weight, be a certain gender, or have a particular skin colour in order to have an eating disorder.
“If you’re struggling, that’s enough, so I think Butterfly Foundation is a great place to go. Just knowing you have a place of support and a community that’s physically available to you is so important. They’ve helped me and I know so many others too, but they can’t do it on their own.”
How to seek help
“We’re using this time of year to raise awareness, spark conversations and tackle stigma head on,” says Butterfly Foundation CEO Kevin.
“And in the spirit of giving, seeking donations to Butterfly so we can continue to provide critical services that help in the prevention and treatment of eating disorders.”
For confidential support about eating disorders and body image issues you can free call the Butterfly Foundation National Hotline on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673).
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