Anorexia and Obesity: Strange Bedfellows
Bear with me, because I like to start an opinion piece with an epiphany, or a moment of clarity, and this one was flooring.
At the height of my exercise addiction, I was well in to my second hour of a morning run, about 8am, and I was done. Everything hurt. My brain was screeching at me but my body was fighting back equally as hard. It was full blown civil war. I kept pushing, safe in the knowledge that my mental strength would win out. It always won out, and my body, the weakest part of me, would be brought in to line and punished with further pain.
As I rounded the corner, I saw an extremely overweight girl waddling to her P-Plated Ford Laser. She must've been between 17 and 21, no older, and in her right hand she had two McDonalds muffins, one of them being demolished with haste, and in her left hand she had a giant iced chocolate from Gloria Jeans, piled like the leaning tower of Pisa with whipped cream. I was disgusted. How could someone abuse their body like that? It was 8 in the morning and she was probably consuming her entirely daily intake in about 10 minutes. Yuck, what a fat, weak willed, disgusting individual.
This wasn't the first time that internal monologue played out in my head, in fact it was one I experienced daily. However, I turned the next corner and stopped dead. I NEVER stop running, not until the end, and even then I try for an extra couple of kms. But I stopped and almost threw up. Me and this anonymous girl are at completely different ends of the same spectrum. We are fighting the exact same battle. She is no weaker than I, and I am no stronger than her. Since that moment, I have not once judged an obese person, and I'm here to tell you right now why you shouldn't.
You wouldn't walk up to an admitted anorexic and tell them to eat more food. Even the most dimwitted of individuals recognises that, if it were that easy, the person wouldn't be anorexic in the first place. Similarly, people are beginning to realise that you don't tell someone with clinical depression to snap out of it, or something with panic disorder to chill out and relax, and you especially don't tell someone with schizophrenia to get over themselves and just not listen to the other voices and personalities in their head. So why is there still such a blatant stigma against overweight people? Binge Eating Disorder is now recognised amongst the eating disorder spectrum, and eating disorders are recognised as mental health problems, not behavioural ones. Yet the mainstream media pursues this ideal that fat people are a burden on society and that their life would be infinitely better if they made some simple, easy changes.
There are a number of reasons why people are overweight or obese. Wilding (2001) says that whilst genetics can be partly to blame, environmental factors are far more important in determining whether an individual is obese or not. I find this difficult to swallow, and Wilding published in 2001, which is a world away from 2014. We live in a society of Michelle Bridges, of Biggest Loser, of articles every Tuesday about how obesity is costing billions of dollars worldwide in healthcare and is an entirely reversible yet extremely prevalent cause of death. Never in human history has it been clearer that obesity is bad, exercise is good, and never has there been such an abundance of information and help for people who are overweight to change their lives around. In 2007, a staggering 64% of Australian's were overweight. That figure is mind boggling. In the US, figures have barely moved in the past decade. It seems you can lead a horse to water, but it's a whole different kettle of fish teaching them how to drink.
So why? Well, to identify that I have dipped in to my vast knowledge of a previously maligned condition, anorexia. There are direct parallels between the two afflictions. An emotional aspect, dense psychological ties and a cheap and relatively easy form of escapism. Binge eating is a simple response to an external or internal stressor. Emotional eating is a body's natural response when the environment it is being forced to endure isn't providing it with the pleasurable activities it craves. Eating becomes a source of pleasure, and for someone who has little other pleasure in their lives, is it any wonder they gravitate towards food to comfort them? The same is true of anorexia. Being hungry and losing weight provide this pleasure, and so we seek it out. The problem, like any addiction, is the way in which the brain's chemistry works. For an anorexic, Dopamine is activated when we believe we have done something good, like skip a meal or lose a kilo. Unfortunately, Dopamine only provides us with pleasure for a limited period of time, before it is re-absorbed. We need to skip another meal, run another mile, lose another kilo. The cycle repeats, and so it does with food. That spinach and fetta roll you had for a snack was great, but by the time lunch comes around, you feel like crap again. So it's KFC for a ridiculously tasty 3 piece feed. But, again, the Dopamine is re-absorbed, and by afternoon tea you're craving again. Rather than having to deal with hunger pains and cravings on top of all the other crap you're dealing with, it is much easier to give in to this particular 'need', satisfy it, and feel good for a while. It beats feeling like shit all the time.
You may find it perplexing that in this ultra health conscious world, where things like Lite N Easy and Jenny Craig and 24 hour gyms exist that people can still be overweight, can still be putting their health at risk. I don't, not one bit, and I despise it when people comment on the obese man ordering a cheeseburger, or the overweight woman choosing regular coke over diet. I didn't always think this way. I used to tut, as I tucked in to my carrot and my anemic salad, watching fat people eating kebabs and deep fried prawns and giant cookies at 10am in the morning. I thought myself well above them, much stronger, more in control, with will power they could only dream of. Now I don't bat an eyelid, and I genuinely feel for them. Sometimes, food is the only pleasurable thing in someones life. When they eat, they escape all the shit that is swirling around them, all the deadlines and annoying bosses and sick relatives and debt problems. For those few minutes, it is blissful, and food provides them with something they haven't been able to get anywhere else.
Addiction and eating disorders are so misunderstood by the general public, and it's not hard to see why. If you've never had those voices in your head, screaming at you to do something, even when you know it's the wrong thing to do, that your health will be worse off and you may even be heading for an early grave because of it, you'll never know the true power they have. You may have the motivation to go to the gym every day, to eat a green salad for lunch and to take the stairs instead of the elevator. Congratulations. But you derive pleasure from those things. It gives you a sense of achievement that you are lacking elsewhere in your world, it gives you something to be proud of (and you should be!). Some people just do not have that motivation, at all. For them, a diet is torture, because it's denying them happiness, it's causing them discomfort. One of the first thing I learned in CBT and Behavioural sciences relating to anxiety and depression was to schedule pleasurable activities at least 4 times a day. They could be as simple as going for a walk, taking a long bath, having a massage, listening to your favourite song or watching a movie. But what if those things don't give you pleasure? What if your pleasurable activity is to eat? You can resist it for a while, but eventually the temptation is too great.
Do not judge those who are overweight. We all exist on this planet together, and we all have vastly different lives and mental states. The person you laugh at because they can't fit through the turnstile at the station may be suffering more pain than you could even imagine, and just by enduring it and continuing with their lives they are showing more strength than you'll ever need to muster. A bit of empathy goes a long way.