Dark White Eating Disorder
Photo by Cristian Newman

Have you ever imagined what it must be like to experience an eating disorder?

There are many accounts from people across the world, each individual with their own unique experience; however most of them carry the shame, guilt, and self-loathing this disorder presents them with, presenting them with possibly the greatest challenge of their life. 

When an individual develops an eating disorder they wage war with their body and their mental processes become absorbed by thoughts of food and what to do with it!  However the eating disorder also becomes their trust-worthy friend, it calms and placates, entertains them when they are bored, sits with them and feeds negativity like a lamb for slaughter!

Consequences of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders inflict severe emotional and psychological damage to those with this illness and are painful for their families and those close to them, however, the eating disorder also communicates to others their distress and unhappiness.

The conflicts, pressures and stress experienced by the individual in relation to issues of self-esteem, dependency, acceptance and responsibility are seen by symbolic representations in their behaviour which may lead to patterns of obsessive dieting, self-starvation, binging and purging and a preoccupation with food.

The experience can be complex, ambivalent and contradictory; complex as there are a range of issues to be untangled, ambivalent as there is a tension between wanting to recover and the fear of change; contradictory as the eating disorder is the solution and the problem.

It presents a destructive lifestyle that nevertheless keeps the person in control, safe and protected and is a dependable and consistent presence in their life.

man sitting on sofa against wall
Photo by Nik Shuliahin

The Cultural Dimension to Eating Disorders

Working with an eating disorder in Egypt adds a cultural dimension which at times increases the complexities and difficulties of working with this disorder. 

Culture plays an important role in the cause and reasoning of mental health. Cultural beliefs can shape the way people identify stress and the way in which they seek help. Psychological theories within western societies are based on their own cultures and may be foreign to cultural beliefs. This may complicate and cause difficulties as a result of the stigma, ignorance and lack of awareness attached to mental health issues.

Egypt is an ancient city, the place where femininity was first invented and the traditional values of the Egyptian society do not value a thin body, it attaches more significance to a woman’s fertility and idealises womanhood. 

These values have in the past protected the country from the development of eating disorders, however today we are seeing an increase in morbid eating patterns which are beginning to be as prominent in Egypt as they are in the western world. This may be due to the global culture materialising in Egypt, and the influence of the media may well be a contribution to the development and increase of abnormal behaviour. 

It is also known in Arab culture that women use different strategies for dealing with body dissatisfaction such as veiling, plastic surgery and covering the body. In Egypt, it appears that all these strategies now easily available adding pressure to the norms of a culture that has been bound for centuries by Islamic ideals and the cultural lead is for women not to have thin bodies.

The Recovery Journey

Recovery from an eating disorder is never easy, never short and never painless. The gaining of weight or relinquishing ones unhealthy eating behaviour is a slow, arduous struggle full of emotional turmoil, not just for the person with the eating disorder but also the family, peers and society.

An individual rarely recovers without support or guidance. Recovery is complex, not only does an individual have to rebuild their body physically, but psychologically as well. There is considerable evidence to support that the earlier treatment begins the more likely it is for them to recover, but the first signs of an eating disorder are subtle and often meticulously concealed by the sufferer.  With time, distorted body image and low self-esteem become deep-rooted behaviours and habits become ingrained.  

The first and perhaps most difficult step in treatment is for the individual to acknowledge that they have a problem, with a desire for change and to give up the disorder. Working with the eating disorder we also work with the family whose values and beliefs may cause conflict and complicate the person’s process,  when in reality their true desire is to feel accepted and loved for who they are. 

It’s important to acknowledge to both the individual and their family that the eating disorder is something they have, not who they are.  The separation of the person and the eating disorder allows for a greater understanding and awareness allowing the person to take the control back to move forward in their recovery.

person holding amber glass bottle
Photo by Christine Hume

Diving Deeper: What is an Eating Disorder? 

It is a mental illness, and can be helpful to look at it in 3 parts; food, body image and control.  The three types of eating disorders we often hear of are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating disorder, however each individual’s pattern and experience is unique and are quite often accompanied with high levels of anxiety and depression. 

Asking for help is the first step on the road to recovery and with time, support, understanding, compassion and sensitivity can lead the individual to experience a whole new way of life and being.

Make sure to join our conversation around mental health on the EMPWR Facebook Community Group: “Empowering YOU”