Despite living in Africa, I do not ride elephants to school nor do the roar of lions wake me up in the morning. Africa is largely stereotyped to be the home to a society of one race, with freely roaming animals and inferior technology and infrastructure. I can say with certainty that I am not the only South African to have been asked whether or not I have wifi at home, or received strange looks when I tell them I identify as a white South African.
The reason I speak of these stereotypes is because I feel as though many, many, people do not realize that “modern-day” problems still exist in South Africa. One of these problems plaguing my community, and my generation as a whole, has become particularly ignored in the government and media.
Mental health and eating disorders are not issues affecting only the wealthy and rich living in first world countries.
Every survivor of an eating disorder has a story that is unique and personal to that individual alone. Therefore, before continuing I must make it clear that everything I have written is about my experience and may not relate to everyone. My sole intention is to bring awareness to the topic and share my experiences.
Many people do not realize that those who suffer from an eating disorder are not doing so out of choice or in the pursuit of having the “perfect body”. Generally, there is an internal conflict within oneself involving food, and the number on a measuring scale. However, many are not visibly underweight. Moreover, these illnesses are not limited to specific groups. There are no prerequisites in terms of location, socio-economic status, age, or gender. Hence, anyone can fall victim to developing an eating disorder.
This is my story about how I came to the realization of the inaccuracy of these stereotypes and an explanation as to why simply following generalizations is detrimental to our future in combating eating disorders.
My food battle began in grade eight. I attended a school in which the pressure to excel was intense, which was further heightened by being in a learning environment with overachieving people. I had also been told that I tend to make situations worse by putting myself under the mental strain of having to be the “best.”
Soon, I began to crumble from the pressure, and subconsciously, I began using food as a form of external control. For me, the idea of being physically attractive fed into the nature of the illness, but that was not my main objective. My disordered eating developed as an internal friend, offering me a form of control.
At the beginning of grade ten, I hit an all time low. My condition became so severe that I could not spend a full day at school due to constant anxiety attacks and feeling faint. Overall, it was evident that I was crashing to my family and to my peers. My disorder consumed every inch of my being. I was trapped in a toxic reward and motivation system in which restriction was my motivation, and control was my reward. My actions became compulsive rather than logical, and this way of acting and thinking became an automatic coping mechanism.
I distinctly remember one day at school in which I had a cracker during a break. I spent the entirety of the next hour lesson walking around the school hating myself for caving and allowing myself to “fail”. This is how much power the disorder had over my mental state. The trigger point for the start of my battle against food was the overwhelming pressure for academic excellence, and the control I needed to feel grounded. Now, I was sacrificing my education to be the perfect anorexic.
On April 30, 2019, I was admitted to an eating disorder program in one of South Africa’s government psychiatric hospitals. I still refused to recognize that I had an eating disorder primarily due to the fact that I was not overtly underweight, and my periods had not stopped.
My eating disorder thrived off of my insecurities and the feeling that I would never be good enough. I decided that I did not deserve to have the title of an eating disorder unless I was noticeably skeletal- the way a sick person is “meant” to look. I fought the recommendation of all the health specialists, continuing in my self-destructive ways until I was “perfect” enough to earn that title.
Sitting in the hospital, these thoughts still circled my mind; I was never thin enough to earn it.
I spent four months in the hospital where my previous perceptions about eating disorders, stereotypes, and stigmas were broken down. Throughout my time there, I met around twelve patients, all of them with different stories and different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Being in a ward together 24/7 meant that we had ample time to bond and learn about each other. Despite our ages varying from 13 to 41, having different home languages and being part of different religions, we were all there for the same reason. We were all sick, not out of similar circumstances, and not because we chose to be, but because we all fell victim to the lies of stability and happiness that the disease offered.
Each of us in the ward came in at different weights and sizes (from being severely underweight to even being overweight), but we all had a similar agonizing fear with each bite of food we took, and with each Monday weigh-in. None of us thought we matched the prerequisites to having an eating disorder- the stereotypes had consumed us as well.
So, what is the issue with stereotyping eating disorders? Perhaps, had I not forced myself to believe that I did not have a sickness (due to not being thin enough), I would have saved myself from a great deal of emotional, physical, and mental torture; I would’ve begun walking the path of recovery sooner.
Each person that dies due to disordered eating related circumstances takes their potential for bettering our world with them. For all one knows, had these thousands of patients been given the support they needed instead of being ignored, we could be living in a far more progressive, and superior society.
Stereotypes are dangerous to the potential progress of the person who falls victim to an eating disorder. Conventionalized ideas about eating disorders made my feelings and condition feel invalid. According to a study done by the Eating Recovery Centre, due to misconceptions, lack of education, and stigma, nearly 70% of people will not seek treatment.
In addition, the source shows that up to 80% of patients that receive proper treatment will recover or improve drastically.
Imagine how many lives we could save if we increase the percentage of people able to seek help.
It has been almost a year since I was in the hospital, and I have learned that the pathway to recovery is in no way linear. I have had times when I fell back into my destructive ways and digressed exceptionally. However, there have also been times in which the internal war is absolutely silent, and full recovery seems almost in reach. I have learned the necessity of external support, and that asking for it does not mean I am any less of a person. Within my school I have two incredible teachers that consistently give me a space of safety. I have an amazing medical team and more than that, I have family and friends who have stood by me, listened to me, and who have tried to understand my disorder. I will never have the words to express how much I appreciate these people who play such pivotal roles in my life.
I ultimately would like to make clear that we are in an era of change; our generation specifically is striving to pave the way for a sustainable and liberating future. In order for us to do that, we need to listen, and understand people. It seems so simple, the ability to listen and understand is one of the most powerful tools in fighting eating disorders. The biggest flaw in this battle is that many people do not see past the stereotypes that consumed myself and my friends in the ward. Some people simply refuse to educate themselves. This cements the generalizations even further into our minds, and limits our ability to create real, tangible change.
Perhaps, if we choose to be more open minded, we could live up to the name of being the generation of change. Every single one of us has a story to share, and if and only if we choose to listen and internalize each other’s struggles, will we truly move forwards in the seemingly everlasting brawl with harmful stereotypes.
Above is an opinion piece that does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Humanitarian Collective, its Editorial Board, opinion editors, constituents, or sponsors.
Natalia Levin is a 17 year old from Johannesburg, South Africa. She lives in a very diverse country which has always taught her to look deeper into people’s stories and to not judge them off stereotypes. This has given her a love for learning about history and having controversial and interesting discussions and debates. She is a very ambitious person and hopes that one day, she will be able to explore and travel the world.