It’s quite possible to think that eating disorders don’t affect Muslims. Whether it’s Nicole Richie or Lindsay Lohan, the issue of eating disorders is usually associated with rich, skinny and beautiful women. Suffice it to say, the Muslim girl or guy you went to school with or who sits next to you on the bus may also be secretly struggling from an internal battle of emotional chaos or what is otherwise considered as an eating disorder. She or he may close her room door tight, eat mounds of cookies hidden in her closet or say that she or he was full at a dinner party when she secretly was dying of hunger.
What most people fail to understand is that the eating disorders are rarely about food or weight but are symptoms that usually manifest low self-esteem, lack of control, family traumas, damaged relationships and a host of other social problems combined for which eating patterns become guinea pigs for taking control.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) clearly outlines the definitions of various eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. This handbook defines them as disturbances in eating patterns which may involve eating too little, as in the case of anorexia, or overeating and purging which is defined as bulimia. Although these are the main categories of eating disorders, definitions that categorize patients should be taken with a grain of salt as there may be cases where the patient swings from one to the other or has symptoms that are a mixture of those defined in the manual. This combination is symbolic of the nature of each individual in the way they struggle through a disorder as well as its underlying causes. No two women, histories, families, beliefs, needs and wants are the same.
As a result of the traumatic and dangerous symptoms of conditions such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating, societies and families of victims in particular are not equipped to respond to them in the most effective way. Take Sayeeda* for example: She grew up in a conservative household with little freedoms to support her teen angst and frustrations and as a result fell into alcoholism. Upon discovering Sayeeda’s newfound addiction and escapism, her parents withdrew her from her secondary education and arranged for her to marry a man from her local community in Britain. It was then that she began to overeat, feel helplessly guilty about herself and spend hours in the bathroom getting rid of slices of cake. Sayeeda’s parents failed to understand the disorder and respond to their daughter’s cry for help in the most effective way and instead punished her even further for overstepping ‘respectable’ boundaries. Sadly, Sayeeda’s trauma and her parents’ ineffective response to her illness is only one of many that lurk behind many doors.
Societal influences are another ineffective way of responding to and treating disrupted eating habits and arguably are an indirect cause. Magazines usually demonstrate the next popular diet or display women that are long-legged, skinny and beautiful. These imaginary glossy images added to pages of know-how on losing weight are sadly a regular occurrence and cause many women – Muslims included! – to desire skinnier and arguably more attractive bodies. A girl in the midst of her teen years is most vulnerable to these societal influences, at a time when popularity and societal notions of beauty are considered destiny, which explains why teenage women are the majority of victims.
It’s not unusual to find families and societies shaking their head in disbelief and desperation, not knowing the best solution to curing eating disorders. Millions of people are affected by it every day and many suffer in silence with the very real possibility of death lurking in the future because they are not treated in the most effective way. And no, shoving food down an anorexic’s throat will not cure his or her symptoms. Unfortunately, there’s no single drug or medical procedure that can cure these problems in one swoop and counselling is inevitably the best course of action. It is only when the victim acknowledges that they have a problem, that it is possible to pave a way for recovery.
Whether group therapy or individual psychotherapy is used, counselling uncovers hidden issues and seeks to normalise eating patterns. Cognitive-behavioural therapy in particular has been shown to be the most successful because it seeks to address the issue by exploring the reasons behind restricting or bingeing as well as institutionalising an eating pattern without banning particular foods. Depending on the nature of the disorder and how greatly skewed the patient’s thinking is, a General Practitioner will lead him or her to a specialist. Those that are unable to respond to counselling and drugs will most likely be referred to treatment centres where patients receive full-time attention and take part in an intensive recovery programme.
There’s no easy to way to recover. Sometimes patients fail and die in the process, or are hospitalised because they are unable to cope with the emotional stress of an eating disorder. That voice inside their head telling them that they are worthless, low, ugly and pathetic can easily grow into a large cloud that unrelentingly hangs over them. Nonetheless, patients are usually unable to walk the path alone. The bigger their support and care, the higher the chances that they will pull out of their skewed world view and begin to accept themselves and their surroundings for what they are. For parents who have decided that eating disorders are just nonsense, they should look themselves hard in the mirror and accept that if they don’t pull themselves together, their child could suffer severe health complications.
Those that have recovered from an eating disorder usually find that patience is imperative to a successful recovery. This usually entails both friends and families to understand and bear with the difficulties a victim of a disorder can face. Watching a friend, daughter or son lose weight to the point where they appear emaciated is not an easy sight to stomach. Nonetheless, perseverance and patience are keys to giving the victim time to uncover the underlying and hidden concerns that have resulted in disturbed eating patterns. It’s about time we accepted that eating disorders can affect anyone and do not discriminate between a person’s race, religion, gender, values, body type, family size or eye colour.
(Photo: Tollie Schmidt)
Zahra Khimji is a freelance writer and reporter that has worked for various international platforms including The Citizen, The East African, The Muslim News, The Columbia Daily Spectator and Emel Magazine. She currently lives in London.