Beat (a mainstream eating disorder organisation in the UK) recently undertook some research into the relationship between bullying and eating disorders:
A survey of over 600 people by Beat the leading UK eating disorders charity has revealed that 65% felt bullying had contributed to their eating disorder.
The survey also found that 49% were less than 10 years old when the bullying started and many stated that the effects had stayed with them into their 40s and 50s.
Worryingly only 22% actually received any help from someone to overcome their bullying.
I was a little irritated by some people expressing surprise at these findings online because to me it seems an obvious link. The one thing that all the people I know who’ve experienced eating distress have in common is the experience of extreme stress and, for a young person, being bullied is enormously stressful and often involves violation of bodily boundaries, so (just based on my personal experiences) I would think bullying highly likely to increase the risk of developing eating distress.
Beat is particularly interested in promoting self-confidence and self-esteem. I’m a bit dubious about this focus for reasons I’ll elaborate another time, but something else that bullying does – and which was much more of an issue for me than self-esteem – is make you feel totally helpless and out of control of your life. When you’re being bullied, it feels like other people are running your life and can do whatever they want to you. And if no one supports you, it’s even worse.
I’m interested in the findings because my own ED was definitely triggered by bullying. Although I’d experienced a lot of stress in my life by the time I was eleven, I was coping quite well until I got bullied at school, first by other girls, who ostracised me for a period when I was 11, and then when I was 14, by a boy who sexually harassed and assaulted me.
With hindsight, I’m certain that a lot of this bullying had to do with my gender presentation and sexual orientation. I started bingeing, then bingeing and purging, and when I was 15 decided to lose weight, started to diet, and the rest is history.
By the time I was 15 I felt that eating and weight were the only things I could control in my life and losing weight also gained me some approval from my female peers, which I desperately wanted. Dieting and losing weight made me feel more acceptable, more “normal” I suppose.