Author: Noa Quarles van Ufford
Nobody likes to be excluded. You yourself have probably experienced a fear of missing out when you can’t attend a party or get-together with your friends or the even worse feeling of loneliness when you aren’t invited to an event in the first place.
This is how eating disorders can influence a person’s relationships and social life. Many social experiences and events revolve around or include food. Just imagine a brunch date, sharing some popcorn at the movies or even getting together for a family dinner. Individuals with eating disorders tend to avoid such situations as food – especially within public contexts where their routines built around eating are disrupted and out of their control – can cause immense stress and anxiety (DIPEX Charity 2018). However, avoiding eating in public often means avoiding social gatherings as whole. As a result, individuals suffering from eating disorders often experience inadvertent social exclusion from friends and family.
A Loss of Control
For many, the development of an eating disorder starts with a feeling that food and eating are the only aspects of their life over which they have full control (McCallum Place 2019). This feeling of being in control can provide steadiness and reliability in an otherwise uncertain world, as well as offer a sense of empowerment to counter feelings of insecurity and unfulfillment (McCallum Place 2019). The unpredictability of social activities involving food is thus extremely stressful for those suffering from eating disorders. In fact, they often describe feeling judged or self-conscious when being watched while eating, and even scared that others might think they don’t deserve to eat at all (DIPEX Charity 2018). This means no cocktail nights with the girls, no dinner parties with friends, no parties.
This sense of losing control is only exacerbated as the eating disorder develops. Soon, instead of being the one managing their habits, those suffering from eating disorders feel like their disease is managing them. At this point, individuals will often not feel able or “allowed” to engage in social activities involving eating or drinking, the disorder completely taking over their capacity for making personal decisions (Michael 2014).
Physical and Mental Health
Think about all the activities you participated in throughout the past week. Which of these were physically demanding or tiring? Now imagine you had avoided these activities. What would your week have looked like?
Regularly refusing to eat or purging your body of food leaves devastating fingerprints on someone’s physical condition. Soon, individuals may feel too tired to even leave their homes due to the physical tolls of their disorders. This exacerbates the social exclusion they may already be experiencing as they will not only avoid all interactions revolving around food, but also those that are in any way physically demanding (Kaye 2021).
Finally, eating disorders rarely manifest out of the blue. Instead, they are usually accompanied by additional mental illnesses such as low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder (Mahoney 2021). These mental health issues can make social gatherings even more draining, further limiting their social interactions.
Many people who have struggled with eating disorders bring up feeling as though their eating disorder held them back from engaging in many social activities (DIPEX Charity 2018). Each of the factors mentioned – the obsession with maintaining control, one’s physical condition and further mental health issues – contribute to their struggle to engage in social events and foster relationships with friends, family and loved ones.
Think of dinner time with your family, for many busy families a rare occasion where they are all together. Think of the many holidays centered around sharing meals: Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, marking the end of Ramadan by breaking fast with a day of feasting on Eid al-Fitr, or enjoying the wide range of foods served at the seder table during Passover. Think of that first date, eating out at a romantic restaurant. Think of going to the movies with your friends and arguing over whether to get the sweet or salty popcorn.
In certain cases, people with eating disorders are not only excluded socially, but also professionally. Think of the work ‘borrel’ or fancy reception at which not only connections and friendships are fostered between colleagues, but also where the boss decides who to promote or where partnerships between firms are finalized over drinks. Imagine not attending any such events. What would your social life look like?
DIPEX Charity (2018). “Eating Disorders (Young People): Social Life and Public Places.” HealthTalk. At https://healthtalk.org/eating-disorders/social-life-and-public-places.
Kaye, W. (2021). “Health Consequences.” National Eating Disorders Association. Athttps://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/health-consequences.
Mahoney, B. (2021). “Common Mental Health Disorders Associated with Eating Disorders.” Center for Discovery: Eating Disorder Treatment. At https://centerfordiscovery.com/blog/common-mental-health-disorders-associated-eating-disorders/.
McCallum Place (2019). “The Illusion of Control in the Development of Eating Disorders.” EatingDisorderHope.com. At https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/blog/illusion-control-development-eating-disorders.
Michael (2014). “Is This Really about Control?” NEDA: Feeding Hope. Athttps://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/really-about-control.
NIMH (2018). “Eating Disorders: About More Than Food.” National Institutes of Health. At https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders/index.shtml.