Disorderly behaviour

Dear loyal GWAS reader,

A quick FYI: As Husband has acquired a brand spanking new Mac for our home office, I shall be posting at night, which, in turn, means the more I yabber on to you, the less cuddles he gets – I shall therefore endeavour to keep things succinct (which really benefits you anyway, no?)!

Anyhoo, I have just been watching Insight on SBS. It's a brilliant program. Host Jenny Brockie (a Gold Walkley Award winner for excellence in journalism and 20-odd years experience in broadcast journalism, no less) is a first-class act, mediating between the studio guests better than Oprah (and with far less interjecting with relatable stories of personal experience with BFF Gale). Tonight's topic: 'Starving For Answers', which addressed eating disorders: "the trends, the science, the treatments."

What I coincidence, I thought! Not only has disorderly eating been a journalistic passion of mine, I was also intending to blog about a truly excellent book that any girl in her twenties, and her mother, should read – Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters – The Frightening New Normality of Hating Your Body by 27-year-old American journalist Courtney E. Martin (who is quite possibly the Naomi Wolf of Gen Y).

One of Australia's foremost experts on eating disorders, Dr Jenny O'Dea, was part of tonight's Insight panel. I've interviewed her before and was knocked over by her common sense-approach and pure passion for the subject. She's just undertaken a massive survey of 9,000-odd school-age children (2006) and found the occurence of eating disorders and disorderly eating (i.e. dieting, over-exercise, laxative abuse) has increased substantially since 2002. With all the media-fuelled paranoia about obesity and the subsequent in-school programs, etc., it's no wonder kids are thinking about food a little differently than they did before (say, like, when we were kids: the odd sausage roll and ice-cream was unconsciously worked off with games of chasies around the asphalt playgrounds; not with sessions at the gym – life was simpler then).

The main causes of eating disorders, as identified by the program's esteemed panel, which also included child psychologist Kenneth Nunn and Susan Sawyer from the Royal Children's hospital, are a genetic predisposition towards depression and anxiety, a lack of proper life coping mechanisms (or did I just make that up?), perfectionism (which Martin delves deeply into throughout her book), competitiveness, and a desire to control one's circumstances (which, as a little lady of God, I know is really not possible – the more control you try to exert over your world, the more messed up/out of control it seems to become!).

There were three women on the panel – two teens, a girl in her mid-20s and lady in her 60s – who all shared their experience of living with an eating disorder. Proving EDs are not merely the domain of teens, Danielle Kent developed an eating disorder at age 24. She had finished her uni degree and was working in a good job when the symptoms started to kick in. She puts it down to her will to control – everything in her life was seemingly good (educated, good job, stable relationship), yet she felt she could lose it all in an instant. She became self-focussed and though people started to compliment her on her shrinking figure (such a no no!), she withdrew from social events and stopped catching up with friends – so all-consuming was her fear of food. She says she felt like a horrible friend and daughter. These negative feelings just further fuelled the problem. Every day to her felt like groundhog day – regimented eating of the same foods, excessive exercise. She couldn't concentrate at work. My Lord, I thought, I had/have a scary lot in common with this girl, and I'm sure my sister and some friends could identify with her, too.

Eating disorders suck at your brain – gorgeous, smart, clever and ambitious young women are practically paralysed by them, like caged mice stuck on a running wheel. Martin's book (which you should definitely buy on amazon.com – I shall find out the Australian publishing details, though) delves into the minds and hearts of young women, mostly in the US college system, who've either experienced full-blown eating disorders or who, like Martin, teeter on the edge of developing one.

Thankfully, Martin does offer words of hope. Overcoming or avoiding an eating disorder may come down to feeding your spiritual hunger (that be the God thing – whatever flavour of spirituality you may choose, you need something bigger than you guiding you in life; we're all just little girls deep down, looking for approval in all the wrong places). It's also about giving yourself permission to mess up. And finding a way to think of food as fuel for your body (food is not the enemy). It is okay to be vulnerable and ask for help. There's a better way to live, which includes sampling the smorgasbord of amazing food out there and not worry about what it will do to your waist line. We all JUST WANT TO BE NORMAL about food; yet we stray far from the norm when it comes to the expectations we put on our bodies. Perfect, schmerfect.

The funding for eating disorder programs in Australia is abysmal. This is something that needs to be addressed. I also worry that if we, as a generation (hello, Ys!), can't pull this thing together (this thing we have in our heads about food and dieting and being perfect), our daughters may just suffer the consequences. I was talking to a colleague today who says a friend of hers forbids her daughter to eat bread and has convinced her she's allergic to lollies, to protect her from the weight issues she experienced herself as a teen. ALARM BELLS! Our mothers have a huge role to play in our self-perception – in those developmental years, they are our first true role models. If they're dieting and avoiding carbs, what does that say to an eight-year-old? That mummy is normal? Then are all those other hamburger-munching mummies whacko?

We have a responsibility to get right about eating and health, for the sake of the little girls we'll all be bringing into the world.

Wow, I have so totally blown out that whole 'succinct' thing: poor Husband.

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel