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Eating Disorders in the South Asian Community: An Experience

Content Warning: There will be discussions about eating disorders and discrimination which may be upsetting or triggering for some people.

Diets and ‘ideal body shapes’ being enforced can lead to poor body image and self-esteem, which could lead to the development of eating disorders. For many years, I've struggled with Anorexia Nervosa, a mental health disorder where people have a distorted perception of being overweight, leading to them trying to reach and maintain a low body weight. Even when I was diagnosed, I didn’t believe it because I didn’t feel I fit the right categories.

Expectations and pressures from others

People with anorexia are usually portrayed as young Caucasian females who are often wealthy and obsessed with being thin. This is a common misconception about anorexia, and it led to my denial about my own experience. I am a South Asian female who doesn’t come from a wealthy family, and my eating disorder isn't just a desire to be thin; many other psychological aspects play a role, such as having control.

In South Asian culture, beauty is associated with many Western features, such as fair skin and thinness, adding more pressure to look a certain way because of constant judgement and comparison. What made this more difficult was the importance of food in my culture, which made social events stressful, and my eating habits were also judged. It felt contradictory where I was expected to eat more but remain thin, which I found confusing and frustrating.

Supporting and understanding eating disorders

In the UK, around 1.25 million people are estimated to have an eating disorder, but this could be larger as many people may not seek help. Getting support is difficult, especially if you don't fit the ideal categories associated with eating disorders. For example, Caucasian females are more likely to have their eating disorders noticed than females of colour, affecting their ability to access correct support. However, eating disorders don’t discriminate and can affect anyone regardless of age, race, ethnicity, or sex.

Culture can affect personal support from family. In the South Asian community, mental health is taboo. Opening up to my family was difficult and took time, even though they could see physical and behavioural changes in me. For years, people would tell them I was ‘spoilt’ and being ‘fussy’, making them feel as if their parenting was to blame. And as a consequence, my family would question me, ‘Why aren’t you eating?’ or tell me, ‘Eat and you’ll be okay’, making it difficult for me to explain what I was experiencing. I hated upsetting them, but it wasn’t as simple as ‘just eating again’. One day, I broke down and asked my family for help. Since then, they have tried their best to help me recover. They still don't fully understand why I struggle but are willing to listen.

This is part of my experience, but there is still a lack of support and understanding about eating disorders in the community. Despite some similarities, everyone's experience is unique and important. We must understand that the perception of beauty is constantly changing, so we must begin accepting diversity and embracing it and ourselves.


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