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It’s Body Image and Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and several organisations have come together to unite against harmful diet culture messaging, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.

An estimated one million Australians live with an eating disorder, and there are many more with body image concerns. Members of the Eating Disorder Alliance of Australia say presentations of eating disorders are on the rise, with a record number of people seeking support and treatment.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Butterfly Foundation has seen a surge in demand to its National Helpline, as well as to other treatment and support services. There’s been a 20% increase across July and August alone (compared to June).

The organisation attributes this surge to the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, with demand spikes not expected to abate until well past the easing of lockdown restrictions.

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Isolation making things worse

Joyce Tam, Manager of Butterfly Foundation’s National Helpline, said the Helpline is currently receiving many distressing and complex contacts from people experiencing an array of different eating disorders and body image concerns.

‘We know that isolation, changes to food and exercise routines, uncertainty around changing restrictions, and a lack of social connection has placed immense pressure and added stress on those living with eating disorders and body image issues,’ said Ms Tam.

‘This can often exacerbate symptoms, or even trigger disordered eating thinking and behaviours. This is compounded by the increased challenges to accessing treatment, with both the public and private sectors struggling to meet demand.’

Last year, contacts to Butterfly’s webchat support service increased by 116 per cent. School services have also seen a 150% increase in demand since the beginning of 2021 (compared with 2020), reflecting the spike in students’ eating disorder and body image issues.

Butterfly has joined forces with its EDAA colleagues to stress the impact of COVID-19 and highlight the way diet culture is impacting people’s lives and body image during a particularly stressful time.

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Eating Disorders Queensland CEO Belinda Chelius said, ‘we have streamlined our services, in order to better support those impacted by eating disorders during these difficult times, with many false and triggering messages emerging around BMI and COVID risk factors.

‘EDQ has seen an 80% increase in individuals and carers seeking support and treatment, often with presentations with higher complexity and severity. Ongoing additional funding will be pivotal during the COVID recovery period,’ she said.

‘Months of lockdowns, isolation and changes in routine have been hard for people living with eating disorders and body dissatisfaction. This has only been compounded by media messaging and living in a society underpinned by diet culture that urges us to feel guilty about how our bodies have changed during this time.’

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Belinda Caldwell, CEO of Eating Disorders Victoria, said EDV has also seen a significant increase in calls and contacts reaching out for help.

‘Since the beginning of 2020, EDV’s helpline service, the EDV Hub, has experienced a 300% increase in contacts from the community,’ she said.

‘Diet culture is currently prolific, with unhelpful terms such as “COVID-kilos” being coined, and we must begin to dismantle its harmful beliefs, messages and practices. Health, success and self-worth are not found through altering physical appearance, and the pursuit of a certain body shape or size can have detrimental consequences for a person,’ said Ms Caldwell.

‘Being bombarded by this type of messaging is not helping anyone mentally, emotionally or physically right now.’

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Families

David Garvey, Chair of Eating Disorders Families Australia, further identified the stress on families in this context.

‘Families and carers of someone with or at risk of an eating disorder also need support at this time. With people consistently staying at home, during isolation or lockdowns, certain behaviours and ways of thinking become more apparent and can raise serious concerns for loved ones,’ said Mr Garvey.

‘Add in extended use of social media and other media outlets blasting unhelpful messaging about weight and body image, and we have a perfect storm,’ he said.

EDFA has seen over 300% increase in families seeking support in the last 12 months.

With suicide 31 times more likely for people with eating disorders, Butterfly CEO Kevin Barrow noted the importance of RUOK? Day and World Suicide Prevention Day also falling within Body Image and Eating Disorder Awareness Week.

‘Eating disorders are severe and enduring mental illnesses that can be compounded by serious physical complications.,’ said Mr Barrow. ‘It’s the complex nature of these illnesses that cause them to have one of the highest mortality rates of all mental illnesses.’

EDAA member organisations – Butterfly, Eating Disorders Victoria, Eating Disorders Queensland and Eating Disorders Families Australia – will all be sharing BIEDAW content throughout this week, and will host a free educational webinar for health professionals alongside Healthy At Every Size Australia about the HAES movement, which respects body diversity and inclusive healthcare.

For information about this event and for further details on BIEDAW head here.

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Help and support

Anyone needing support with eating disorders or body image issues is encouraged to contact:
• Butterfly National Helpline on 1800 33 4673 (1800 ED HOPE) or support@butterfly.org.au.
• For urgent support call Lifeline 13 11 14.