How to Talk about Eating Disorders in Desi Households

For the South Asian community, how difficult is it to talk about eating disorders? Are we heard by our families? We explore this issue.

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"It can build harmful ideas towards eating.”

For teenagers in the 21st century, the term ‘eating disorders’ is no longer an unfamiliar one.

Whether it is on social media or assemblies at school, it is undeniable that mental illness is gaining widespread attention.

However, despite being a more progressive generation, many teenagers still struggle communicating with older generations sensitive topics such as mental health and eating disorders.

In combination with the heavy stigma often associated with eating disorders in some Desi households, talking about mental illness can seem impossible.

Questions such as ‘how do I tell my parents?’, ‘what if they don’t understand the severity of them?’ and ‘how will they react?’ are common queries.

The above questions are all prevalent amongst South Asians trying to start the conversation surrounding eating disorders.

A lack of understanding from our families is not always the sole reason as to why starting the conversation can feel awkward.

A lack of education regarding the subject is also key to note.

Subjects such as mental health and eating disorders were not openly discussed amongst older generations.

Therefore, parents or families from immigrant backgrounds may find it challenging to initiate such intimate discussions.

Education surrounding eating disorders is gaining traction in South Asia.

However, it could be said that older generations should also take responsibility for increasing their awareness of the condition.

Why do eating disorders need to be discussed in Desi households?

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According to Vice, there is a clear link between South Asian women and eating disorders.

The South Asian community has a strong relationship with food.

Being offered chai and samosas, when visiting family members, and encouragement to stay for roti are almost universal.

The emphasis on eating within South Asian culture is often inescapable.

Mariam Rahimi, a 16-year-old student from the UK, was passionate to share her insight on this:

“I find that the elders of the family often force young people to eat things that they don’t want to, which perhaps come from a place of concern.

“But it definitely isn’t executed in the right way and it can build harmful ideas towards eating.”

Food is crafted as an easily-triggering subject for South Asians.

Comments about body type, weight or shape are not scarce amongst Desi households.

The emphasis on excessive eating within Desi culture and being scrutinised for your appearance can lead to toxic cycles and thought patterns.

As well as dangerous, these can also be disheartening and damaging.

Mariam continued:

“Commenting on people’s bodies in and out of the household is very common.”

“Often relatives will comment on your body after not seeing you for a while and body image is something that often dominates these sorts of conversations.”

It has become relatively normal for relatives to brand teenagers as ‘too skinny’ or make suggestions along the lines of ‘put on a little weight’.

The norms of Desi households can cause concerns for vulnerability to eating disorders.

Before you initiate the conversation about eating disorders, it is important to educate yourself to ensure you understand the basics.

What is an eating disorder?

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To raise the matter of eating disorders within your home, it is important to be knowledgeable of the basics.

The NHS defines an eating disorder as a “mental health condition where you use the control of food to cope with feelings and other situations”.

It can be a critical mental health condition that can affect anybody regardless of age and gender.

However, studies have shown that eating disorders are most prevalent among adolescents.

It is also vital to remember that the term ‘eating disorders’ is a collective one. There are many eating disorders.

Whilst eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia may be more familiar, you should strive to educate upon the other conditions too.

The eating disorder information and helpline organisation Beat lists the following disorders:

• Anorexia Nervosa
• Binge Eating Disorder
• Bulimia Nervosa
• Orthorexia
• Pica
• Rumination Disorder

To effectively and easily communicate with your family in regards to eating disorders, being aware of the different disorders is vital.

Ensuring that your household knows about multiple disorders will increase their overall awareness of eating disorders as a whole.

What can cause eating disorders?

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As mentioned, there are various eating disorders and each case can have a specific cause.

Each experience with eating disorders is different and unique to an individual.

Behavioural, psychological and even environmental factors can fuel eating disorders.

For example, social media can be a contributing factor to low self-esteem. Low self-esteem can lead to anorexia nervosa.

Many have argued that social media has a detrimental impact on teenagers as it can lead to low self-esteem and unrealistic body standards.

In 2021, Statista recorded that 13-17-year-olds make up 7.5% of active Instagram users.

Outside of this bracket, 18-25-year-olds make up almost 30% of Instagram users.

Young people and social media have an almost inseparable connection.

The downside of this connection is that young people find themselves staring at posts of others whilst making mindless comparisons to their bodies.

You may want to help your family understand perhaps why eating disorders are more talked about in the Western world.

In accumulation with Western beauty standards and the experience Desi people can endure when trying to conform to them, the probabilities of developing an eating disorder can increase.

Aaminah Bibi, a 17-year-old student from England, said:

“I think the concept of dieting is so normalised.

“It doesn’t feel like an eating disorder to people – it just feels normal.”

How can eating disorders be tackled?

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Whilst eating disorders may be a common conversational topic for you, it is worth putting yourself in the position of your family for a moment too.

When delivering information about eating disorders, your parents or peers may develop a strong interest in the matter.

Therefore, whether an eating disorder is affecting you or others, it’s important to know methods of treatment.

Whilst eating disorders are mental conditions, they also have physical consequences.

For example, a limited diet can lead to a deprivation of essential nutrients which can lead to bodily imbalances.

Therefore, seeking the help of an eating disorder specialist is of paramount importance.

From there, specialists can devise treatment plans which can factor in physical remedy via medication.

Therapy is also a common method to aid the road to recovery.

Where can you access more information?

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Online information is plentiful. Organisations like Beat have a rich amount of resources and offer helpline services.

Alternatively, it is important to consider that your family may prefer talking to somebody in person for help and advice.

Visiting your local GP can be an initial source of help, and they will have access to specialist contacts.

Eating disorders are important for everybody to know about.

It is easy to think that they would never affect you, that they would never be something your family would encounter.

However, the ‘would never be me’ mentality is harmful – and not only to yourself.

If you know someone who is suffering from an eating disorder, reassure them that they are not alone and remind them that they are loved.

Eating disorders can take a toll on an individual’s mental health and lead to instability therefore, those with a disorder must know they are cared for.

By starting a conversation within your household, you are helping to normalise the topic for South Asian discussion.

Most importantly, keep in mind that eating disorders do not discriminate and can affect anyone, regardless of gender and ethnicity.

Aashi is a student who enjoys writing, playing the guitar and is passionate about the media. A favourite quote of hers is: "You don't have to be stressed or busy to be important"