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How disordered eating affects all of us

Social media was in its infancy when Diana Budden and Neil Alexander founded Jessie’s Hope Society nearly 20 years ago. No one could have predicted the role social media would play in educating people about disordered eating.
Jessies Legacy Disordered Eating
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​“With the advent of social media, people are exposed to images that are filtered, Photoshopped, and unrealistic to a much greater degree than ever before,” said Joanna Zelichowska, the manager of Jessie’s Legacy (formerly Jessie’s Hope) Eating Disorders Prevention and Awareness Program. 

“It used to be, you’d look at a magazine, and have an opportunity to compare yourself to the images there, maybe a few times a week. Now we find people are logging into social media accounts multiple times a day and spending hours being confronted with these images. That’s really having an impact on people’s mental health.” 

What is disordered eating?

Disordered eating covers a spectrum of behaviours and attitudes. According to the definition at, “Disordered eating consists of a range of thoughts and feelings about food and body image that lie between healthy/normal eating habits with body acceptance at one end and eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder) at the other.” 

Disordered eating behaviours include weight/shape preoccupation, a striving for perfection, yo-yo dieting, excessive exercising, fasting or restricting, compulsive overeating, purging, steroid use and laxative abuse. 

“Many people struggle with body image concerns, or their relationship with food,” Zelichowska said. 

“This focus on appearance and on trying to control our shape and weight has become so common that people don’t even recognize that it might potentially be a problem or fall under this label of ‘disordered eating.’”

"Many people struggle with body image concerns, or their relationship with food."

In seeking to educate youth, families, educators and professionals on signs and prevention of disordered eating, Jessie’s Legacy promotes two campaigns: Provincial Eating Disorders Awareness Campaign, and Love Our Bodies, Love Ourselves. The former takes place in the first week of February; the latter is a year-round campaign that, through social media channels, targets youth with body-positive, self-compassionate messaging and education.

The BC Partners 

Budden and Alexander founded Jessie’s Hope two years before the suicide of their daughter, Jessie Alexander. In 2004, Budden wrote about Jessie, who suffered from an eating disorder, for the quarterly mental health journal Visions; the piece has since been published on HeretoHelp, a website dedicated to providing up-to-date information on mental health.

Both the website and journal are initiatives of BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services and draw on contributions and resources from Jessie’s Legacy and six other nonprofits. Together, the seven agencies make up the BC Partners for Mental Health and Substance Use Information, a coalition stewarded by BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services. Together, they collaborate on programs dedicated to reducing stigma and raising awareness around mental health and substance use.

Disordered eating and mental illness

“There are many different intersections between us and other partner organizations that might not seem obvious,” Zelichowska said. Collaborations on the horizon include a partnership with Anxiety Canada “to look at the intersection between anxiety disorders and eating disorders,” she said. 

The correlation between the two is high—about 60 per cent of people with diagnoses of anorexia and bulimia also have an anxiety disorder. Working with the agency, Jessie’s Legacy hopes to evaluate the most effective way of educating people and preventing disordered eating behaviours.

A collaboration with FamilySmart™, an organization dedicated to helping children and youth with mental health challenges, is also on the table. They will co-lead a committee with Jessie’s Legacy to look at what can be done in terms of mental health interventions in the K-to-12 system. 

“Several of the BC Partners are going to be involved in that,” Zelichowska said. “We’ll get to do work that crosses the boundaries in terms of the kinds of mental health and substance use issues we look at.” 

Starting young

Unfortunately, research indicates that the kinds of attitudes and thought patterns that could lead to eating disorders are being found in younger and younger children. According to some research, kids as young as three years old start to show preferences for thinner bodies over larger bodies. 

"It’s important to start educating not only children, but also parents on what to watch for and to help their kids develop a positive body image."

“This is strongly linked to mom’s anti-fat attitudes and the environment, which are influenced by the parent’s attitudes towards body size and home environmental exposure, including TV and magazine images,” Zelichowska said. 

Prospective studies of girls in Grades 2, 3 and 4 (six to 10 years old) found that greater television exposure at the initial assessment predicted more disordered eating habits and preferences for thinner adult body types one year later. 

“We might not be seeing disordered eating at that age, but we’re seeing attitudes forming that can impact people’s self-esteem and body-image,” she said. “It’s important to start educating not only children, but also parents on what to watch for and to help their kids develop a positive body image.” 

This is part four in our series on the BC Partners:

Eating disorder; BC Partners
Women's Health; Children's Health
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