This Eating Disorders Awareness Week, author and campaigner Hope Virgo shares her experience of battling an eating disorder and how churches can be more accessible to those who are sturggling.
Eating disorders are not a new phenomenon but for so long they have been hidden in plain sight. Historically we have missed them when they have been staring us straight in the face. Often disguised as “healthy eating or exercise” or hidden behind the assumption that someone of a certain size cannot have an eating disorder. A huge 16% of the adult population screen positive for an eating disorder at any one time, and there’s been a recent increase in young people being admitted to hospital for eating disorders. This is an emergency that we, the Church, cannot ignore.
The sad reality is there are some people who have eating disorders who have ended up leaving church because of a lack of understanding.
The three main areas which Christian people with eating disorders grapple with are; the practical elements which include support and meals, the huge amounts of stigma, and questions around faith, healing and eating disorders. This final one is an issue that I have struggled to understand for a long time and requires exploring huge theological questions - so I won’t delve any deeper into that for now.
Support and meals
Food is central to church life, and is often (dare I say it) used as a way to encourage people along to events, but for those with eating disorders, whether in recovery or the grips of the illness this can add a huge layer of complication. “One of the challenges with being part of a church environment while struggling with an eating disorder is that lots of church life often happens around food,” Naomi Wilcox explained to me. “For example, there are often church lunches after a Sunday service and mid-week Bible studies that happen around a meal. Towards the start of my eating disorder recovery, this was quite challenging and would often result in me missing out on the time of fellowship and Bible teaching.”
It isn’t about stopping having these meals, or not allowing food to be served, although it might be good to think about non-food related activities! But it might be about creating an environment that works for people affected by eating disorders. This could be speaking about the meal beforehand, offering alternatives, but the key thing in all this is asking them what will work!
Addressing the stigma
Eating Disorders are still a hugely stigmatised illness and often misunderstood in so many different ways. This not only contributes to the shame people feel but also stops people reaching out for support.
Naomi said: “Not all Christians always respond lovingly or helpfully when you share that you are struggling with your mental health. Some people expect the hit rate for healing to be much higher than for physical health conditions and think that all that is required is more prayer and more faith. This can be challenging and increase the isolation or shame that sufferers often already feel. It can also affect sufferers’ motivation to feel welcome at a church or result in them leaving the church altogether. Thankfully I did not experience this too much and when I did receive unhelpful comments from church members, I could remind myself of Psalm 23.”
But it isn’t all bad news when it comes to the way eating disorders have been treated in some church environments. Naomi said: “At the beginning of the pandemic I was advised to shield due to my eating disorder and my church family bought meals for me (very specific ones off my meal plan!), took me to medical appointments as I can’t drive at the moment, popped over to chat from the end of the drive, sent cards and jigsaws to help me through the shielding process. As I’ve been able to do more and progressed in recovery, friends from church have supported me by having me over for dinner and taking me out for snacks which have been part of challenging my eating disorder.”
So what can you do this Eating Disorder Awareness Week to make your church more accessible to those with eating disorders?
- Have a conversation about eating disorders
- Ask someone you know who is effected by an eating disorder how you can support them
- Pray for those who are struggling and send encouraging messages and Bible verses so they know you’re thinking of them
- Help us to keep believing that we can recover – so much of the Bible talks about this hope that we have and it is that hope in recovery that we so often need
- Learn and teach about eating disorders in seminars or workshops, at youth groups, for parents and other members of the congregation etc.
- Let people serve the church where they are at. People don’t have to be “fixed” to be useful. Help everyone to reach their potential for the glory of God.
- Don’t think that when people look better, they are better – continue to ask them how they are doing.