Could modern diet culture encouraged by most celebrities disguise distress signals in young women?

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Kim and Khloe Kardashian are two of the celebs who've popularised the current 'trendy' body type deemed most attractive. (Photo by Robert Kamau/GC Images)
Kim and Khloe Kardashian are two of the celebs who've popularised the current 'trendy' body type deemed most attractive. (Photo by Robert Kamau/GC Images)
  • After an "unflattering" photo of Khloe Kardashian was leaked earlier this week, the Revenge Body star took to social media to bemoan unrealistic beauty standards.
  • The irony is that it's celebrities such as Khloe and her Kardashian sisters that have been the reason young women today often feel insecure about their appearance - flat tummy teas, appetite suppressing lollipops and all.
  • Beyond a decades long history of celebrities triggering body image issues amongst young women, local healthcare experts help lift the veil on modern diet culture and eating disorders. 

The Kardashians are known to be Svengalis of photo-editing apps, while also often facing criticism over not admitting to being frequent patients of cosmetic procedures. 

So of course the internet wasn't too impressed with Khloe Kardashian's double standards this week when she took to Instagram to reject an "unflattering" unretouched bikini image mistakenly posted by an assistant.   

While it's fair to empathise with her journey with body image struggles and the fact that she hadn't authorised the image to be posted, we can't sit back and pretend that she is not part of the problem when it comes to promoting - and benefitting from - insecurity-inducing beauty standards. 

A 2018 W24 article mused on whether her older sister, Kim Kardashian, glorifies anorexia.  

"Over the years there have been questions as to whether the Kardashians obsession with body image is healthy and perpetuates unrealistic standards of beauty," the article began before stating that Kim had also recently been criticised for promoting appetite suppressing lollipops. 

The article also shares that in this Instagram story posted by the reality TV star, Khloé continues, saying Kim is “anorexic” in her waist and, “her arms are like pin thin," - to which Kim responds gleefully, and thus the backlash ensued.

READ MORE: Is Kim Kardashian glorifying anorexia? 

Three years later, and this social media moment remains a microcosm of modern diet culture at large. 

We all have our individual body goals, but could the diet culture so prevalent in our society be normalising certain issues that could potentially be harmful, leading us to misread warning signals that someone is in serious distress and need of help?

Two local healthcare experts shared their insights into eating disorders with us. 

It’s about self-worth

According to Marlene van den Berg, occupational therapist practising at Akeso Montrose Manor psychiatric hospital in Cape Town, diet culture and body image are closely interconnected with self-worth. This is is a core issue in eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa, serious mental health conditions that can have devastating effects on the emotional and physical health and well-being of those affected. 

“Anorexia is a condition in which the patients have a distorted belief that they are grossly overweight and they therefore starve themselves, often to the point where their weight loss becomes so severe that it is life-threatening. This can result in symptoms such as dry skin, loss of bone density, severe constipation and depression, amongst others, as the body begins to starve,” says Van den Berg.

READ MORE: 'I did not eat my 18th birthday cake' - A writer shares her personal journey to Anorexia recovery  

“Bulimia, on the other hand, involves repeated ‘binge’ episodes during which the sufferers cannot control their urge to eat excessively, followed by compensatory behaviours, like vomiting, to purge themselves in an attempt to lose or control their intake of food," she explains.

"Individuals who suffer from Bulimia may also make use of unhealthy methods of weight control, including the use of laxatives, excessive exercising and restricting between binges. Patients seldom lose as much weight as those with anorexia and they hide their binges, so family members are often unaware of the condition in their loved ones. Symptoms can include chronically inflamed sore throat, swollen glands leading to puffy cheeks, worn tooth enamel from stomach acid and dehydration,” she notes.

Binge eating disorder is a third common eating disorder in which patients also have repeated ‘binge’ episodes where they experience a loss of control over their eating, but they do not use compensatory behaviours, such as purging, afterwards. They often struggle with intense feelings of guilt and experience a complete loss of control during the period of binging. 

Van den Berg advises concerned family and friends to be on the lookout for the red flags of eating disorders such as skipping meals regularly, highly specific food rituals, over-or under-eating and over-exercising. 

An eating disorder is not a lifestyle illness; it is the result of an underlying emotional issue.

“This can be difficult to separate from the many popular fitness regimes that individuals subscribe to. However, eating disorders are strongly tied to ‘rules’ in the mind of the patient. For example, ‘I can eat that slice of toast because I am going to run 10km’. Or, ‘If I do not run 10km I cannot eat anything at all’,” she notes. 

“This type of imbalanced view is very different from a healthy weight management and exercise plan. An eating disorder is not a lifestyle illness; it is the result of an underlying emotional issue. Persons who have reached extreme stages of eating disorders usually require specialised inpatient care at a treatment facility for the best chance of recovery,” she explains.

READ MORE: Why are we never happy with our bodies? 

Caught between a rock and a hard place

“People suffering from eating disorders are very much caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they exist in a society where body stereotypes dictate that men should be muscled, and women should be slim.

"On the other hand, there are stigmas around people with severe weight issues and the subject of eating disorders is not an easy one to broach. For these persons it can seem difficult to find a safe space in which to address the emotional issues connected to their body image,” notes Marlene van den Berg.  

Natascha Stallkamp, a registered clinical psychologist practising at Akeso Montrose Manor, says that despite the disabling effects of an eating disorder, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

“Individuals suffering from an eating disorder or a potential eating disorder can be helped early on in the process if they seek professional help as soon as possible. In fact, the earlier these types of conditions are addressed, the higher the chances are of a sustainable recovery and a healthy, fulfilled life," she says. 

Check in with yourself

Stallkamp explains that while disordered eating affects people of both sexes and all ages, there is a higher prevalence of young women among the treatment-seeking population and the onset of this illness is often in the teen/adolescent years. 

She further asserts that while patients are often unaware they are developing an eating disorder they themselves can be the first to pick up warning signs that something is not right.

“It is important to check in with yourself if you feel like your eating habits might be problematic. Consider whether you are able to function normally or if your functioning is impaired by your weight loss. 

“People often wonder if they actually have an eating disorder or if they might be developing one. Ask yourself if your eating habits and concerns around weight have begun to affect your ability to do normal things that you used to do,” she suggests.

Van den Berg adds that if the patients is not addressing the issue, it is often the ‘gate-keepers’ in that person’s life who can assist with early detection.

For teens, "naturally, parents [or guardians] are often the very first to notice a problem. Beyond that, there are the teachers, guidance counsellors, true friends or extended family members, like an uncle or an aunt." 

For an adult woman, this might include their partner, close friends, or colleagues.

"These individuals are more removed from the situation, but also have the patient's best interest at heart and can be on the lookout for any unusual behaviour that could be a cause for concern,” says Van den Berg. 

But does this not conflict with the bare minimum rule of respect that we should never comment on people's weight fluctuations, lest we trigger any insecurities? 

Well, according to Natascha Stallkamp, those who are concerned but unsure how to raise the subject without hurting the individual in question could begin by considering their tone and language use.

“If you speak calmly and with compassion, using phrases like ‘I’m concerned about your health, I’ll support you through this, let’s get help together’ you are more likely to get a positive response than if you speak with panic and say things such as ‘It’s scary how thin you are, you look bad, you need to stop this!’, which may push that person away,” she explains.    

As with any mental disorder, there is no quick fix for eating disorders.

The cure and the cause

It’s not about ‘what’; it’s about ‘why’.

"A change in behaviour is not enough; we need to address the issue underlying the problem in the first place,” notes Van den Berg.

"There are multiple factors involved and a [loved one] is not always able to control every element, e.g. influences from peers or the media," she continues. 

When it comes to addressing the underlying emotional issues with a mental health professional, Stallkamp explains that a number of different contributing factors will be explored, including family history, traumatic events, life influences and other possible triggers.

“It can be difficult to open up about past emotional experiences, but that is why it is done in a professional environment where you are gently guided through the process in a supportive, therapeutic space. As with any mental disorder, there is no quick fix.

"Therapy will require a lot of work, but the sooner you address the issue, the more likely it is that you will find a healthy path and plan for recovery,” concludes Stallkamp.

For information about eating disorder treatment or accessing mental health services or if you are in an emotional crisis, contact Akeso. Contact or visit In the event of a psychological crisis, emergency support can be reached at 0861 435 787, 24 hours a day.

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