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Eating disorder as an Au Pair - What to do?

by Julia on Oct 10, 2019
Eating disorder as an Au Pair - What to do?
Whenever you are on a diet you will be aware of how important and omnipresent food is. Food is the center of most cultures. Families, friends, communities come together to eat and to socialize. It’s not only the glue of society, it also keeps you strong and healthy. Staying away from food means staying away from social events. Now you can maybe imagine what a great impact an eating disorder must have on someone affected. Additionally, the disorder is very complex. It combines health issues, both physical and mental, social life, school or work and this way, it can affect your whole future. But what defines an eating disorder? And what are the symptoms that show you that you’re affected? Let’s clarify the most important questions together!
 
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Eating disorder - definition

An eating disorder is defined as a mental issue which goes hand in hand with dysfunctional eating behaviour resulting in health issues both physical and mental. There are different types of eating disorders. Overall, more than 4% of the world population is affected by one of those types. In general, females are more affected than males and the disorder usually starts in late puberty or in your early 20s. That’s just the definition of an Au Pair, isn’t it? Since most Au Pair’s demographics fit the risk group of eating disorders we want to address the topic during our mental health awareness series. If you feel affected by the topic, please make sure to talk about it to someone. This might be your best friend, your family at home or your Host Family. You can also see a doctor directly without telling anyone. The most important thing is to reach out for help and don’t stay isolated with this issue. We hope that this blog post will not only give you a definition of what an eating disorder is but also encourage you to seek for help.
 

Different types of eating disorders

When you think about eating disorders you might have the image of a very skinny person in your mind who refuses to eat. It’s true that some people suffering from a eating disorder stand out because of their outer appearance. But that’s not the whole spectrum. It might seem ambivalent but people with this issues appear in all shapes and sizes. In the next sections we will describe the symptoms of the most common disorders when it comes to eating. Very often this kind of disorder is connected with other mental issues such as anxiety, depression and substance abuse

Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa might be the most typical form of eating disorders. People affected often stand out because of their extremely low body weight and obviously can’t hide this in public. If you are affected by anorexia nervosa your whole world is about food: restricting calorie intake, losing weight and the fear to look fat is all you can think about. 
 
At the moment experts differentiate two different types of anorexia nervosa. If you suffer from the restricting type you will avoid or limit food intake to the minimum. The purging type compensates episodes of binge eating by getting rid of the food. This way the person cannot maintain a healthy body weight and yet won’t realize how s/he is harming her/his body. Even if you weight only 30 kg, you would still want to slim down since the perception of your body is completely flawed. In the most extreme situation this can even lead to death. 

Bulimia nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is very similar to the purging type of anorexia nervosa. In both cases the person consumes a lot of food and wants to get rid of it as soon as possible. This can occur in self-induced vomiting, an extreme amount of physical activity and the use of laxatives. The difference between the two disorders is the body weight: people suffering from bulimia nervosa can have a normal body mass index whereas anorectic people are clearly underweight. Nonetheless it’s quite common that bulimic people define their self-worth through their body weight: the skinnier the better.

Binge-eating

Binge-eating is way more common than the other two types but still not widely accepted as a mental disorder. As in bulimia nervosa disorder, people who suffer from binge-eating eat large amounts of food in short episodes but don’t get rid of it afterwards. Very often people affected feel guilty after their eating attacks and experience a lack of control. If you binge eat at least once in a week within a period of three months you might be affected and you should consider to seek help to get better soon.

Diagnosis

At the moment there are two different manuals for mental health issues which can be used to diagnose an eating disorder: the DSM-IV and the ICD-10. Both manuals provide a list with the symptoms that we covered in the last section. We highly recommend to see a doctor who will then make a diagnosis. A doctor or a therapist is trained to interpret those manuals and will classify your behaviour. 
 
Please note that there are other medical ailments which result in very similar symptoms like those you would have in an eating disorder and yet have completely different causes. A doctor can examine your overall health to check if you suffer from any other illness so that you get the right treatment for your needs. 
 
Moreover, there are more types of eating disorders than we have mentioned before. There are subgroups and combination of symptoms which require an individual, tailored treatment so that you get the help that you need. 

Causes

Unfortunately, mental health issues are a complex matter. Both your genes and your personality interfere with environmental factors. All of them can contribute to your mental well being or the opposite. This is why it’s not easy to define the causes of eating disorders. The next sections will give you more insight about the potential biological, psychological and cultural roots of your problem. 

Biological causes

In the past, experts have seen environmental factors as crucial when it came to developing an eating disorder. The researchers focussed mainly on the psychological impact of social relationships, the power of images in the media and personality traits such as perfectionism. But in recent years they have also concentrated on biological and genetic factors. Unfortunately, researcher didn’t find something like an eating disorder gene which could be manipulated in order to treat people affected yet . There is still a lot of research to do. 

Psychological causes

It’s salient that eating disorder often go hand in hand with other chronic mental issues. If you suffer from anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating, you have a higher possibility to develop depression, anxiety, OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and many other issues which can affect your wellbeing. On the other hand, if you already suffer from one of the mentioned issues, you’re at higher risk to have an eating disorder. This fact shows that you should seek help whenever you feel that you are struggling both mentally and physically in order to avoid other issues. 
 
Additionally, having experienced sexual abuse in the past can be an important trigger. In this case eating disorders seem to work like a coping mechanism. If you should have experiences physical or mental abuse, try to talk to someone about it and get help by seeing a doctor. 
 
Furthermore, parenting style can also be a cause of eating disorder later in life. Especially young females who are ambitious, obedient and have the tendency to please their parents may develop anorexia nervosa. According to experts this comes from the controlling behaviour of their parents and the lack of encouraging to express emotions and talk about their own struggles. This often results in dependency from their family which can be compensated by the feeling of control through restricting food intake. 
 
Another interesting point is the perception of social isolation. Loneliness can result in stress, depression and anxiety. Food can appear as a comfort in this very stressful situation. This can trigger binge-eating. 
 
On top of that, peer pressure appears to be a striking factor in this pattern. If integrated in a social network which pays attention to body perception and the ideal of a slim body, peer pressure can be a significant contributor, especially in young individuals. 

Cultural causes

In many cultures thinness means the ideal body image. Especially in western societies thin models, actors and other public role models are encouraged to be slim and programs like Photoshop create the illusion of sometimes even absurdly thin bodies which stand in no relation to the actual model. This can affect a child’s body image and dissatisfaction if the ideal cannot be reached. 
 
When perfection is defined as a thin body, unhealthy eating habits can bring a person closer to the desired ideal and can result in severe problems. However, eating disorders don’t only occur in western society, showing that a cultural conveyed image of the perfect body cannot be the only cause.

Why are Au Pairs at risk?

There are several risk factors which increase the possibility to develop an eating disorder such as gender, age and other psychological issues. To sum it up: if you are a young female, experiencing loneliness and loss of control about your situation, you might be at risk. Interestingly, this description fits perfectly to the definition of an Au Pair. An Au Pair year is an extraordinary experience which might lead to social isolation at first since you don’t know anyone in your new environment apart from your Host Family
 
Moreover, the family might have a different culture around food than the one you’re used to. Maybe they eat things that you could never imagine to eat or they don’t like what you cook for the kids. All of a sudden, food becomes more and more salient. In addition, it might be that the new culture that you want to explore focusses way more on the outer appearance and you’re not used to this. Maybe the new people who you meet even consider your body shape as not desired and make you feel uncomfortable about it. 
 
This is why Au Pairs need to pay attention to the risk of an eating disorder. Let’s see what you can do if you’ve already developed it.

Treatment

The treatment of eating disorder involves diverse therapies and a change in diet and exercise. The type of therapy obviously depends on the nature of your eating disorder and in most cases a combination of treatments is applied. It’s true that you might get hospitalized if you’re already very underweight but in general the treatment can take place in various settings such as day clinics, groups and therapy sessions with a psychotherapists. Some people benefit from the advantages of a cognitive behavioral therapy in which you have the option to reframe your thoughts with a trained therapist. Depending on the country in which you’re residing the choices of different approaches might be very big, such as music therapy, art therapy or recreation therapy. 
 
In any case, we always recommend you to talk with someone, may it be your friends and family at home, your Host Family, or a doctor. The good news is: you can get help! But the first step is to reach out for it. But it will be definitely worth it. 

Tips for Au Pairs who are affected

Our major tip for Au Pairs is to keep in touch with your friends and family at home and to create an open and honest atmosphere with your Host Family. If you dislike the eating habits of your Host Family, try to talk with them about it. Be open and look for supermarkets where you can find the food that you like. If you meet other Au Pairs or friends abroad who favour a very thin body type, try to find new friends or try to address the topic openly. Maybe you can even share this blog post with them and send it to them to share the message. If you feel a loss of control and isolated in your new family, reach out! You’re not alone and your Host Family will be more than happy to help you with your issue. Prevention is the best solution! 
 
If you are already affected before your stay, please think about if such an adventure would be beneficial for you at the moment. If you think that this experience might help you in your situation, please be as open as possible to your Host Family. You will take care of their children, their most important treasure in life. So you need to make sure that you can take care of yourself first. If you’re not 100% sure that you can make the year without worsening your condition, then please overthink your plan. Realize that your Host Kids will look up to you and that you will be a role model. If they see that you struggle with a healthy diet, they might adapt and this would cause even more trouble for you. First, seek for help and get better. And when you mastered the difficult stages of this disorder, an Au Pair stay might be a positive adventure for you.

Tips for Host Families

As a Host Family you have a huge responsibility. A foreign young person who maybe just started to learn your language will be your guest. You need to make sure that s/he feels welcomed and comfortable in your home and that s/he knows about their responsibilities. It’s a shock when you notice that the Au Pair seems to struggle with a healthy diet. Of course the first thing that you think of are your children. Since an Au Pair is a role model, your kids might imitate her behavior and start having struggles with eating as well. Of course that’s the last thing you want. This is why you should address the topic as soon as possible. But please keep in mind that additional pressure won’t make the situation better. The situation is already tense, if the Au Pair doesn’t eat right so even if you’re disappointed, worried or angry, try to be compassionate. It’s not easy to move to a foreign country and to take responsibility, maybe for the first time in life. So make sure to create a good working and living atmosphere and tell the Au Pair that you care about her. 
 
You need to think about if you would like to continue the contract with her and this depends on her condition. If you feel that s/he is not the right candidate anymore, tell her in a calm atmosphere. Another option is to accompany her to see a doctor as this might be difficult in a foreign language. In any case, respect the Au Pair: everyone struggles in life sometimes and everyone may need help.
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