“Most of my family members, for all of their petty infighting and complete inability to get along, have two things in common: law degrees and eating disorders.”
Content Warning: This article contains discussions of eating disorders and details of disordered eating habits.
Most of my family members, for all of their petty infighting and complete inability to get along, have two things in common: law degrees and eating disorders.
It’s easy for the older generations to ignore. They skip breakfast because they’re busy shoving manila folders into bags and children into back seats. Lunch consists of a few crackers wolfed down at their desks, upholding the legal industry’s time-honored tradition of never leaving the office during your break. Dinner becomes redundant if you arrive home at half past eight, so they lie to their spouses and say that they can’t eat anything after the massive afternoon tea they just had.
You might wonder how a bunch of high-powered lawyers operating on a few hundred calories per day can complete basic tasks, let alone excel in their careers. The secret is coffee. Literal buckets of it, every day (I’ve counted). It keeps their energy levels up, their clients happy and it prevents anyone from questioning whether their health is anything less than perfect. They do such a good job of hiding it that I didn’t recognise eating disorders within my immediate family until I was an adult. I had grown up actually believing that it was normal to eat a handful of grapes for dinner, devour entire tubs of ice cream at midnight and to frantically push one’s meal out of sight if somebody happened to enter the room.
As horrible as it was to realise that my adult family members had been quietly starving themselves for my entire living memory, it was nothing compared to the recognition of what their illnesses had done to their kids. Children of parents with eating disorders are at risk of developing one themselves. My childhood was peppered with little comments about how good I was for eating ‘healthy’ lunches; how I was never going to get fat like my classmates; how my cousin’s academic achievements didn’t matter because her arms were ‘getting chubby’. Inevitably, some of my relatives ended up with disordered eating habits by the time they were pre-teens. This has had a devastating impact upon my family. Eating disorders are inherently very competitive, and I have had to watch two relatives engage in a twisted race to the emergency room as they both desperately tried to drop their weight below 45 kilograms. I can’t count the number of times I have stumbled upon diaries filled with meticulous records of somebody’s daily eating habits, or borrowed someone’s computer only to stumble across ‘thinspo’ pictures of skeletal girls with deadened eyes.
The worst part is that throughout all of this, the adults in my family have insisted that eating disorders are not a problem in this family, even if it has meant putting off treatment for their children. It’s very tempting to blame them for all of this.
I think there is a bigger problem at play, though, and that is the culture perpetuated by the legal profession. Lawyers are often competitive perfectionists. These traits, while admirable, are often taken to the extreme and are also commonly associated with the development of eating disorders. A study conducted by the University of Western Australia found high rates of disordered eating amongst lawyers and law students (Whyte 2018). It’s not very surprising, when you think about it. Law school is defined by extreme competition, with students jostling to achieve an arbitrary image of perfection dictated by bell curves and clerkship recruiters. Many work very hard, sacrificing their mental health by stacking co-curriculars on top of their already demanding degree, only to be told repeatedly that they aren’t good enough. Then they graduate, become lawyers, and work under an intense workload in an environment where it is very easy to miss meals and drink gallons of coffee to help cover it up.
Finally, they are told that buckling under all of this pressure is unacceptable and that mental illness is something to be hidden away and ignored in order to preserve that image of the perfect lawyer. It’s not surprising to me that lawyers end up eating disorders, and it’s even less surprising that they are buried so deeply in denial about it.
If you or one of your friends is struggling with eating disorders, support is available at Beyond Blue and the Butterfly Foundation. For emergencies, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Whyte, S 2018, ‘Tired, hungry and stressed out: What life is like for many Australian lawyers’, ABC, 1 Feb.