How to Talk About Eating Disorders in A Way That’s Not Harmful
Every year, NEDA designates February 22nd-28th as National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. This year’s theme is Every Body Has A Seat At the Table. The goal is to provide education about eating disorders, and to dispel harmful myths about them.
I’ve officially spent 19 years of my life battling an eating disorder, half of which has been in recovery. Instead of sharing my personal story, I wanted to focus on something that can be useful to all of us.Throughout this journey, I’ve noticed the incredibly harmful ways we as a society, as treatment professionals, and even as survivors, talk about Eating Disorders.
There are so many misconceptions still surrounding eating disorders.The refusal to acknowledge harmful eating disorder myths, barriers to treatment, and systemic issues, even throughout the treatment process, is problematic to say the least.
If you’re participating in National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, whether that’s resharing posts, reporting on it, or sharing your own story, please keep the following in mind. Hopefully, this can help us discuss eating disorders in a way that isn’t harmful:
Sharing Stories Responsibly
It’s important and empowering to share our own stories, and to celebrate our recovery. That being said- there is a way to share stories responsibly so that we don’t highlight one narrative, invalidate other experiences, or trigger survivors.
Many media outlets choose to focus on survivors’ lowest weights, the detailed methods used to harm themselves, and of course, the before photo to show how skinny they were. The media does this because the crazier the story or photo, the more clicks it will get. This isn’t spreading awareness of eating disorders, it’s perpetuating a harmful narrative.
For those who struggle with an eating disorder, seeing others’ before photos, or comparing what methods they used throughout their eating disorder, is super triggering. I used to read eating disorder books to find new ways to starve myself, which is why it’s important not to share or focus on the methods we used to stay sick.
Acknowledging Barriers To Treatment
Eating Disorder treatment is incredibly expensive, which makes it only accessible to a privileged demographic. The stereotype that eating disorders only affect upper middle class White women is not an accident. This is the demographic that is primarily taken seriously, diagnosed, and gets help. It’s important to acknowledge the barriers to treatment.
While in treatment, I can’t tell you how many of my peers had to leave because their insurance was cut and they couldn’t afford it. If insurance is accepted, both in facilities and in therapy, you will need a diagnosis to qualify. Many people with severe eating disorders, however, don’t fit the exact medical criteria.
The eating disorder treatment field is also a predominantly White majority space. There is traditionally very little acknowledgement of systems of oppression, societal influences or cultural awareness, throughout treatment. We have a long way to go before eating disorder treatment is inclusive, available, and helpful to those that need it.
There Is No One Size Fits All
Despite popular opinion, it’s not obvious if someone has an eating disorder. There are eight official types of eating disorders, and they show up differently. The most common eating disorder is binge eating disorder but it gets way less recognition. We can thank weight stigma, fat phobia, and diet culture for that.
Those who struggle with eating disorders all look and struggle in a different way. There is no model example of what an eating disorder looks like. We also can’t rely on the BMI to tell us what’s healthy and what’s not.
This lack of understanding makes it difficult to get recognition and to receive help. Eating Disorders affect abled and disabled people, all races, genders, and backgrounds. What’s normal for one person, isn’t normal for another. This has to be included when we talk about eating disorders.
Understanding Fat Phobia and Weight Stigma
We’re quick to call a very thin person anorexic, and say they need help. Yet we call anyone who is “fat,” unhealthy, lazy- equating weight loss as the end all, be all, solution to their problems. Fat phobia and weight stigma are incredibly harmful, both for those with eating disorders and without.
We live in a society that glorifies thinness and shames fatness. We often compliment weight loss as if it’s an accomplishment to take up less space. We constantly reinforce the idea that thinner is better, invalidating the majority of our bodies.
Those who are overweight, are far less likely to receive adequate medical care and treatment, let alone have their eating disorder recognized. Medical professionals are a huge part of this problem, often attributing any health or mental issues in larger people to their weight and their weight alone.
Health and Wellness Is A Part of Diet Culture
Raw veganism, gluten-free, keto, intermittent fasting- we’ve now rebranded diets as “health and wellness.” These diets are often used as a way for those with eating disorders to be congratulated for their disordered behaviors.
When I went vegan for the first time and got super into hot yoga, I was deep in my eating disorder. Everyone applauded my discipline and how healthy I was, even the friends who knew about my eating disorder. There’s a huge disconnect here and it’s problematic af.
We need to stop associating “health and wellness” as healthy and call it out for what it is- our generations latest diet fads. Let’s not glorify those who partake in health and wellness fads as the actual pinnacle of health. What’s dubbed healthy by marketing gurus and even health “experts” doesn’t mean it’s healthy for me.
Unpacking Eating Disorder Myths
Eating disorders don’t mean you’re anorexic, or that you’re underweight. It doesn’t mean you exercise. Eating disorders don’t only affect upper middle class, cis, White women. We have to stop perpetuating harmful eating disorder myths and include all experiences.
Eating disorders aren’t simply mental health issues, they are also social justice issues. While we acknowledge that eating disorders aren’t just about food, we don’t like to take the conversation further. Society plays a huge role in the formation and perpetuation of eating disorders.
We pathologize those who have eating disorders, without addressing the systemic issues that keep people sick. There are larger conversations we need to have about the systems of oppression and societal influences at play if we want to work toward preventing eating disorders.
Call To Action
- Get help with these resources: NEDA, EDC, Jenni Schaefer, Monte Nido, The Garment Project.
- Check out these educators who talk about eating disorders in an inclusive and socially conscious way: Boycott the Before, Dr. Colleen Reichmann, Adios Barbie, Stephanie Covington Armstrong, Nalgona Positivity Pride, Erica Mones, Ryan Sheldon, Jennifer Rollin, Sam Dylan Finch, Holly Whitaker
- Spread awareness for eating disorders.
- Volunteer or donate to any of the above organizations doing great work!
–Alicia Briggs, Content Creator