[Trigger warning for eating disorders]
This week has been designated National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and the tagline for 2014 is I Had No Idea. It recognizes the fact that eating disorders are more prevalent and more dangerous than many people recognize and that they touch every aspect of life. NEDA’s awareness articles cover everything from sexuality to race and culture to the drive for perfection to gender identity, because eating disorders don’t discriminate.
Talking about eating disorders is always a question mark for me — for some women, simply discussing it can be immensely triggering, and in areas of education, one girl’s cautionary tale can be another’s instructional video. (I’ve mentioned in the past that my introduction to bulimia came through educational efforts.) But for a week like this one, raising awareness — and, as part of that, dispelling myths — makes it worth the risk. Because a lot of people really do have no idea. At Skepchick, Olivia examines five common myths about eating disorders, and a couple of them really hit home for me.
1. Eating disorders are just a phase or a fad diet. They’re not really serious. If we can just convince people they look fine and they should eat, they can get over it.
Olivia points out that, in fact, eating disorders have a high rate of relapse and the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Mine started in high school and lasted nearly a decade, in the sense that every time I was out, it pulled me back in. Body image was an issue for me — particularly when I was working in fashion and had to, on occasion, fit into borrowed clothes — but my real concern was overall perfection, with body shape as a part of that. Convince me that my body was swell as it was? Sure, I might have bought it, but realistically I recognized that society didn’t care how I felt about my body when the time came for them to judge it.
I started bingeing and purging when I was a student applying for college, a daughter trying to make her parents proud, a girlfriend trying to earn the attention of an absentee boyfriend, and a young woman trying to get her life in order in preparation for impending adulthood. (A flight of mental health issues was yet to be uncovered.) That my body should be perfect was just one aspect of the larger fact that everything else had to be perfect, too. My tendency to soothe the stress in my life — whether it was interpersonal, academic, social, professional, or extracurricular, and I had plenty of each — with ice cream definitely stood in the way of that, and ultimately something had to give. Like digestion.
I’ve had my molars resealed twice from the stomach acid, and six years after I last purged I still get acid reflux. I spent unreasonable amounts of time with food in my sinuses. I abused laxatives when vomiting wasn’t convenient, which, for the uninformed, leads to considerable amounts of poop. As diet plans go, this one was far from glamorous. I’d imagine that few people would list my daily activities and still feel like following up with, “But she looks great!”
5. You can tell if someone has an eating disorder by looking.
This is one of the ones that gets me the most, and one of the reasons that people throwing around the word “anorexic” to mean “extremely thin” make me rage. Sometimes it’s dismissive — “Oh, my gawd, look at that woman, she’s anorexic” — and sometimes it’s said with real or faux concern — “Look at them! We have to do something to help those anorexic women!” But it’s never helpful.
For one, it pathologizes a certain body type. And while a given person who is extremely thin may, in fact, be anorexic, they could have another illness, be extremely athletic, or simply be naturally that thin. And declaring a woman anorrexic generally accompanies other judgments about her attractiveness and/or viability as a sexual partner, which… no.
More important, though, it makes it easy to miss eating disorders in women who don’t fit the stereotypical body shape. The most common eating disorder isn’t anorexia but is, in fact, binge eating disorder, and the wide variety of different disordered approaches to eating — and reasons behind those approaches — means that bodies come in every shape along the spectrum. And the idea that all you have to do is look for who has water for lunch, who disappears into the bathroom after meals, who cuts her food into tiny bites and wastes away to ribs and cheekbones is a Lifetime Original fantasy.
How about this for a poster: “Help Save This Woman’s Life,” above the image of a round-cheeked young woman smiling and eating a chicken panini. Shortly thereafter, she’ll fall just short — by the grace of God — of having a heart attack on the bathroom floor, but it’s hard to fit everything onto one poster. At lunch meetings, eating a sandwich is expected, so you eat a sandwich; if you’re bulimic, you go home and undo it afterward. I never got thin beyond the point where people told me how great I looked — not because I was able to stop when I felt I was thin enough, but because bingeing and purging often means that bulimics don’t get alarmingly thin. When people with bulimia die — and a lot of them do — it’s usually for reasons other than malnutrition. No one knew to offer me help, because no one knew, because I hid it, because that was the point.
I know my parents feel some degree of guilt about the fact that I went so long without getting any help, and they’re probably always going to at least a little bit, because they’re my parents. But I was really, really good at hiding my disorder, and I had a disorder that was particularly easy to hide. When I finally did get help that really stuck (following a crisis I’m not really prepared to share about quite yet) it was half-sideways via issues I had no idea were even related to an eating disorder. And that’s why observances like National Eating Disorders Awareness Week are, I think, important. Because when the common myths of it’s only rich girls, it’s only white girls, it’s only girls, it’s all about vanity and wanting to be thin, she just needs to eat something, it’s because of magazines, it’s only a phase, it’s only the really skinny ones continue to stand unchallenged, thousands of women and girls — and men and boys — fail to get the help they need, because they or the people around them don’t recognize that something is very, very wrong.