National Eating Disorders Awareness Week has arrived fresh on the heels of January diets and Valentine’s Day binges, telling us that “It’s Time To Talk About It” and filling our Twitter timelines with bland girl-power messages about loving ourselves, embracing our stretch marks and being “recovery warriors.”
I’m supposed to be your target demographic, National Eating Disorders Association, after a life-threatening case of anorexia and eight long years of struggles around food and my body. I’ve read all the recovery literature, talked to doctors, therapists and nutritionists for more hours than I’d care to think about, and am always willing to talk about my experiences with friends and peers. In short, I am the target demographic for this awareness week — the sort of person who is supposed to embrace the messaging around my mental illness and retweet it with reckless joy.
So why, then, am I so wary this week, especially at a time when up to 20 percent of college women and 7 percent of college men have eating disorders, and many more engage in unhealthy thinking and behaviors around food and weight? At a time when pressures to diet continue to increase and the standard of an attractive body becomes more and more unattainable, shouldn’t we revel in a week dedicated to contrary messages around body positivity and healthy relationships with food?
I’m sure that the organizers of NEDA Week have their hearts in the right place. There is no doubt that we as a society need to talk about our toxic collective attitudes toward food, diets and bodies, and designating a week to contemplate these issues is surely a step in the right direction. But all too often, the results of NEDA Week only serve to perpetuate stereotypes around eating disorders and alienate certain sufferers.
I want you to imagine someone who is suffering from an eating disorder. Is she white, skinny, middle class and starving herself? Now imagine someone who has recovered from an eating disorder. Is she still white, maybe slightly less skinny, still middle class, posting pictures of her former emaciated body side-by-side with her current one and calling it a recovery win?
Well, I hate to break it to you, but that’s not anywhere near a truthful view of people with eating disorders. In reality, 30 million people of all ages, races and genders suffer from eating disorders in the United States. One in four individuals with an eating disorder is male, and 16 percent of transgender college students reported having an eating disorder. The dangerous myth that eating disorders only affect white people has led to a lack of research and data on African American, Asian American, Hispanic and Native American communities. However, the little data that has been released reveals high levels of body dissatisfaction and dieting behavior. Thirteen percent of women over age 50 engage in eating disorder behaviors, and despite the prevailing narrative that sufferers are deathly thin, people of all body types are diagnosed.
Eating disorders also do not necessarily look like anorexia, restriction and attempts to lose weight. They also can manifest in bulimia — cycles of binging on food and purging through vomiting, fasting, laxative abuse or extreme exercise — or binge eating disorder, characterized by periods of out-of-control emotional eating. Other specified feeding of eating disorder was added to the fifth Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for all other abnormal, destructive eating patterns that are not covered by current diagnoses.
By creating a week of awareness and encouraging people to think about their relationships with food and get help if they need it, NEDA is doing a good thing. But all too often, this week is obscured by narratives that give a warped view of eating disorder sufferers and minimize the scary, hard work required in recovery.
Kylie Charney-Harrington is a freshman majoring in journalism. “Trojan Talk” is a guest column that will typically run every other week.