There is a common—and dangerous—misconception in society that eating disorders result from vanity and a need for attention, but the truth is, eating disorders are not for the vain. This stereotype minimizes just how severe and catastrophic these illnesses can become, while reinforcing the belief that sufferers cannot reach out for help, lest they be dismissed as attention-seekers fixated on their own appearance. But in order to dismantle this added layer of cultural stigma that keeps so many victims both silent and ashamed, it's important to realize that eating disorders are not for the vain. Rather, they are caused by intricate, nuanced factors which are often unrelated to vanity and rooted instead in self-loathing, trauma, or insecurity.
Glamorization of Eating Disorders
There's a new Weight Watchers weight loss application (app) for kids called Kurbo. When I first heard about Kurbo I felt a little nauseous. It’s precisely the sort of thing that a young, adolescent me – embroiled in an eating disorder – would have latched onto as a source of “inspiration” to fuel my illness. I was curious as to how Weight Watchers, recently rebranded as WW, would market and defend their new product – and why they thought the app was even remotely a good idea.
Have the attitudes and conversations around female body image shifted in the era of #MeToo? Is this movement helping to reinforce how bodies should be viewed and talked about? Has it encouraged women to love, accept, and embrace their own bodies, as opposed to self-deprecation and shame? Will positive changes take root, so that female body image is less distorted in the era of #MeToo?
While I recognize that social media has given rise to many important and positive strides in the global economy—and I'm not here to condemn it—sometimes I wonder, is there a correlation between social media and eating disorders? As a disclaimer, first I will concede that I use social media, so I am aware it has benefits. My husband has built a career in social media marketing. I communicate with one of my closest friends, who lives in London, on Facebook. I have made all sorts of personal and professional connections on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. So the purpose of this article is not to demonize social media or critique those who are active on these networks, but to examine if there might be a correlation between social media and eating disorders in this hyper-connected world.
Last week, I came across the idea of "thin privilege," a term I had been unfamiliar with up to that point, and as I researched this concept, I was forced to confront the role of thin privilege in eating disorder treatment—my own experience included. Thin privilege is a systemic ease and entitlement in which people with smaller bodies tend to move through society. More opportunities and advantages are often afforded to people who look the way mainstream culture has deemed acceptable or ideal. In terms of the eating disorder population, those who mirror the stereotype of "emaciated" are more likely to have their illnesses treated with serious concern and validation than people whose bodies do not reflect this arbitrary mold. But if eating disorder recovery is to be made accessible for all those who suffer—not based on outward size or shape—then it's time to address the role of thin privilege in eating disorder treatment.
Some men play a role in causing eating disorders in women. When I first began to experiment with the behaviors that would morph into a severe battle with anorexia, my 15-year-old self had no idea I was about to be complicit in a systemic intersection between eating disorders and the patriarchy. Even as a teenager, I admired the ethos of feminism—I was drawn to independent, fierce, opinionated women, and I sought to become one myself. But I also harbored a secret, a paradox that challenged the same feminism I tried to be part of. I was determined to curate a body that mirrored cultural standards of beauty which had been impressed on females like me from the time I could remember. So with each calorie I restricted or meal I avoided, I reaffirmed the subtle power of gender inequality. I was not aware of this back then, but since I am now, I want to explore that men can play a role in causing eating disorders in women.
As if this illness was not destructive enough already, a harrowing trend has developed in recent years, whereby the presence of eating disorders in young children has become more and more rampant. In fact, the number of children under the age of 12 who exhibit symptoms of an eating disorder has risen to the extent that anorexia and bulimia are now more common pediatric illnesses than type-2 diabetes. This is an alarming data point and combined with the reality that eating disorders are often undiagnosed or inadequately treated, this leaves many children at an increased risk for complications in both their physical growth and mental health as they become older. For this reason, it is crucial to understand how to identify the presence of eating disorders in young children, then to seek prompt and thorough intervention for them.
We need to debunk eating disorder myths because, despite their jarring prevalence in modern society, eating disorders are often misunderstood by people who have not experienced them firsthand. Because of this limited consideration and knowledge, common myths about eating disorders have emerged that need to be debunked.
Eating disorders often elicit both competition and comparison among those who suffer, and this can especially be rampant within the context of eating disorder treatment. Because society tends to normalize and glamorize disordered eating behaviors, the inclination to compete over being the "thinnest person in the room" does not suddenly disappear inside a controlled, therapeutic environment. The amount of rules and supervision are heightened in treatment, but the fixation with remaining "skinny enough" is difficult to switch off. This mindset is rooted in insecurity, self-hatred, shame, and negative body image, so feeling the need to compare or compete serves as a distraction from those uncomfortable emotions. But the fact is, competition and comparison in eating disorder treatment will exacerbate suffering and counteract recovery.
If you have access to the Internet, then chances are, you're aware of the popular "fitspiration" trend, but have you considered—or worse, experienced—its influence on the spread of eating disorders? For several years, fitspiration has been gaining traction and momentum on social media. Self-appointed wellness experts are using the buzzword as a hashtag for their Instagram posts. Fitness-themed Pinterest boards are cluttered with images of men and women exercising their toned physiques, overlaid with mantras like, "Strong is the new skinny." Upon first glance, these phrases seem innocuous—progressive shifts toward strength over thinness. But the truth is, fitspiration can influence eating disorder behaviors, so it's important to examine the subliminal messages beneath the motivational words and snapshots.