Anorexia: a terrible, life altering illness that wreaks havoc on the lives of all kinds of people. A disease characterized by a compulsive need to limit and control every calorie that enters one’s body to the point of starvation with no end in sight, because anorexia ensures that it’s victims never feel good enough, thin enough, perfect enough to stop. A disease that can be triumphed over, often after countless hours of intensive therapy and careful, conscious monitoring for years and years and years to come. At the same time, a disease that can kill if not recognized and confronted in time.
All of this and yet, in American culture, anorexia takes on a very different categorization: an insult to be hurled at women deemed “too thin,” something that many think will just go away if only the woman in question were to “eat a sandwich.” Anorexia has become a weapon, a judgment, a body type.
“Eating 60 Times a Day and Still Looks Anorexic, Lizzie Velasquez Has Undiagnosed Medical Condition” [Headline from Gather: Life & Style]
“She’s thin but doesn’t look anorexic or malnourished.” [Evil Slutopia]
ETA: This comment got somewhat unfairly lumped in here. It does not use anorexic as an insult, this is true. My issue was that it still implies that anorexia has a specific “look.” This just goes to show that all of us, even awesome feminists, need to constantly be questioning the words we use!
“Lindsay Lohan Looks Anorexic Again […] ” [Headline from Hollywood Grind]
“Everything is wrong about this story –EVERYTHING (and don’t you dare rip into me about calling this girl anorexic, I don’t even want to hear it, let’s just call a spade a spade already and stop with this PC non-sense).” [From Mama Vision]
You get the point.
While we hurl accusations of anorexia left and right at waif-like women, anorexia (the disease, not the judgment) grows stronger, and claims more victims every day. We enable anorexia with our ignorance and, seriously, this has to stop now.
Pasting an “anorexic” label on every thin woman we come across perpetuates the misconception that all people with anorexia look the same way. This is a myth that many psychologists even buy into, including the ones who created the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual IV.
I, for one, think this is ridiculous. Anorexia (or any eating disorder) is, at it’s core, a set of unhealthy behaviors and thought patterns that center around the idea of control. If you go by the DSM IV definition, a person can go to bed without anorexia one night (weighing, for instance, 105 pounds), wake up in the morning one pound lighter, and… surprise! Suddenly they qualify for anorexia.
I mean, how does this make sense? Shouldn’t we be diagnosing people waaaay before this point, so they can get help waaaaaay before they wind up so thin that their lives are at risk? What am I missing here?
The criteria that currently exists for anorexia (and bulimia, for that matter) fall victim to several dangerous oversights. The first is the idea that anorexia is all about weight and body dissatisfaction. For many people struggling with an eating disorder this is the case, but anorexia is also a disorder of control and self-destruction. To focus on the weight aspect of the disease, over the underlying mental and emotional aspects, is like hanging a picture over a hole in the wall. You can force someone to gain weight by monitoring their diet, but the hole is still there until you address the emotions and thought processes that cause the behaviors.
This criteria also completely overlooks heavier people who develop anorexia. They can lose weight at just as dangerous of a rate as their thinner counterparts, restrict just as much, and have the same dangerous mental processes… but, unless they lose enough weight to qualify for an anorexic diagnosis, they are going to get a diagnosis of Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) at best, which drastically reduces their chances of getting adequate treatment.
Those with Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) suffer the same symptoms as anyone else with eating disorders. The only difference is that EDNOS sufferers may not qualify for insurance coverage, because they fail to meet the guidelines for eating disorders. [From Walden Behavioral Care]
Most of us aren’t psychologists, let alone psychologists who also happen to be involved with the creation of the DSM V, but that does not mean we are powerless when it comes to challenging these misconceptions. A great start would be dropping the phrase “(s)he looks anorexic/bulimic/etc.” from our vocabulary, and challenging others who make comments like this. Not all people suffering from an eating disorder are thin, and not all extremely thin people are struggling with an eating disorder. These two facts really seem like common sense, once you think about them, so get people thinking!
If we want to take it a step further (here’s a hint: we do) we can make a conscious effort to stop commenting on other people’s bodies, because their bodies are none of our business! Sometimes even compliments (“Oh my god, you look great, have you lost weight!?”) can be damaging, because placing such a positive value-judgment on thinness plays into a culture where people are pressured to fit a certain mold.
If you feel strongly about saying something a simple “You look fabulous!” or “That’s an awesome skirt!” always works well because comments like that underscore the fact that people can look lovely at any size. Even better are compliments about things that have nothing to do with one’s appearance (“Your brain is rockin’ today!”) because honestly, its hard to understand why we place so much value in beauty anyway.
If you notice a friend rapidly losing weight and engaging in disordered behaviors then, by all means, have a chat with them and offer them support and help. Outside of this context, however, I fail to see a situation in which it could be considered appropriate to even speculate as to whether or not someone is battling an eating disorder.
Don’t give anorexia more power: educate yourself and share that knowledge with others through your speech and actions. Together, we can make anorexia a little bit weaker every day.
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