February 20-26th marks National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, a coordinated nationwide effort to raise awareness and provide accurate information about eating disorders. This year’s theme is “It’s Time to Talk About It.”
When I think about what I want to talk about, I’m reminded of a tiny office in Times Square, where I worked as the director of the American Anorexia Bulimia Association more than a decade ago (that organization has since merged with a few others to form what is now the National Eating Disorders Association). In those days, I paged through a giant three-ring binder to find referrals for callers who needed treatment options for themselves or their friends or family members. I responded to the ever-increasing number of email messages in the organization’s new AOL account, each “you’ve got mail!” announcing a note from someone who found they could finally muster up the courage to reach out for help using this newfangled thing called the internet.
A lot has changed since then. This week calls for celebration and contemplation as advocates and activists reflect on the remarkable progress we’ve made and plan for how to effectively address the new challenges that come with that progress. I’ll be posting my thoughts on some of those challenges over the next few days and I welcome your feedback and ideas. First up…
Media coverage of eating disorders. There’s more media coverage of eating disorders than ever before. But does more coverage mean better coverage? I used to take calls from reporters who wanted me to connect them with sufferers who could share details about how they starved themselves to dangerously low weights. They needed to include those shocking numbers in their stories and were not all that interested in my explanation that eating disorder sufferers aren’t always emaciated; in most cases, you can’t tell that someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them.
With the proliferation of entertainment tabloids, gossip blogs, and reality TV, the extreme-ification of media has only gotten worse, and that is not good news for those of us who want to see comprehensive, nuanced portrayals of eating disorders. On the plus side, we’re now seeing some attention paid to eating disorder sufferers who aren’t young white girls. Believe it or not, older women, men, and people of color have eating disorders too, and their experiences have thankfully started to get mentioned. And personal blogging and social media have provided platforms for people to tell their own stories, minus the sensational spin. But the truth is that it’s still pretty difficult to find stories in mainstream media outlets that don’t follow the “Dying to Be Thin!” formula. I recently talked to an author who had been scheduled to promote her book on a national TV show. Her appearance was canceled when the producers learned that she was unwilling to provide them with the requisite skeletal girl pictures for her segment.
It’s not all that surprising that eating disorders continue to be presented as extremes. Women who starve themselves into the hospital are a real but small percentage of the population. Those who spend their lives hopping from one diet to the next, bingeing in secret, or agonizing over one missed night at the gym? Well, we’re talking about two-thirds of all American women. That’s a huge gray area of individuals who might not have diagnosable eating disorders, but whose relationship with food and weight prevents them from feeling happy. It’s also a huge consumer base. Media–especially media targeting women–rely on advertising dollars from the diet, fitness, and cosmetic industries. And these are industries that see profit when that disordered eating mindset is normalized. We’re all in the same body hatred boat, ladies! Let’s treat ourselves to this new diet shake or torture ourselves with these too-small clothes. Because being depressed about our appearance isn’t really a disorder if everyone else feels the same way, right?
National Eating Disorders Awareness Week should be a time for everyone to take a serious look at our attitudes about food, weight, and body image. But when we’re only exposed to the skin-and-bones-she-threw-up-X-times-a-day version of what disordered eating looks like, it’s easier to put that task off–to dismiss our own unhealthy behavior as no big deal. After all, we’re not that sick.
Want to help educate media professionals about how to responsibly cover eating disorders? Download NEDA’s Tips for Responsible Media Coverage [PDF]