For such a common mental illness, (affecting up to 24 million people of all ages, nationalities, and genders) eating disorders are riddled with myths and falsities. There are dozens of misconceptions and misunderstandings about what cause eating disorders, how to tell if someone has one, and how to treat them.
Articles like this one, while well-intentioned, are perpetuating some of the biggest lies that feed into many people’s false understanding of the disease. It’s so easy to point the finger at the fashion industry, to claim that size zero models and society’s beauty standards cause eating disorders. Yes, we can agree that images of extreme thinness promotes a beauty standard that is unattainable to most. But it’s important to keep in mind that eating disorders are a mental illness – and to say that one could develop anorexia from reading too much Vogue does a huge disservice to the gravity of the disease itself. Poor body image is one thing – an eating disorder is another.
Furthermore, eating disorders are not always about wanting to be thin, and sometimes they really aren’t about food or weight at all. There’s a host of reasons why someone might cling to the coping mechanisms of restricting or purging. At the root, it’s rarely as simple as wanting to look like a Victoria’s Secret angel.
As a survivor of an eating disorder, I feel a certain duty to point out what eating disorders are not: They are not lifestyles. They are not choices. They are not reactions to seeing a skinny model. I think it’s time we stop talking about them as though they are anything but a serious mental illness – and one that has the highest death rate of any other psychological disorder, for that matter.
All eating disorders are as real as any other illness. Just because they don’t always present themselves as a physical ailment doesn’t mean they aren’t wreaking havoc on someone’s body.
Let’s extend our boundaries of reality for a moment. Let’s imagine what it would be like if we talked about cancer the same way we discuss eating disorders. Here are some of the inane things we would say:
“Looking at a pack of cigarettes too long might cause you to want lung cancer.”
“Can’t you just try to get over your cancer?”
“When did you decide to start having cancer?”
“You just have cancer for attention.”
“Cancer is such a disease for over-privileged girls.”
“Do boys even get cancer?”
“You can tell if someone has cancer just by looking at them.”
I could go on and on. I know – it seems silly to talk about such a deadly illness in such a flippant way – so why is it okay to say those things about eating disorders?
In the spirit of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which begins on Sunday 2/22, isn’t it time we came together to give a huge overhaul with the way we look at this disease? Eating disorders are undeniably complex, and no two cases look alike, but it’s time we stop writing them off as choices and ways of living. It’s time to stop pointing the easy finger of blame at New York Fashion Week or photoshop retouching. It’s time to wake up and take this seriously – for no other reason than there are millions of people in the world who could use some help.