Frankly, I have mixed feelings about eating disorder awareness in the media. On the one hand, of course more awareness is a good thing. It helps destigmatize eating disorders, and makes it more likely that people will seek care. On the other hand, the way media outlets and influencers portray eating disorders can be harmful. Here’s more about why eating disorder awareness can be fraught.
National Eating Disorders Awareness Month and the culminating NEDA Week typically play out the same way each year across both mainstream and social media. And I’m not alone — several people in recovery reached out to me last year after I posted about the pitfalls of NEDA Week, saying things like, “It’s literally the hardest week of the year for me,” and, “It just makes me feel more triggered than anything.” That’s certainly not the mission of #EDawareness, so let’s talk about why it’s sometimes the reality, and how we can all navigate it.
Too often, eating disorder awareness campaigns center thin, white, young women. That makes others feel invisible and overlooked.
It’s hard to even know where to begin with this one. But basically, we live in a culture that centers white folks, worships thinness, and thinks of eating disorders and body image concerns as a female problem.
So, it’s no surprise that eating disorder awareness campaigns center people who fit in these groups. And of course, there’s the huge misconception that eating disorders automatically equal thinness, and that they’re only severe if someone has lost significant weight. That’s simply not true. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, only 6 percent of people with eating disorders are considered “underweight” per BMI standards.
Still, anti-diet, weight-inclusive, eating disorder-aware ideas can be tough to wrap our heads around. Our society is so pro-diet, thin-obsessed, and relatively clueless about eating disorders. In my supervision group recently, dietitian Elyssa Toomey used Disney movies as an example of how, pretty much the second we become conscious, we’re taught that thin is good and fat is bad.
Think of The Little Mermaid; Ariel gets a happy ending with Prince Eric because she’s thin and beautiful (remember, he didn’t actually know her, and for a while she COULDN’T EVEN TALK), while Ursula, the fat, dark-skinned, queer-coded woman is cast as the villain. Think up pretty much any other animated movie pre-Shrek and you’ll find the same themes.
Eating disorder awareness campaigns can be triggering for the same people they’re supposed to help.
Given the cultural context, it’s no wonder that media outlets and influencers go about their eating disorder awareness campaigns in a fatphobic way.
Many outlets, and people, are waking up to the fact that eating disorders are awful, serious, and common. And of course, they don’t consciously want to be perpetuating these disorders. But they’re also unwilling, or not ready, to grapple with the fact that you can’t really start fighting eating disorders until you stop perpetuating the myth that it’s better to be thin than to be fat.
I know I go after “wellness” influencers and media outlets a lot — even the fact that I almost always put “wellness” in quotes when describing them is a little passive aggressive. But truthfully, I think that many of them don’t realize the harm they might be causing. Many of them believe that they’re doing unequivocal good by “showing people how to be healthier and happier” (or something like that).
And, I believe that many of them mean it when they say during Eating Disorders Awareness Week that they want to help raise awareness for, prevent, and end eating disorders. But those intentions don’t typically match up with the reality of what they’re putting out there.
You can’t talk about weight loss all year, then suddenly start talking about eating disorders for a month.
By talking about weight loss (or “toning up”) and dieting (or “clean eating” “detoxing” “cutting back on XX food”) throughout the year, media folks are actually contributing to a culture that helps eating disorders thrive.
Sure, not all weight loss journeys or diets turn into eating disorders. But many do. The National Eating Disorders Association states that dieting is a common risk factor for developing an eating disorder.
Even when these magazines and influencers aren’t talking directly about weight loss and dieting — and many of them don’t, because we’re all waking up to how harmful these things can be — they’re constantly implying that thinner is better. They rarely feature photos of fat people in content about health. They talk about “achieving a healthy weight” as if the relationship between weight and health is direct. (It isn’t). And they say that achieving a certain weight will automatically make you healthier. (It won’t).
The way they talk about food implies that certain foods are good and others are bad. (That also isn’t the case.
Generally, their entire ethos is built around the idea that “happier and healthier” means “smaller.” (Bad, bad, bad.)
So, when February rolls around and these same folks are talking about the dangers of eating disorders? It’s confusing.
It can feel like gaslighting when the same people who promote disordered behaviors are suddenly speaking out against eating disorders.
It can make you wonder if maybe their general messaging isn’t disordered at all. Maybe it’s just YOU who feels triggered by it because you’re too sensitive, too disordered, too self-hating.
All of this is so very complicated, but let me say: It’s not just you. A significant part of eating disorder recovery treatment is learning how to navigate these messages that are literally everywhere. You’re not alone in feeling triggered by them, or in feeling confused and angry when the same people spreading them are suddenly talking about how committed they are to preventing eating disorders.
Again, it’s not that I believe these people don’t care about eating disorder prevention. Generally, I think they do! But do they care enough to overhaul their message and brand in a way that will actually move the needle? Most often, no. And that doesn’t make them completely, 100% evil. They’re just trying to do the best we can with what they have and what they know. But that doesn’t mean that their best is necessarily good enough FOR YOU.
If you feel angry when you see some Beachbody coach who sells detox programs talking about eating disorder awareness this month (IYKYK), let yourself be angry! If you see an eating disorder recovery story posted right next to a weight loss “success” story on a magazine’s website, it’s OK to feel mad and frustrated. I hope that reading all of this will help you feel less confused by all of it.
The bottom line: You can’t prevent eating disorders while also promoting diets and weight loss.
But not everyone quite understands this, and plenty of people in “wellness” culture want to have it both ways.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, I can help. As a dietitian, I take a weight-inclusive, gender-affirming, patient-centered approach. Learn more about my nutrition counseling, offered to clients in several states. If you’re not ready to commit to counseling but want more information about the anti-diet approach, subscribe to my weekly newsletter.