CONTENT WARNING: Eating Disorders
30 million Americans live within the shadows of an eating disorder. Now, imagine what that number would be if every individual had the privilege and opportunity to seek help for their disorder. It is well known that Valentine’s Day is on Feb. 14, but not nearly as many individuals realize that this year, Feb. 26 marks the start of National Eating Disorder Awareness week, also known as NEDA week.
NEDA is an organization that supports individuals and families who are affected by eating disorders and functions as a foundation for prevention, cures, and quality care. The theme of NEDA week this year is “Let’s Get Real” with an emphasis of uplifting the voices, stories, and identities of eating disorders, which we often don’t recognize.
Eating disorders are not a new phenomenon. On the contrary, they have existed since at least the first century. Ancient Romans in 700 B.C. would luxuriate in their lavish feasts by consuming many courses, later relieving themselves by purging to create room for more food. In Ancient Egypt, hieroglyphics have been interpreted to illustrate individuals purging monthly to avoid illnesses. It is explicitly demonstrated that eating disorders have been alive throughout and within the changing currents of our society. However, the difference between then and now is the existence of a formal recognition and diagnosis for eating disorders.
During the 1680s, Dr. Richard Morton, an English physician from the United Kingdom, described one of his patients as having “a skeleton clad with skin” that belonged to a 20-year-old girl whose “sadness ate her away.” However, it was not until October 1873 when Sir William Gull, a physician to the Royal Family, named the condition anorexia nervosa to mean loss of appetite. Since then, the archetypal individual to endure an eating disorder has been seen as a White, young female, a fiction that NEDA is calling attention to this year and a fiction that I too will expose in this article.
Attributing eating disorders to White, young females is dangerous because it skews the intersectional framework and approach that should be adopted when diagnosing individuals and generating treatment. To the contrary of the archetypal eating disorder patient, the National Eating Disorders website states:
“Black teenagers are 50% more likely than white teenagers to exhibit bulimic behavior, such as binging and purging. In a study done of adolescents, researchers found that Hispanics were significantly more likely to suffer from bulimia nervosa than their non-Hispanic peers. The researchers also reported a trend towards a higher prevalence of binge eating disorder in all minority groups.”
Another study that the NEDA website highlighted found that:
“…among the leanest 25% of 6th and 7th grade girls, Hispanics and Asians reported
significantly more body dissatisfaction than did white girls. Lastly, in a survey of 6,504
adolescents, Asian, Black, Hispanic, and Caucasian youth all reported attempting to lose
weight at similar rates, while among Native American adolescents, 48.1% were
attempting weight loss.”
People of color, for the majority, are less likely to receive medical treatment for eating disorders due to the lack of appropriate, intersectional approaches of support and treatment. Treatment is expensive and time-consuming, two factors that White families can afford more often than families of color. More studies have been conducted on White, female adolescents, thus racializing the knowledge production of eating disorders.
Another misconception that must be exposed is that of the gender binary. Males are affected by eating disorders too. In fact, 10 of the 30 million individuals who live with an eating disorder are men—a number that is too high to ignore. It is harder to diagnose men than it is for women partly because eating disorders can be represented differently between the two sexes. John F. Morgan, author of “The Invisible Man: A Self-help Guide for Men with Eating Disorders, Compulsive Exercise and Bigorexia”, states that
“It is more common for men with anorexia nervosa to focus on ‘shape’ rather than
‘weight’…men with body image problems are less likely to express concern with
their weight than women. Thus, when these men fail to manifest an obsession
with body weight, but instead are more focused on muscle tone, it is easy for
health-care professionals to decide the men do not suffer from anorexia nervosa”
Again, the process used to treat individuals with potential eating disorders is gendered and fails to meet the needs that individuals merit. Furthermore, men face a double stigma when dealing with eating disorders. This first stigma is attributed because eating disorders are characterized more for females. The second stigma is attributed because the male is asking for and seeking help. Both of these stigmas were created to perpetuate an explicit gender binary, and whoever crossed that line is in danger of losing cultural capital. Morgan states that “We have more scientific knowledge about men with eating disorders than ever before” (2008, Morgan,ix), but as long as the distinctive, gendered framework and lense exists when pertaining to eating disorders, the knowledge will never be enough.
The last misconception that this piece will expose is that of age. There is a social, silent script of what a body should look like and how that body can be attained. However, that body is a fantasy, one that is hard to attain for most young individuals, but even harder for those who are older. With rapidly changing bodies and the need to learn how to shape that body to social standards, many older individuals develop eating disorders that prove to be just as destructive in an older body versus a younger one.
The NEDA website exhibits several statistics that demonstrate this truth:
“60% of adult women have engaged in pathogenic weight control; 40% are
restrained eaters; 40% are overeaters; only 20% are instinctive eaters; 50% say
their eating is devoid of pleasure and causes them to feel guilty; 90% worry
about their weight.”
Dominant factors that contribute to these statistics, non-exclusively, include: retirement, pregnancy/childrearing, divorce, infidelity, menopause, and work environment. Furthermore, a stigma that exists with older individuals having an eating disorder is that it is a “teenager’s problem.” When individuals age, society often casts them as invisible, thus casting their needs and issues aside. Our silence is their pain, and that should be a reality of no one.
As a society and culture, we must have the audacity to challenge ourselves and take time out of our individual days to validate the experiences and feelings of others. National Eating Disorder Awareness week starts on February 26th, and the awareness should not stop at the end of the week but continue in the weeks to come. We must be constantly more aware through a lens that recognizes the individuality and diversity of each individual, therefore obtaining a lens that includes intersectionality. As said before, the theme of NEDA week is “Let’s Be Real,” so let us all as a Swarthmore Community get real by recognizing the worth and humanity of each and every one of us, no matter what shape or size.