Eating Disorders Awareness Week: Bad Body Image ≠ Eating Disorder

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For several years now, I have helped college students plan Eating Disorders Awareness Week events. In honor of this year’s EDAW, I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned.

  1. Almost every campus EDAW program is about body image.

Here’s why that sucks.

Poor body image alone doesn’t cause eating disorders. If it did, then the prevalence of eating disorders would be two or three times what it is. Now, sure, for many who struggle with anorexia and some who struggle with bulimia, body image is a part of the illness. But even then, it is rarely a cause.

Plus, when we focus almost exclusively on body image, we exclude so many people who are struggling because the issue doesn’t resonate for them. They think to themselves, “that’s not why this is happening!” and they disengage.

Finally, focusing on body image minimizes the range of eating disorders that exist and their complexity. Eating disorders are not diets run amok. The are the most persistent and deadly mental illnesses. They’re about a lot more than comparing oneself against airbrushed bodies in magazines, and everyone’s experience is different. As someone who has personally struggled with anorexia in the past, I will never be able to completely understand someone else’s struggle with anorexia—let alone bulimia or binge eating disorder.

  1. Many other EDAW programs are about nutrition.

Here’s why that sucks.

The kinds of conversations we often see about nutrition during EDAW perpetuate the assumption that if a person could just learn to eat right they wouldn’t have an eating disorder. Sending that kind of message perpetuates misunderstanding, minimizes the complexity and pain of eating disorders, and serves to further alienate folks who most desperately need to find a way to connect.

Besides, people with eating disorders are often hyperaware of food intake and nutritional principles–often to a detrimental degree. So, how about we ease up on that point?

  1. Panel Discussions Are the Best

As I mentioned before, everyone’s eating disorder experience is different. A well-crafted, safe, empowering panel discussion is by far the best way to go for EDAW programming. Here are a few things to keep in mind, though.

  • Shoot for diversity: eating disorders don’t discriminate based on age, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or any other factor. If you can find a diverse group of volunteers to share their stories on your panel, that’s best.
  • Prepare your panelists: it’s important to work with panelists in advance so that they feel comfortable, are reassured that they don’t need to exceed their comfort level, and that there are resources available in case they find the process triggering. You’ll also want to coach them in how not to be triggers for their audience members. When talking about eating disorders, it’s not good to share specific weights, calorie intakes, exercise details, or any other specific methods for perpetuating and hiding their disorder. You can find more information on safety in the EDAW Action Kit at ActiveMinds.org/EDAW.
  • Support your audience: make sure you have counseling center representatives available at the event in case an audience member is triggered or is interested in seeking help as soon as possible.
  • Follow up: make sure to follow up with chapter members and panelists to ensure that their event experience was good and that they are not in need of follow-up support.
  1. Please Don’t Have a Bake Sale or Give Away Food!

Nothing makes someone with an eating disorder run away from an event faster than offering or selling food. And although I know how effective free food is in getting people to come to your event—and how effective bake sales can be for a fundraiser—I have to say: DON’T DO IT. Not for this week of events.

The people who you most want to include and inform with your event are the people who are run off by the presence of cheap, greasy pizza or cupcakes.

  1. Target Friends.

At the end of the day, the most likely audience for a well-crafted EDAW event are students who are concerned about a peer, sibling, parent, or other loved one. This group is often the most interested in what they can do to help a loved one and support them in their journey back to wellness. Keep that in mind as you develop your programming and compile questions for your panelists.