What they said: “You look great! Have you lost weight?”
What she heard: “Skinnier is better! Keep going!”
What they said: “Eating healthy is so important.”
What he heard: “If you’re not eating like me, then you’re not eating healthy.”
What they said: “You look so healthy!”
What she heard: “You’ve gained weight.”
What they said to my colleague in an organization that addresses mental health and wellness: “You’re so disciplined. I wish I could have the same self-control you have.”
What I heard: “Self-control is good. You are better than me because you eat things that the diet industrial complex tells me I should.”
The impact on the office culture: “Everyone is watching what you eat. Everyone is judging your size and exercise habits. You’ll be praised if you go to the gym or eat the salad. Gazes will shift and you’ll be met with silence if you eat the sandwich.”
No culture is immune to the messages we absorb and perpetuate about eating, exercise, and body image. Not even Active Minds’ culture. In fact, if you hung out in our office in DC for a day, you would no doubt hear people putting down their own bodies or habits, glorifying others’, and generally perceiving that there is only one best nutritional approach, or exercise routine, or body shape.
As someone who has been in recovery for nearly 12 years, these comments no longer trigger me, but they do annoy me. Especially when I hear them coming out of my own mouth. They also demonstrate the insidiousness of Western fitness culture, and they parallel the persistence and complexity of eating disorders.
There’s nothing simple about body image, disordered eating, or eating disorders on their own; so, when they are inevitably entangled, it’s often hard to help people understand why they occur, who they impact, and what we can all be doing to change the culture that perpetuates them. Here are some good things to remember:
Eating disorders occur for a number of different reasons. People don’t simply develop eating disorders because of diet culture or pictures in magazines. Often, people develop eating disorders because they’re depressed or anxious, or they’ve experienced trauma, and they’re seeking control over something in their lives. Some people are susceptible to messages that drugs or alcohol can fix that, and they abuse substances. And some of us are susceptible to messages that if we can control our bodies—if we can make them smaller and strip them of their energy—we will be happier and numb ourselves to negativity. These aren’t rational or positive coping mechanisms, but they are deeply human responses that take root as illnesses.
Eating disorders can impact anyone. Stop it with the “rich, white girl” trope! Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses—not diets or vanity run amok. Research shows that eating disorders don’t discriminate on the basis of gender identity, sexuality, race, ethnicity, economics, or spiritual orientation. Rather, eating disorders feed on trauma, anxiety, depression, and other extreme stressors.
Eating disorders don’t look alike. Put the idea of the “anorexic supermodel” out of your mind. This is not the image of someone with an eating disorder. Eating disorders take up residence in the brain, regardless of the body that houses it. Some people with eating disorders are underweight, some are overweight, and some people are a normal weight. An eating disorder is not defined by the weight of a person. An eating disorder is defined by their behaviors, the effect of which may cause weight fluctuations as well as a full spectrum of medical complications. So stop equating “eating disorder” with “too skinny,” please.
There’s no one way to eat, exercise, or look. No two people have the same nutritional or exercise needs. No two people look exactly alike. Okay, fine. Maybe identical twins will call me out on this one. But generally, we need to stop perpetuating the myth that there’s one right way to eat healthy or exercise right that applies to everyone. So, people out there who think, “I’m not as good as the person I know who has cut out carbs or dairy,” stop it. If you’re happy with how you feel, your body does what you need it to do, and your doctor isn’t detecting any health issues, you’re fine. And those of you who think, “I’m the healthiest person I know because I don’t eat this, do these exercises, and look this way,” just stop it. Health looks different on everyone, and what is right for you probably wouldn’t work for the person next to you. Let’s give up the good versus evil narrative that drives people to invest in “diet solutions.”
Compliment anything else that doesn’t feed the eating disorder. Why are we constantly complimenting each other’s looks? Seriously. Why is it so important for us to say those things immediately upon seeing someone? These are questions I began seriously asking myself 4.5 years ago when my goddaughter was born. Ever since, I’ve endeavored to compliment Lila and her little sister in a whole slew of ways, but never on their appearance. At the end of the day, the things I love most about my goddaughter are her ferocity, her creativity, her precociousness, and her generosity. So, why wouldn’t I compliment those things every second I have the chance?
What we say about ourselves matters. You can do everything right to support a friend with an eating disorder. You can pay close attention to how you address their anxieties, support their recovery, and avoid talking about their weight, exercise, food, or size. But if you’re still dumping on your own body image, food choices, and clothing sizes within their earshot, then you’re perpetuating the culture in which an eating disorder voice continues to thrive. You’re poking at their anxieties and triggering messages they are working hard every day to push away. Not only that, but you’re destroying your own confidence. Why would you do that? When you stop being your own worst enemy, you stop being others’.
Eating disorder thoughts and behaviors are all around us, and they probably always will be. However, we can work to ensure that they can’t find fertile soil in which to take root. Let this Eating Disorders Awareness Week be just the beginning of an entire year of rejecting body shaming and eating disorder culture. We owe it to each other, and most importantly, we owe it to ourselves.
Treatment is available. For more information call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
Trying to support a friend who may be experiencing an eating disorder? Check out our resources for being a friend at www.ActiveMinds.org/BeAFriend.