Are Eating Disorders an “Important” Cause?

The other day I was talking on the phone to a friend in Los Angeles, an Episcopal priest who founded and runs a school and daycare center near Skid Row for the children of garment workers. Alice is one of the most inspiring, generous and down-to-earth people I’ve ever met, and her ability to embrace without judgement all people, from junkies to Hollywood celebrities, fills me with admiration. By contrast, my conversations with Alice always make me painfully aware of my own judgmental nature, particularly with regard to myself. If I were a truly good person, I think, I’d be devoting my life to working with the poor and downtrodden, like Alice. Hers is important work.

Over the decades I’ve known her I’ve arranged for many students to spend summers doing community service at Alice’s center, but I haven’t volunteered myself. My work is writing and teaching, and Alice never fails to ask what I’m working on. She welcomes volunteers but recognizes that not everyone is equipped to deal with a crowd of rambunctious, mostly Spanish-speaking children. The demands of these children are so constant that it’s difficult even to have an uninterrupted phone conversation at the center, so Alice had trouble hearing my response to her question about my current project, the benefit book I’m editing about recovery from eating disorders, due out next year.

“What’s the cause again?” she asked.

And I instantly went into apology mode, feeling the need to justify eating disorders as a problem worthy of activism because of the lives it claims, the waste of human potential, the misunderstanding that surrounds these mental illnesses, and the need to call the beauty, fashion and food industries to task for their role in perpetuating these disorders. I gave Alice an earful that she could barely hear for the tug of small hands on her skirts and the request of a homeless man to use the telephone when she was done.

“That’s great,” she said. Knowing Alice, I’m certain she meant it. What my mind heard, however, was that eating disorders were so far off her radar she had no idea what I was talking about. What I felt was the stigma that surrounds this issue–pigeonholing it as a problem limited to rich white girls and women who supposedly have the luxury of “choosing” whether to eat too much or too little, or to waste great volumes of food by purging.

We concluded our conversation about my college-age son’s interest in volunteering at the center (he, with the infinite patience and flexibility that I lack, adores working with large groups of little kids), and I hung up feeling the familiar tug of self-judgment and shame.

I know the truth about eating disorders. I know they’re pervasive in every community throughout the world, among men as well as women, Hispanics and African-Americans as well as whites, lower-income as well as upper-income families. I know that they exist universally because of the primal nature of eating, so close to the existential essence of being. To eat is to live, and to deny, distort or destroy the practice of eating is to signal pain so deep that it threatens survival. There’s nothing voluntary or “chosen” about this pain, much less the desperate need to express it. The trivialization of eating disorders is tantamount to trivializing suicide. The lives that can be saved from these illnesses belong to people who are every bit as worthy and valuable as the children blossoming under Alice’s care. I know all this better than most, yet stigma makes it so very difficult to get that message out.

I fight this stigma within myself. My recovery from an eating disorder did not erase my judgmental nature, much less the judgment of society. And stigma is a creature of judgment, just as eating disorders are. You can recover from eating disorders only to belittle the relative importance of these illnesses, given the larger, graver, “more important” problems in the world. I mean, why would anyone waste energy fighting eating disorders when there are so many wars, polluted oceans, starving children, prisoners of conscience, brutal murders, pedophiles, hunted whales, endangered tribe, and on and on and on.

I try to be mindful of the damage such judgment can do. It was precisely this kind of thinking that ushered me into anorexia as a teenager in the 1960s. The scope of problems that overwhelmed us in those days included Vietnam, three American assassinations and the uncivil war in the South over civil rights. The enormity of chaos paralyzed me, and my inability to solve these problems was one reason I told myself I didn’t deserve to eat. I stigmatized myself.

Now, even though my eating disorder is long gone, that impulse to demean myself, and all that I do, remains. The shadow of judgment, if not confronted, will darken my writing, my teaching, my cooking, my gardening, my relationships and my causes. I try to remain mindful and simply watch the shadow until it passes, but as I do  I notice that the judgment isn’t entirely internal. It’s difficult to make a move in our culture without some external voice or image reminding us that there’s a “better” way. Whether it’s doctors who belittle the problem of binge eating, designers who deny that their fashions promote anorexia, philanthropists who consider eating disorders unworthy of research funding or insurance carriers who decline to cover adequate treatment for these illnesses, our society consistently stigmatizes not only eating disorders but the fight against them. There are so many “better” causes.

I’m guessing I’m not alone in internalizing this message. One of the benefits of recovery is that it frees us to pursue genuinely rewarding interests, to explore and address a broad range of challenges; the last thing many veterans of eating disorders want is to stay tethered to their past nightmare as activists. But there’s a big difference between plunging into other passions and missions, and treating the fight against eating disorders as an insignificant or minor cause. If we have the opportunity to help one person, save one life, or open one mind to the truth against these illnesses, there’s no reason to apologize for seizing that opportunity and making a difference. As my friend Alice always tells me, no one of us has the power to solve all the world’s problems, but each of us has the power to change the world one person at a time, even if the only person we succeed in changing is our self. It’s all important work.

Comments

  1. Shan Larter says:

    Hi,

    This post was awesome… glad to see there is another place speaking TRUTH about eating disorders and the real stuff that fuels them. I myself am ‘recovered’ and very mindful of the lingering beliefs that I could easily allow to bring me back there. Thanks for being another person who tells it like it is :) Let’s band together to shine the light on this problem and claim it as a cause worth our attention.

    Shan Larter
    Holistic Eating Disorder Recovery Coach
    Vancouver BC Canada

  2. The pressures on women and girls to lose weight to look good in the eyes of men may be symptoms of larger issues, but the health consequences are too severe to downplay. I am not saying this just because a dear friend just lost her daughter to anorexia, but that tragedy certainly underscores the importance of the issue in my eyes.

  3. I have been looking around msmagazine.com and really am impressed by the great content here. I work the nightshift at my job and it is boring. I’ve been coming here for the previous couple nights and reading. I just needed to let you know that I have been enjoying what I’ve seen and I look ahead to reading more.

  4. Thanks for the compliment, Therese! It makes the whole Ms. team–editors and bloggers, et al–happy to know that people are reading and enjoying all the feminist content! Stay tuned and stay in touch!

  5. Humanista says:

    There certainly are bigger causes out there – those that affect more people or the right kind of people, to be sure. Even if eating disorders most commonly develop in girls and teens of affluent backgrounds, though, that shouldn't downgrade the disease to one of insignificance. Kids with eating disorders are no less able to help themselves than children with cancer or diabetes, and their struggles are just as real.

    I think that mental health gets a bad rap in general, which means mental health issues are often sidelined in favor of "real" issues. That means we must speak up more, not less, in our efforts to bring awareness to this very real problem.

  6. bulimiacounsellor says:

    Aimee, I have only just come across your post, but I was struck by it. I am an ED Counsellor and I am currently working on an online program of self-help for ED's.
    I am luckily in a program run by Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, who fund projects that promote social chanage and awareness. At the first round, I felt very unworthy. Other projects included cancer support,organ donation, suicide, self-harm, I just couldn't see my project being considered. But it was! Official stats (and as such, an underrepresentation) say there are 200,000 people in Ireland with an Eating Disorder, representing 80 deaths a year. A current mental health awareness campaign for young people is effective and welcome, but there is no mention of eating disorders. A new client to our centre has been battling for years with Binge Eating Disorder but didn't realise she had an eating disorder until she read the definition on our website. So you know what? My project, and every other project out there that raises awareness and supports anyone struggling with an ED IS worthy, and badly needed. No more than our clients, WE are worthy.

  7. The work you're doing is DEFINITELY important. Trying to justify its importance by ranking oppressions never got anyone anywhere. You do what you can, where you can, with what you can. And I think it's fabulous that you're a survivor and you're involved. As a survivor myself, I'm always drawn to projects surrounding body image and eating because they truly are systemic problems. They may not seem like a "big deal" on their own (compared to more transnational issues), but they're a symptom of an incredibly problematic society. These things don't just randomly come out of nowhere, especially when they're hitting epidemic proportions like EDs and disordered eating patterns are. Thanks for writing this!

  8. Belle of Acadie says:

    Anything that causes suffering and untimely death is of great concern to me personally. These are mothers, daughters, sisters, brothers, fathers etc

    Use your heart for a second. Your passion. Disorders like this are symptoms of deeply embedded societal problems as many of these commenters have mentioned.

    I think the American empire shall fall as Rome did.

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