Eating Disorder Awareness: It Starts With Us

shutterstock_194294927Before arriving at college, you hear warnings—from parents, classmates and maybe even teachers—about the terrifying “Freshman 15”: go to college, gain weight. The warnings might seem harmless, but it matters that we present weight gain as a problem to avoid. More than incoming college students are warned to watch out for their GPA, their alcohol consumption and their quality of character, they are warned not to gain weight.

Worrying about our weight is something young women do long before our freshman year. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reports that signals of weight-consciousness and poor body image affect girls as early as first grade. Demi Lovato, the former Disney Channel star who has publicly discussed her lifelong struggle with eating disorders, remembers feeling body shame when she was just 4 years old.

I was 16 when Demi entered treatment and announced that she suffered from bulimia. Although my own bulimia had not yet set in, I still identified profoundly with the story that she told: growing up with abysmal self-esteem; never feeling good enough, pretty enough, skinny enough; and coping, often in self-destructive and dangerous ways, with the depression and anxiety that accompanied those feelings.

Her story, however, was like a single firefly in an otherwise black night sky. The media’s coverage of her struggle was encouraging, but it was dwarfed by everything else being presented in our culture—by the uniform size of every woman on TV; by the baffling, heated debate over whether swimsuit model Kate Upton was “fat”; by offhand comments from friends and family about how “huge” the petite Kim Kardashian was while eight months pregnant.

I soaked this in, becoming more convinced with each remark that the world must detest my appearance—so I did too. If the tiny Kardashian women still faced ridicule for too-big butts and baby weight, my sizable derriere must be horrendous. If a tall, slim girl at school was mocked for the cellulite on her thighs, my legs must be disgusting. If a friend felt so fat as a size six that she decided she couldn’t have sex until she lost 10 pounds, I must not be entitled to any kind of sex life given my wardrobe of sizes eight, 10 and 12.

I couldn’t help the comparisons. Every physical critique I heard, whether on TV or in real life, I took personally. By the time I entered college, I was the smallest I’d ever been since hitting puberty—a result of modest weight loss from diet and stress. Even then, I felt inadequate. I weighed 145 pounds—an all-time low for my 5’6” frame—but all I could see were the size-zero girls who looked like runway models and mesmerized boys. I wanted to be smaller so desperately that I plunged into a dark period of depression and anxiety, which eventually led to my ED systems of compulsive binging and purging.

The media’s cultural cues certainly play a large role in delivering the messages that lead young women like me, or Demi, to develop eating disorders. However, we can’t say the media is the only influence. It is easy to turn on The Bachelor, point a finger at the eager, skinny women clamoring for male attention, and claim to have found the culprit for our ED epidemic. It is much harder, however, to look at our friends, our peers, and ourselves and acknowledge that we, too, are part of the problem.

February 22–28 marks National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and as college students, we need to stop feigning “awareness” of EDs and start showing through our actions that we recognize the ways we encourage ED culture. We have real work to do, and high-fiving one another for picking up cheery stickers that say “Recovery Is Beautiful!” on the way to class is not going to cut it.

One of the most dangerous ways we fail our peers who are at risk for an ED is by believing and acting like weight loss is always a positive thing. A friend of mine recently came close to developing anorexic symptoms when, after she lost weight—from an already small frame—due to illness, she began receiving compliments and congratulations for her shrinking body. That feedback encouraged her to maintain her unnaturally small figure, despite the tolls it took on her health.

This is something I have personally experienced. While I was battling bulimia, I saw my doctor twice in a week for disorder-related blood-work. In the five days separating my appointments, I lost three pounds; when the nurse weighed me at my second appointment, she congratulated me for it.

It is high time that we internalize a new message: Neither weight loss nor weight gain is inherently good or bad. We are not automatically better, more worthy people if our asses get smaller, our cellulite more subtle or our dress size a lower number. Our refusal to acknowledge that and to stop making evaluative comments on others’ bodies is not just rude or insensitive, it hurts people. As many as 40–60 percent of adolescent girls, according to NEDA, use “crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives” to manipulate their weight and as a result, we face serious, life-threatening health consequences. Hurt feelings are only a fraction of what’s at stake here.

Being mindful of the ways we think and speak about bodies is an easy but important way for us to dismantle our eating-disorder culture. I can’t say it would have prevented my ED—it is, after all, a serious mental illness—but I firmly believe that the messages I received in my adolescence took a heavy toll on me.

During this year’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I ask that we start making change and stop being complacent. Instead, we must be compassionate. Be constructive. Be better. We all deserve it.

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Photo of Demi Lovato via Shutterstock

ShannonMiller

Shannon Miller is a student at Claremont McKenna College majoring in philosophy, politics and economics. After college, she plans to pursue an MFA in creative writing. She tweets about feminism, pop culture, and politics as @dayyyum_shan. Find more of her writing at shannonmarleymiller.wordpress.com.

Comments

  1. Krystal Martinez says:

    Thank you for addressing such an important topic that affects the lives of so many young girls and women daily. As a 25-year-old diagnosed with Asperger, I always struggled understanding the real issue with weight. I remember in high school, I would go to the doctor for my annual checkup, and the doctor would reassure my parents I was healthy, emphasizing on the results of my blood work and specimen collection. However, my parents would insist that I needed to lose weight, since I was weighing 125 pounds. Although I was not extremely overweight, it seemed that the general weight acceptance for a high school girl was between 105 to 115 pounds, anything after that is viewed as fat and unhealthy. Later when I entered college, the issue became even bigger as I reached 135 pounds, making my weight an issue that was addressed by everyone around me. Then one day it finally hit me, my weight was constantly compared to the image that society calls perfect, sexy and beautiful. The image that we are bombarded with on TV, magazines, and social media, and just like that from one day to another, I felt disgust and shame with my weight and I wanted to look like the sexy beautiful women people had been comparing me to. As the years passed, I struggled with bulimia and I recall each time I lost 5 or 10 pounds, all the positive attention I would receive, despite of how cranky, tired and unstable I was feeling. People only saw how I looked on the outside and if I was skinny assumed I was doing great, and with a few pounds, I was struggling. My new weight awareness and my need to be skinny went on for nearly two years, and it cross culturally, as it was important to family and friends from four different Hispanic countries, as well as Anglo friends and co-workers. Lucky for me, my eyes were opened a year and a half ago, while substituting in a high school and I met a young girl who lost over 30 pounds during the 9 weeks of summer break. Weighting 103 pounds, she was extremely thin, fragile, forgetful, cranky, and convinced she was ugly, fat, and still had to lose another 13 pounds. Seeing her battle, wanting to reach out to help her, and learning about eating disorders, I finally understood the big deal about weight. Our society is not focused on health or mental stability, we are focused on what has been historically defined as beautiful, sexy and perfect. Social media is bombarded with the perfect body, and the perfect size, forcing normal everyday young girls to do the unthinkable to come close to the perfect image. Presently, this young girl still battling, and although she accepts and understands the issue of weight as a health issue, rather than perceived beauty, she still wishes she looked as skinny as the “perfect woman” depicted on TV, magazines and social media. Thanks to this courageous young girl, I can see pass the negative weight comments which constantly surround me, and just focus on living a healthy lifestyle. At the end, I completely agree with our need to internalize a new message: Neither weight loss nor weight gain is inherently good or bad. We must learn to be mindful of the things we say to women and take a stand against eating disorders. We must educate girls, women, and the entire world that weight does not define a person, therefore focusing on health rather the perfection needs to be the accepted norm.

  2. Shana Taylor says:

    Hi Shannon,
    I truly believe that the media plays a huge role in the way we shape our perspectives or ideas on how women should look. I recently saw a photo of Demi Lovato and she looked amazing. I thought to myself, did she go back to being bulimic because she looks extremely skinny. Notice, the first thing that came to mind was that she looks to pretty, and the reason that I thought she was so pretty was because she was skinny. I absolutely agree with your statement “One of the most dangerous ways we fail our peers who are at risk for an ED is by believing and acting like weight loss is always a positive thing.” I believe I look and feel my best when I am thinner.
    My freshman year of college, I heard the stories about the freshman (15), and I was warned. Even with all the warnings, I ended up gaining freshman (50). I didn’t even realize how much weight I gained until I went home for the holidays and my family was shocked. They asked me if I was pregnant, and why was I so huge. I literally ran out of the house in tears, packed my bags, and went back to Orlando where I attended college. I literally started working out for hours a day, and started eating smaller meal, because I no longer felt beautiful. I would get on social media just to and see photos of women that were in great shape and it just made me feel insecure. I’ve been learning so much in my Women Studies course, more specifically about how women across the world go through similar issues. I think we should focus more on how we are similar, because it well help some women that battle with their weight and other areas of their life. Thanks for sharing, and I hope this is a start to helping one another accept and embrace our flaws.

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