Last week (February 20 - 26, 2011) was National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. The theme this year was "Let's Talk About It."
The idea of talking about eating disorders, or educating the public about eating disorders always leads me to ponder the most appropriate and effective way to introduce the subject to young people, primarily girls, and their families. I didn't know there was such a thing as "anorexia" until I watched a terrible documentary about it in a sixth grade health class.
From what I have experienced and heard from others, this introduction to eating disorders is pretty standard. It may be commonplace but it is wholly ineffective: young girls criticize their bodies, find them inadequate and repulsive for years and are then shown a fifteen minute video clip about eating disorders. A video clip that depicts a few young women who were finally committed to inpatient facilities at 40 some pounds.
Yes, this happens; anorexia can be neglected for so long that the problem is not addressed until it has reached this sort of extreme. Yet, this sensationalized and demonizing view of anorexia is not helping to educate a room full of self-conscious 11 and 12 year olds, some of whom have already been struggling with body-image issues for years.
In fact, if they are anything like me it works instead to sow yet another seed of guilt and fear while concurrently bringing girls to think that since their fledgling (or perhaps full-fledged) eating disorders have not yet rendered them as sick as the examples provided in such documentaries they are just fine, or even "unsuccessful anorexics." Just think about it, in a class room of 30 young people, sixteen of them are probably girls, if you do the math one to two of them will develop either anorexia or bulimia, as many as three to five will display "disordered eating" patterns at some point.
So that's where the class ends: these sixteen hypothetical girls leave frightened and isolated, with no one to turn to for help and no real information about what an eating disorder is and the many different ways they manifest themselves.
On top of the confusion and denial this lesson can spur among girls who may want help for an eating disorder, the subjects of such films are referred to as mentally-ill, a term which carries a very narrow definition to a middle schooler (an age group which uses the term "retard" with the same excess that it discusses Justin Bieber). Years pass, and our middle schoolers grow into young women, college students and professionals. They can recite the quadratic formula, research thoroughly and write thoughtfully. Yet, for most of them they still carry a stigmatized and unrealistic view of eating disorders (and other mental disorders).
Some of our hypothetical classmates have spent these intervening years making awkward excuses to avoid social settings that may include food, others have made religious pilgrimages to the bathroom after meals to purge and others still have planned each and every day around trips to the gym. These are the few who will know what eating disorders really are. They have learned from first person experience; they have destroyed their bodies to learn a lesson that could have been addressed years earlier.
These few women know that there is no weight at which you suddenly have earned the title of "anorexic." They see, after using their own precious bodies as laboratories, just how flawed the classic health class documentaries really are. Eating disorders should be presented as the multi-faceted, fanged monsters that they are. It should be made clear that weight loss and gain are symptoms, but not the only symptoms, of an eating disorder.
Let's talk about eating disorders, let's get at the real heart of the matter. Mother to daughter, doctor to patient, sister to sister, teacher to students. Let's not further victimize those of us who have fallen into the trap of anorexia by sensationalizing our stories. Let's focus on the reality of the situation: 1 in 5 American women exhibits disordered eating habits; most of these women are of a healthy weight.
Let's discuss the hope that comes with sharing the burden of constant self-hatred and a negative self-image. Let's discuss that fact that this is both a disease of the 20 year-old straight A college student, the 12 year-old aspiring ballerina, the 16 year-old wrestler and the 65 year-old grandmother who has suffered for years without letting a soul know just how insecure and afraid she really is. Eating disorders are ubiquitous, they are devastating and they are stigmatized. This week is a perfect opportunity to chip away at that stigma. Talk about it: educate others, educate yourself and spread hope.
For more information about eating disorders, education and/or events to promote eating disorder awareness nation wide please visit the National Eating Disorder Association's (NEDA) website at: www.nationaleatingdisorders.org