This week (Feb. 22-28) is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week here in the United States. Sponsored by the National Eating Disorders Association, this year’s theme is “I Had No Idea,” highlighting the need for early intervention for those suffering, and, according to the website, “recognizing the diverse experiences of people personally affected by disordered eating.”
If you had asked me in the beginning of high school what I thought about eating disorders, I wouldn’t have known what to say. Like other disasters, illnesses or similar catastrophes, you don’t expect eating disorders to creep up on you or those you love.
In high school, I knew (or knew of) at least five different girls with eating disorders. Some of them battled privately, and some of them battled while the whole school watched. Some of them were just acquaintances or classmates, and others were my best friends. I myself went through my own phase of over-exercising and different fad diets that involved under-eating in sophomore and junior year. Luckily, I was able to get a hold of everything before I caused serious damage to myself, but others aren’t so lucky.
The truth of the matter is, eating disorders are real. They’re not the mythical rite of passage we saw D.J. Tanner go through when she wanted to look thinner for that pool party. They sneak up on you, and they have no boundaries.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), up to 24 million people in the United States suffer from some form of eating disorder. Eating disorders also have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
NEDA asserts that eating disorders have no limits, crossing all racial boundaries. Although it is less common, men and boys also suffer from eating disorders and make up 40 percent of the population of those who binge eat. Besides anorexia, which is more common in non-Hispanic whites, eating disorders have similar trends amongst other people of color. LGBTQ+ people also suffer from eating disorders and other similar mental illnesses.
Last semester, I wrote a blog post on a Victoria’s Secret campaign called “The Perfect Body” and its implications about body image. In the process, I learned some scary facts. According to ANAD, 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of getting fat. Sixty-nine percent of girls in grades 5-12 reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of the perfect body shape. And perhaps the most shocking fact to me, 42 percent of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner. That’s ages 6 through 9. What did you think about your body when you were 6?
So, where do all of these frightening statistics stem from? Is it solely the unrealistic body images we’re fed through magazines and other media, or are there other more complicated facets involved? Where do we even go from here?
First thing’s first. As a society, we need to acknowledge that eating disorders are a problem and mental disorders can affect absolutely anyone. The misconceptions about eating disorders are harmful to both those who are suffering and those who are not, and legitimizing the seriousness of eating disorders is absolutely imperative.
Obviously, this task seems daunting, but I think we can do it. I urge everyone to use this week as an occasion to start being critical about the media we can consume and the judgment and body shaming we allow to pass by unnoticed. Changing perceptions can be an attainable goal, but only if we’re willing to work for it.