National Eating Disorder Awareness Week
This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. The goal of NEDAwareness Week is to educate and increase understanding of eating disorders, as well as decrease stigma against them. I challenge each of you to educate yourselves about some new aspect of eating disorders this week, and if there’s something you’re curious about, then please ask in the comments.
As you may remember we’ve been writing a fair amount about eating disorders here on TS, and I think that ties in well to this year’s theme: Everybody knows somebody. While there are many stereotypes about the “traditional” person with an ED, it is important to remember that eating disorders don’t respect boundaries like gender, socioeconomic class, race, ethnicity, or orientation. EVERYONE can get an eating disorder. Many people are using awareness week to come forward and say that they have an eating disorder, even if they don’t fit the traditional picture of an ED. It’s a good time to expand your notion of what eating disorders look like. It’s also important to remember that many of these individuals will not get treatment because of the stereotypes about who really has eating disorders. If you can use this week to reach out to those around you who do or who might have an eating disorder, even if they’re not the traditional sufferer, it would help break down those barriers.
One element of eating disorder awareness that I’d like to focus on today is the way that the general, uneducated-about-eating-disorders public reacts to eating disorders. I’ve often found that they’re treated as a joke. Either they’re viewed as something that is only for the privileged, and thus shouldn’t be taken seriously, or they’re viewed as shallow and stupid. But one of the worst examples I had of EDs being treated as a joke happened my freshman year of college. I was very open about the fact that I didn’t eat when I started college. I didn’t care who knew about it, because no one could stop me from doing it anyway. My dorm was extremely close: nearly everyone ate together and spent most of their time together. It was fairly obvious that I didn’t eat. But the reaction of my “friends’ was not what I expected it to be. No one asked me to eat more often. No one suggested that I try counseling. No one even used the phrase “eating disorder”. Instead, they laughed. My eating disorder became the running joke for my entire dorm. People would tease me for only ever eating cookies or coffee. I was constantly holding a cup of coffee because it was how I had the energy to get through the day and it was how I dulled the hunger pains, and whenever someone saw me with coffee they would laugh and say “what a surprise”, or if they saw me without it they’d ask what was wrong.
I also tended to binge on sugar because I’ve always had a sweet tooth and I’d feel out of control when I started eating it. People would often bake in the dorm kitchen and share with others, and people would joke that they had to keep things away from me when they made cookies or brownies or cake. They would joke that if they wanted me to do something, all they had to do was buy me a cookie. They didn’t know that at the same time they were teasing me about these things, I survived for an entire week eating only a cookie or two a day. And every time they teased me about it I became more and more self-conscious. The idea that my eating habits were up for their judgment fueled my self-hatred, and made me certain that they didn’t really want to pay attention to anything except my outward behaviors and my body.
I was in an improv comedy group with some of the people from my dorm, and at one point in front of complete strangers during a sketch, one of my friends called me out for never eating. It was humiliating. But I didn’t know how else to ask them to approach it. I knew that my behaviors were weird. I was too smart to be made fun of for being shallow, I rarely talked about my bad body image, they didn’t know the mental pain that I was going through and all they saw was my bizarre behavior around food. They didn’t know how to react except by laughing.
If I can change one thing about the way others view eating disorders through my blogging and interaction with others, it would be to impress upon everyone how serious they are, and that even if the person suffering doesn’t take their disease seriously, the people around them should. While eating disorders are extremely hard to understand, and are frustrating and confusing from the outside, it is extremely harmful to tease or laugh at the struggles of someone in the midst of a disorder that could kill them.