It’s not easy to raise awareness of mental illness. Doing it well, and making sure that it’s sensitive whilst also displaying the truth of the matter is incredibly difficult. And as much as I empathise with those attempting the feat, we’re still clumsily finding our feat with it, especially when it comes to eating disorders. The lack of consideration of intersectionality when it comes to representing the sufferers of eating disorders is laughable. It’s very rare that a new box office hit will feature a woman of colour with a mental illness. We know about thinning torsos, ribs poking through translucent skin, and neurotic use of weighing scales, but we know little else. A study by Beat showed that 725,000 people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, with 89% of those effected being female. And these statistics only include those who are diagnosed; there are so many undiagnosed eating disorders (an estimated 20% of women have an undiagnosed eating disorder). With so many of us being affected by eating disorders, how come we’re so bad at knowing more about them?
Eating disorders become so much more invisible when we only see one narrative – and, if your eating disorder makes you appear more “socially acceptable” you become even more invisible. For example, with larger women, sudden weight loss is praised – almost deified. The idea that there’s an eating disorder fueling sudden weight loss isn’t even considered. And that’s just for anorexia, or other restrictive eating disorders like orthorexia. Binge eating is dismissed as a self-pitying farce amongst fatter women, and is often a source of comedy. Eating disorders are so often praised, with young girls who post pretty pictures of their thinning bodies are praised for their “motivation” and “hard work”, and get away with completely filtering out their eating disorders. Use of social media has actually been linked to the worsening of eating disorders. Amaro does more than just fade out your blemishes, it seems.
We all know about “thinspiration” – the blogs and accounts dedicated to posting pictures of ‘inspirational’ bodies, all of which are incredibly thin. Social media seems to have made it easy to have access to such concepts as “thinspiration”, and there are very few regulations regarding them. It seems that all we’ve done regarding eating disorders and what can cause them to develop is just make them vaguely visible and do nothing else. Now visibility is so important, but we’ve left it at that. Also, in pushing this one type of eating disorder – the skinny white girl who cries her mascara off in the shower – we’ve erased all other types, perhaps pushing them even further into the dark. We all have a distinct idea of what an eating disorder is, and this completely erases trans women, women of colour, fat women, and men too.
The media, in trying to represent eating disorders has given us such a narrow and limited viewpoint of what eating disorders include. There have been too many “conversation starters” that never convey the full scale of the problem, and end up reducing serious disorders to teenage folly rather than life-threatening illness. Opening the conversation to include these “invisible” experiences and solutions is so important, because there are still so many people in the dark about eating disorders – many are the sufferers themselves – never mind the confused families of the sufferer.
Our obsession with “clean eating” isn’t helping, either. The rhetoric of it is easy enough to unpick, but the anxiety that such rhetoric – clean, dirty, good, bad, guilty, naughty – can cause is overwhelming, and is hard to erase from our psyches. It sometimes feels like our whole culture is telling us to try to pack as many calories into as little substance as possible – pleasure and enjoyment doesn’t come into it. It’s neurotic, and it’s no wonder so many of us are suffering from disordered eating. It’s great to see nutritionists like Michelle Allison of fatnutritionist.com attempting to break this down, and offering a holistic approach to eating. On her site, you’ll find no recommendations of what to eat; just a focus on how we eat. And she recommends it’s with earnest gusto.
We live in an obesogenic environment, full of adverts telling us to plus size our Happy Meal for 50p, that then tells us we’re ‘naughty’ for doing what the adverts tell us to do. I think it’s time we put ourselves back in the picture. Eating well has nothing to do with squeezing into a smaller size, and has everything to do with following your appetite. That’s what I’ve found anyway, and it tastes delicious. We deserve better than the pushing of the same old narrative, by the same old people, and we can do better in diversifying the voices of who’s telling the story, and who the story is about. We know that eating disorders aren’t just a white girl thing, so why pretend they are?