Getting Personal · iheartslFeed · Opinions & Thoughts

On eating disorders…

Anyone who follows me on Plurk knows that I am very outspoken about body acceptance. As someone who has struggled most of her life with an eating disorder, and who has many friends with eating disorders, this is an issue very near and dear to my heart. I spent seven weeks as an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital in NJ, on the eating disorder unit, when I was 15. I became very good friends with many of the other teens there. The vast majority of them were anorexic, though some had began as bulimic and the disorder morphed from there.

Here’s the thing, though. Most of these girls “looked” healthy. Very few of them were so thin that you’d think “oh, I wonder if she has an eating disorder.” Not that we should be thinking that when we look at people, but that’s an entirely different discussion. The point is, they were beautiful, passionate girls. They often had great families. Most of them were popular, great students, involved in sports and genuinely appeared to be that iconic picture of health we’re all told to pursue. In other words, they were slim, but not overly so. Whatever that means. Few of them would’ve made the average onlooker think anything was wrong. In fact, most of them seemed to “have it all.” But they were all slowly starving themselves.

Just two years ago, at only 37 years-old, one of my friends from that hospital, who I’d kept in touch with all these years, died as a result of cardiac arrest, directly related to her over two decade long battle with anorexia. Anorexia is the deadliest of ALL pyschiatric illnesses. It’s a very, very serious battle that too many struggle with, and it’s complicated by so many factors that it is impossible to make a single image that represents everyone who struggles with the disorder.

*8.23.13 edit* As I expected, the Flickr group I link to in this post has been pulled. You can see an example of one of the images that was in the group here, but please be aware it is very triggering.

Today I became aware of an SL campaign that is intended to raise awareness about anorexia, and the Flickr group that accompanies it. You can view that group pool here, but I must emphasize the potential for triggering. If you have a history of ED, please proceed with caution. Unfortunately, some of the images it has inspired feel more like “thinspo” or “pro-ana” pics than they do awareness images. To put it in perspective, Pinterest now has a disclaimer that pops up if you search on “thinspo” there. I believe the intentions of those participating in this campaign are good, but this is such a difficult subject, and particularly if you have no firsthand experience with an eating disorder, things are easily lost in translation.

So, I decided to put a new spin on it. People were encouraged to make very thin avatars (though the picture where that was encouraged seems to have been removed), but I went with an avatar who looks to be pretty healthy, don’t you think? The point is, someone who looks healthy can have anorexia, too. It’s not about how someone looks, and the obsessive tendency to focus on physical appearance in our culture is part of why we have such a serious problem with all eating disorders in the first place.

Eating Disorder Awareness

Now, people have already been pulling and/or modifying their original images, and I give those participating credit for that… for listening to those of us who have been upset by the way the message has been portrayed thus far. One of the original images (which seems to be gone now) said “I am anorexic but am I sexy?” and the “model” was in lingerie. Most of the avatars have been scantily clad. Trust me when I say that every anorexic girl I met in my many years of ED recovery wouldn’t have worn a bikini in public under any circumstances. Most of them wore t-shirts over one piece swimsuits, if they were even willing to get into a swimsuit at all. Instead, they tended to hide beneath baggy clothes. This served two purposes. One, it kept people from noticing. I heard so many parents say “we had no idea because her clothes were baggy.” But also, because people who are anorexic have a distorted sense of their size, they believe they need to hide under the clothes. They believe they are hiding their fat bodies from sight. Even when repeatedly told they are thin, they do not believe it.

I was the “fat girl” in that eating disorder program. The only one. I had non-purging bulimia, only because I never successfully managed to make myself vomit (for which I am incredibly grateful today), and I understood enough about digestion to know that laxatives won’t make you lose weight or skinny. As an adult, after years of struggling to diet, and failing to lose and maintain any significant weight loss, I saw an eating disorder therapist. I worked with her for 18 months, and have completely changed my relationship with food. The seven weeks in the hospital when I was fifteen actually made my eating disorder even worse. I picked up “tips” from the anorexic and bulimic girls. It was a well-intended program, and it helped some of the girls, but it also had some serious flaws. I point this out because that happened to me when I was under psychiatric supervision in a hospital program. Some people may wonder how these images can be “triggering,” and I want to make it very clear that when you have an eating disorder, triggers are everywhere. It’s something you have to learn to cope with, but it takes time and years of work to do that, and therefore it is of paramount importance that people trying to raise awareness keep this in mind. Is your image helpful? Does it just further promote stigmas or stereotypes? Have you done the research to support what you want to convey?

The bottom line is this… you don’t know anything about a person’s health from looking at the person. Whether that person seems “too fat” or “too thin” to you is irrelevant. To assume that you must be very thin to have anorexia is erroneous. Several of the girls I was in the hospital with started off in a BMI range higher than is considered “normal,” but they were still anorexic. You can classify a body type, if you insist, when you look at it… but all it tells you about that person’s health is how they look on the outside. There are many illnesses that don’t manifest physical symptoms (I live with “invisible diseases” myself). There are unhealthy thin people and healthy fat people.

Eating disorders are very, very serious psychiatric health issues. Treatment is important, and awareness – with a clear message of such – is also important.

If you believe you, or someone you love, may have an eating disorder please check out these resources.

Something Fishy

National Eating Disorders Association NEDA also has a toll free hotline you can call (at least from the US). That number is 1-800-931-2237. Additionally, there is a webchat feature on that page.

Intuitive Eating

Eating Disorders Hope

National Institutes of Mental Health: What Are Eating Disorders?

But You Don’t Look Sick I threw this in because of mentioning so-called “invisible illnesses.” While eating disorders aren’t really what this website is about, it ties into the entire premise of not judging someone’s health based on how he or she looks.

If you would like someone to talk to about your own struggles, please reach out to someone. Whether you use one of the resources above, or do a google search to find your own, there is help out there. You don’t have to try to get through this alone.

~Lucie

Credits:
Skin: Glam Affair – Katya 01 – Europa (Collabor88)
Hair: Truth – Elisha – Fades – Elvira
Scarf: BOOM – Tinsley Cashmere Scarf – Gunmetal
Top: Auxiliary – Printed Sweatshirt – Camera Dark
Leggings: Maitreya – footless tights – purple
Shoes: Maitreya – Stagioni boots – coal
Pose: fri.day – Sweet & sour 1

7 thoughts on “On eating disorders…

  1. i too felt that the images were more “thinspo” than awareness. its possible these ladies might not have thought they were portraying that, but i think they were just going on the idea that they are a model and they have to look pretty, even when they are making an image about something horrible like eating disorders. what they failed to understand is that they are giving people with an eating disorder what they want. the image with “i’m anorexic, but am i sexy?” was a good example of that. to those of us without anorexia, we would say oh gosh no you are a stick! but to an anorexia sufferer, they are saying SEXY AS HELL!

    i struggle with emotional eating, so my disorder goes the opposite direction, but i agree 100% here. billions of hugs lucie ❤

    1. Yeah, I think that people who haven’t had firsthand encounters with “real” people who have eating disorders have a tendency to assume all people with anorexia look like the stereotypically overly airbrushed thin supermodel. The problem is, a. not all supermodels are drug addicts and/or have eating disorders, and b. plenty of “normal” people have eating disorders, and they obviously don’t look or dress like supermodels.

  2. Thank you so much for this, and for your activism. The stereotypes people have about people with eating disorders are not only untrue and hurtful, but dangerous — when we only look for one sign, so many sufferers will slip by us unnoticed. I’ll keep these resources bookmarked!

  3. When I was in treatment, out of about 25 girls, maybe only two or three people, including me, were visually underweight. I think the majority of girls with diagnosable eating disorders are at average weights. In terms of Anorexia Nervosa (AN), however, according to the DSM diagnosis, one does have to be underweight to fit that criteria if we are going by the book. I will say, however, that although I do fit an AN weight, with good make-up and long sleeves, nobody would suspect I had the illness either. People expect girls with eating disorders to be 60 pounds, when realistically, most of us go undetected.

    1. Yes, the strict diagnostic requirement looks at BMI and has a setpoint for when it’s considered “official,” but eating disorder behaviors often start before a person reaches that point. Where I was hospitalized, the diagnosed girls based on how much weight had been lost in a set amount of time, as opposed to their current weight fitting the DSM criteria. The therapists and psychiatrists there felt that it was essential to try to catch these girls before there weight got to that point, partly because of how dangerous it is given the strain it puts on the heart (and other systems). They were evaluated on many additional criteria, but that was something unique about that program.

      You’re very right… many people with eating disorders, and not just anorexia, go undetected. And then there are the assumptions in the opposite extreme. Not everyone who is very thin or very heavy has an eating disorder. It’s a major challenge that needs to be addressed in order to truly help people.

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