How We Help Anorexia Grow Stronger

Anorexia: a terrible, life altering illness that wreaks havoc on the lives of all kinds of people.  A disease characterized by a compulsive need to limit and control every calorie that enters one’s body to the point of starvation with no end in sight, because anorexia ensures that it’s victims never feel good enough, thin enough, perfect enough to stop. A disease that can be triumphed over, often after countless hours of intensive therapy and careful, conscious monitoring for years and years and years to come. At the same time, a disease that can kill if not recognized and confronted in time.

All of this and yet, in American culture, anorexia takes on a very different categorization: an insult to be hurled at women deemed “too thin,” something that many think will just go away if only the woman in question were to “eat a sandwich.” Anorexia has become a weapon, a judgment, a body type.

For instance:

“Eating 60 Times a Day and Still Looks Anorexic, Lizzie Velasquez Has Undiagnosed Medical Condition” [Headline from Gather: Life & Style]

“She’s thin but doesn’t look anorexic or malnourished.” [Evil Slutopia]

ETA: This comment got somewhat unfairly lumped in here. It does not use anorexic as an insult, this is true. My issue was that it still implies that anorexia has a specific “look.” This just goes to show that all of us, even awesome feminists, need to constantly be questioning the words we use!

“Lindsay Lohan Looks Anorexic Again [...] ” [Headline from Hollywood Grind]

“Everything is wrong about this story -EVERYTHING (and don’t you dare rip into me about calling this girl anorexic, I don’t even want to hear it, let’s just call a spade a spade already and stop with this PC non-sense).” [From Mama Vision]

You get the point.

While we hurl accusations of anorexia left and right at waif-like women, anorexia (the disease, not the judgment) grows stronger, and claims more victims every day. We enable anorexia with our ignorance and, seriously, this has to stop now.

Pasting an “anorexic” label on every thin woman we come across perpetuates the misconception that all people with anorexia look the same way. This is a myth that many psychologists even buy into, including the ones who created the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual IV.

I, for one, think this is ridiculous. Anorexia (or any eating disorder) is, at it’s core, a set of unhealthy behaviors and thought patterns that center around the idea of control.  If you go by the DSM IV definition, a person can go to bed without anorexia one night (weighing, for instance, 105 pounds), wake up in the morning one pound lighter, and… surprise! Suddenly they qualify for anorexia.

I mean, how does this make sense? Shouldn’t we be diagnosing people waaaay before this point, so they can get help waaaaaay before they wind up so thin that their lives are at risk? What am I missing here?

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Eating Disorders

As a psychology student, I understand why psychologists feel that labels and standards are important; however, as a woman who knows many people who struggle with disordered eating (including myself) I hate the way the psychology community treats eating disorders.

For instance, one woman in the comments of an article I read* has gone through several diagnoses, from anorexic to exercise bulimic to EDNOS**, depending on which doctor was treating her at the time; because she felt as if the psychiatric community could not help her figure out conclusively what was wrong with her this woman ended up alienated from therapy and, thus, forced to heal largely on her own. This is not good.

Eating Disorder diagnosis and standards are useful tools; they help psychologists to have a universal understanding of what a patient is going through, for one, and they also help people to figure out what they are suffering from and how to begin treatment. However, the strict category model currently used by the DSMIV is also incredibly problematic.

I have friends and relatives who have struggled with disordered eating. For that matter, I’ve struggled with a disordered relationship to food off and on for my whole life. If there’s one thing I know, its this: no two people with an eating disorder look or act the same. Eating disorders, at least in my opinion, are a lot less about behaviors and a lot more about mental processes. What do I mean by that? It’s simple.

Lets take Weight Watchers as an example. A person who has a healthy relationship with their body and food can go on Weight Watchers and lose weight without losing themselves; that’s not necessarily true of someone with an eating disorder. The last time I went on Weight Watchers I did it for a week and three days exactly before I quit and never looked back. I did this because I knew the way I was behaving was not healthy: I was obsessing over food, making graphs and calculating points for hours each of those days, I was pushing myself to eat less and less points each day, and I felt horrible if I ate up to my points limit for the day. Essentially, my thought processes behind the healthy diet became incredibly unhealthy. I wasn’t eating a dangerously high or dangerously low amount of food, nor was I exercising excessively… what I was doing was obsessing, and hurting myself with my own thoughts. I may not have had an eating disorder in the traditional sense, but I certainly needed guidance to help me rectify my disordered thinking about food.

Most people I know have a story like mine; many of them have stories much more intense then mine. I was lucky, my experience ended fairly positively as I found a therapist who could help me feel comfortable with my body and my food choices, and my parents found a way to finance that therapy. Unfortunately, due to strict insurance policies and even stricter diagnosis guidelines many people’s stories do not end like mine.

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Disney Princesses & Dissapearing Waistlines

Watching The Rescuers earlier this week with some feminist friends got me to thinking about Disney movies (again) and the messages that they portray. With this in mind I noticed a few things while looking through the Disney Princesses that I’d like to take some time to highlight here:

princesses1

If you line the princesses up chronologically, in the order their movies were released, some things become strangely apparent. Look at their waistlines – although Snow White starts off incredibly thin, as time goes by the princesses only get thinner and thinner. The 1960s are when the real thin ideal came into its full force in our culture – is it a coincidence that Disney princesses had started shrinking in the decade before? Its true that culture informs media, but it goes the other way too – little girls who grow up idolizing impossibly thin princesses become young women who perpetuate and buy into the idea that thin is the only acceptable form of beauty and one should strive to be thin, regardless of the price. Obviously Disney is not the only perpetrator of this ideal (but considering its constantly growing power, revenue, and influence it plays a large role) and all little girls do not grow up and internalize this message, but enough of them do to make a difference – as evidenced by the shifting ideals between 1950 and 1960.

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