Eating Disorders Aren't Just About Beauty

Writer Naomi Wolf was the keynote speaker at the National Eating Disorders Association conference this year. She's super-articulate, very intelligent, and she knows her stuff. I very much respect her and what she has to say. However...

Although I think our cultural ideas and beauty obsessions and diet mentality are absolutely toxic, I don't think that if you eliminated them, you would eliminate eating disorders. Most women feel bad when they're looking at Photoshopped models. Most women diet at some point. Most women don't have eating disorders.


(Not to mention, what about men? What about people who live in cultures when thin isn't overvalued? What about people with non fat-phobic anorexia?)

It's not uncommon for an eating disorder to start with an effort to "tone up" or "lose a few." Yet once the disease process starts — once it kicks in — appearance is the last stinking thing most people with EDs are really thinking about. People told me that my ED was making me look atrocious. I was aware, on some level, that they were right. By that point, the ED had a life of its own. I was terrified of eating. Even if it didn't have calories and exercising didn't burn any of them off, I would have still felt compelled to starve and exercise. I couldn't stop. That's why it's an illness.


I'm aware that the only evidence based prevention programs for eating disorders have focused on improving body image, and I'm not saying they don't work. The research literature shows they do work. But in a survey of 6000 eating disorder sufferers, no one said that their eating disorder had anything to do with vanity or cultural ideas (I heard this in a presentation by Susan Ringwood, the CEO of the UK charity B-EAT). They did say that cultural ideals made it harder to recover, something I definitely endorse.

Eating disorders existed before thin was in, and they will probably exist after Size Zero seems as antiquated and misguided as chastity belts and foot binding. The cultural language of fat and thin and dieting are what we have to put our experience into words. They are how we frame what is happening to us. People in the Middle Ages framed anorexia has an effort to be more spiritual. Now, we look at it as an effort to be thinner or look like some supermodel. But the way we make sense of an illness is different than the illness itself.


It just fundamentally bothers me that fighting eating disorders is seem as (in large part) fighting the fashion and cosmetics industry. They use our obsession with being thin and such to sell products, it's true. They make lots of women feel insecure about their looks, and then go on whackjob diets. The body dysmorphia that accompanies an eating disorder isn't just a really bad version of wondering if these pants make your thighs look fat. Being beheaded isn't just like a really bad paper cut, either. An eating disorder isn't a really extreme diet. It might look like that, but it's fundamentally different.

Wolf mentioned nothing about underlying vulnerabilities like anxiety and depression to eating disorders. She did say that restricting in and of itself is crazy making, which is good. Although she said that "parents don't cause eating disorders," she also said that her own mother's bitching about her thighs primed her for anorexia. None of her other siblings developed an eating disorder, yet I'm sure they all heard the kvetching and comparing. Why Naomi? Why only her? It's fundamentally not okay if your mother is diet-obsessed and tells you you're too fat. Not okay. And that sort of environment is certainly conducive to the development of an ED, but it's impossible to say that had this person grown up in a different environment, they never would have developed an eating disorder.


It was ... frustrating at times to hear no mention of science and biology. My friend Sarah Ravin asked Wolf afterwards why there was no mention, and Wolf said "I don't really do that science stuff." I understand that science might not be everyone's little pet, but seriously?

The emphasis on beauty images only reinforces the idea that EDs are an expression of vanity, or just a bunch of beauty-obsessed kids who need to stop reading magazines. And they're not. Our focus on this does everyone a disservice.

This post originally appeared at ED Bites. Republished with permission.


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