I’m going to do something different today. I’m going to talk about some of the problems I see in how eating disorders are discussed by some media organizations, ED awareness groups, and ED advocates.
This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of everything that’s wrong (and there will be a follow-up). It is my personal opinion and I strongly encourage readers to leave comments if you disagree with me or feel that I’m missing something important.
I saw this quote on tumblr two days ago:
Anorexia is a young person’s game and I don’t have the time or energy to play any more.
This quote is amazing for all the wrong reasons. It is so wrong, so harmful, and embodies so much of what’s wrong with mainstream ED discourse. It was written by Emma Woolf. I traced the quote back to this document put out by the UK organization ED awareness organization b-eat.
Let me be clear: I do not care who said this quote, or what was meant by it, or what context it was said in. The quote was floating around the internet, and most would read the quote out-of-context. This has nothing to do with Woolf, as I know nothing about her (I’m simply attributing it the proper source). I’m using this quote as a starting point to talk about some things that I think need to improved in how we talk about eating disorders. Especially when these discussion within the community, where the context and nuances might be well understood, reach the non-ED community and get misinterpreted.
So, here is a list of some unhelpful and dangerous implications I see in this quote that I often see echoed in mainstream media.
Framing anorexia nervosa (or any eating disorder) as a game ignores the seriousness and complex etiology of EDs.
- Instead of “anorexia” substitute, “major depression,” “social anxiety,” “schizophrenia,” “bipolar disorder,”or “post-traumatic stress disorder.” They are not games, they are serious, and sometimes life-threatening (and here) mental disorders, with lots of medical complications.
- A “game” is something we choose to play. Eating disorders are NOT choices. Eating disorder have complex and multi-faceted causes (see all the posts under “Etiology.”)
- (Side-note: someone with an eating disorder claiming it is a “choice” is similar to an addict claiming they can “stop any-time.” I think it has to do, in part, with the inability to understand or admit to oneself the seriousness of the problem, and the inability to admit to oneself that these maladaptive eating disorder behaviours are powerful, and thereby useful, ways to modulate emotions.)
Framing anorexia nervosa (or any ED) as being exclusive to young people or something young minded people engage in.
- Anorexia nervosa and EDs in general are NOT exclusive to young people. A look through the post archives will reveal that for most studies I’ve blogged about, the mean age of participants is in the mid 20’s. Of course, this isn’t a representative look at all the studies published on ED patients, and I’m personally more interested in studies on adults with EDs. Still, these studies will disabuse anyone of the notion that EDs are for young people.
- If by young what was meant wasn’t “young in age” but “immature” then what about male veterans with EDs who are in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s? What about Princess Diana and countless other men and women that have done so much good for the world, and yet, at the same time, struggled with eating disorders. Eating disorders are not limited to a particular age group, gender, race or ethnic background, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation.
Framing anorexia nervosa (or any ED) as something only people with extra “time” or “energy” to “play.”
- The idea EDs are something that only people with extra leisure time have is ridiculous. It implies, indirectly, that ED sufferers are adolescents from middle-to-upper class families who just have way too much time on their hands.
- It also implies something even worse. It implies that once someone with an ED gets busy, you know, with a kid, or a real job, they’ll recover. They’ll recover because they just don’t have time for an ED. Don’t you wish recovery was that easy? Just get a job already, will ya.
- This implication frustrated me because I was going to blog about motherhood and eating disorders today. Women in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s who are pregnant or have a child and continue to struggle with EDs/disordered eating. They are not immature, they have no extra time, and yet they continue to struggle with EDs. Why? In part, probably because the traits that propel their ED (such as anxiety, depression, perfectionism) continue to dominate their lives.
And this is, in my opinion, the biggest problem with this quote.
Most importantly, framing anorexia nervosa (or any other ED) as a “game” shifts the blame on the patient. It is BLATANT patient-blaming.
- It implies that if someone hasn’t recovered, it is because they are not trying hard enough, because they are still stuck playing that childish game. This glosses over the fact that some individuals invariably have more genetically-based EDs than others. Some have a long history of EDs or disordered eating, anxiety, perfectionism, and depression in their families, putting them at a disadvantage when it comes to recovery. Moreover, comorbid disorders also make recovery harder.
To quote myself here:
Furthermore, the precise influence of genes to environment will vary from person to person. For some patients, genetics may be the main factor, while for others, the environment might play a more important role in leading to anorexia [any eating disorder]. Naturally, this complicates the picture, in terms of research but also in terms of treatment. Perhaps–and this is just my hypothesis–this may explain why patients respond differently to various treatments. Perhaps a large part of [this difference is] due to differences in the degree to which genetic and environmental factors played a role in the development and maintenance of patients’ eating disorders.
- The quote also ignores that some people don’t have access to any treatment, or good treatment, or even understanding family members that are able to support them through recovery.
- Recovery is possible, at any age. (And high heritability does NOT mean genetic determinism and is ‘no cause for therapeutic nihilism.‘) But it is wrong to assume that everyone can put their life “on hold” for recovery (money, responsibilities), that everyone has access to adequate treatment (money, insurance, location), or support (family, friends, partners). For some, even being diagnosed with an eating disorder is a challenge because of the misconceptions doctors have about who gets eating disorders (Hint: your ethnicity matters).
To reiterate, Woolf might not have meant the things that I think are implied in the quote (I doubt she did), but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. I used this quote as a starting point to talk about some problems I see in how we (as a society, I suppose) talk about eating disorders. My main concern is that individuals who don’t have an ED or don’t know anyone with an ED will come across quotes like this, and in their mind, they will get the impression that EDs are things young and immature girls “play,” and that recovery just means “growing up.”
READ MORE in my next post where I focus on what ED organizations and individuals with EDs who do any kind of awareness/advocacy work can do to improve the situation (in my opinion, of course).