My Big Problem With National Eating Disorder Awareness Week

Don’t get me wrong — having a whole week dedicated to spreading awareness about this otherwise very silent disease is great. What gets me down is how some people choose to portray eating disorders.

So, this week (February 23–March 1) is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. This is a week that has always been near and dear to my heart, but it has also made me kind of frustrated. As someone who has suffered from an eating disorder for almost four years now, you would think the yearly National Eating Disorder Awareness Week would make me a bit more excited. And don’t get me wrong — having a whole week dedicated to spreading awareness about this otherwise very silent disease is great. I am a full supporter of that. What gets me down is how some people choose to portray eating disorders — especially this week.

On social media, a common way to “raise awareness” about eating disorders is to use “before" and "after” photos. In these photos, one is typically of an emaciated person who is gaunt and bony. The one on the right — the “after” photo — is usually a happy, smiling, healthy person, gloating about how wonderful recovery is. This portrayal of eating disorders frustrates me for two reasons. The first is that not all eating-disorder sufferers become that emaciated. Eating disorders are mental disorders with physical side effects. There's a misconception that in order to have an eating disorder, you must be skinny. The truth is, you can be any shape, any size and have an eating disorder. They do not discriminate and are not determined by weight. Your disorder can be completely legitimate and you do not have to weigh 80 pounds. You can be obese and be anorexic.

The other reason this “before" and "after” portrayal frustrates me is in the way they talk about recovery. Recovering from an eating disorder is not all rainbows, oatmeal, sunshine, and yoga. Recovery is a hard battle that you fight every day. It’s exhausting. In recovery, every damn day you must wake up and make a decision to rebel against the voice inside your head telling you to skip meals, purge, binge, etc. It is not glamorous, much like the eating disorder itself isn't glamorous. But no one talks about that part of having an eating disorder. The part when you’re no longer dying but not quite living yet either.

Another huge issue I have with this week is its focus on one particular eating disorder: anorexia. Contrary to popular belief, there are eating disorders other than anorexia and bulimia. The most common eating disorder in the United States is actually binge-eating disorder. Binge eating is a very real eating disorder. It is not a choice, and it is nothing to be ashamed of, like all eating disorders. Other rarely discussed eating disorders include exercise bulimia, orthorexia, and Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder, or OSFED, which is the blanket diagnosis for all other eating disorders not classically diagnosable. With so many different types of eating disorders affecting so many different types of people, you would think there would be more media representation of other disorders. But even during this week, the less “glamorous” disorders aren’t focused on.

At the end of the day, I am hugely thankful for National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. It is a chance for many people who have been silenced by their eating disorder to speak up about their experience. This week is a time to bring light and support to those suffering from ALL eating disorders, from anorexia to OSFED. I’m so thankful that this week brings out so much support and awareness, and look forward to seeing how it grows in the future. For now, there is one thing I know for sure: Eating disorders are not, and have never been, a choice. But recovery is a choice. A hard, but worth it, choice. Choose recovery.

If you or someone you know is dealing with mental illness, there are ways to get help. Find resources, tips, and immediate help at Half of Us, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

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