Typically, when we hear the term ‘eating disorder’, we conjure up an image of an emaciated young woman refusing to eat. But for the vast majority of people, this simply isn’t what an eating disorder looks like.
In fact, anorexia nervosa is the rarest (although, according to many studies, the most deadly) of all eating disorders. Binge eating disorder is the most common, followed by bulimia nervosa, and a large number of people who experience eating disorder symptoms don’t actually fit within a diagnostic category at all.
These individuals might engage in extreme exercise, or fast for days on end, without having a BMI low enough to be diagnosed with anorexia.
Despite this, rhetoric around eating disorders continues to portray them in a one dimensional light. In pop culture, these problems are routinely characterised by calorie restriction and extreme thinness, excluding a majority of sufferers from the conversation.
But a recent video on ATTN, featuring Nev Schulman (from MTV‘s Catfish), has garnered a substantial amount of criticism for promoting a dangerously narrow definition of eating disorders. And these criticisms demonstrate the strong divide between the media’s portrayal of eating disorders and the lived reality of them.
Captioned ‘Eating disorders are a mental illness, not a diet gone wrong,’ the video included lines like, “In this psychiatric illness, they’re controlling what they eat,” and, “Share this if you believe eating disorders need to be taken more seriously,” as well as a series of images of skeletal young people.
In some ways, the video does challenge beliefs about eating disorders. It acknowledges that men, too, suffer from eating problems, and even features a male talking about his experiences with bingeing and purging.
However, there is a gaping hole in this apparent ‘public service announcement’. And the audience noticed it.
Kelsey Thomas commented: “No one really pays attention to eating disorders where you consume too much. People think of an eating disorder and they think of anorexia. There are many kinds of eating disorders. Wish the other end of the spectrum was covered in this video.”
Our cultural obsession with anorexia isn’t exactly surprising. It’s the most deadly of all psychiatric illnesses, and one of the only mental disorders you can really see. We’re collectively fascinated with restrictive eating behaviours and the concept that an otherwise healthy person could starve themselves to death. But how about other debilitating, and far more common issues with eating?
Why is it that we avoid looking closely at binge eating disorder? Or bulimia in people who are normal weight, or overweight?
Is it because despite the sickness of it, thinness, even in its disordered form, is still revered and respected?
Kelsey wasn’t the only one who felt this way.
Below, Elina Sasu Borg wrote, “My friend has an eating disorder, it started with anorexia, now she’s overweight instead, she can’t find that balance.”
Although one might assume that the scenario Elina is referring to would be quite rare, in fact, it’s not. That’s another largely unknown reality of having an eating disorder – while many of us think of obesity and eating disorders as two ends of a spectrum, they frequently overlap.
Many people with binge eating disorder or bulimia are obese, and many people who have an eating disorder will become obese. Those with a history of obesity also have a heightened risk of developing an eating disorder.
This is why it’s important that our messaging around eating disorders isn’t dominated by thinness – because the overwhelming majority of people who suffer from disordered eating aren’t extremely thin. Failing to represent sufferers accurately further stigmatises mental disorders that are already highly debilitating. And it seems that many members of the community are aware of this.
Sarah Bristow commented, "I've seen a lot of comments about this and I definitely agree. Why are only eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia featured here? Binge eating disorder is a serious threat too, and yet it isn't even mentioned? This video is only supporting the people who tell me that binge eating is not an eating disorder. Yes the effects of anorexia and bulimia are serious and need more awareness, but there are so many more suffering from other eating disorders that need to be aware too."
Sarah's point isn't only relevant to ATTN's video, but to many representations of eating disorders in popular culture.
When was the last time you saw binge eating disorder taken seriously in the media - as a mental health issue, rather than a physical one? When was the last time you saw binge eating talked about compassionately, rather than disparagingly? (Post continues after gallery.)
Another commenter argued that these negative attitudes towards fat are a contributing factor to eating disorders. Laura Schleifer said:
"I don't know how anyone can possibly talk about eating disorders being a mental illness without talking about how this culture of fat shaming and fatphobia is so abusive that it actually causes people (mostly women and girls) to develop serious mental health issues.
If there weren't so much pressure to be thin, thin, thin, THIN, if women and girls were not constantly given the message on so many levels that their value, opportunities and even rights are dependent on them maintaining thinness, this problem would not be so rampant.
If eating disorders are an individual mental illness, they are caused by the societal mental illness of extreme anxiety, fear, paranoia, misogyny and revulsion surrounding weight."
Eating disorders don't always look like an emaciated young woman. In fact, in most cases they don't. It's crucial for us to be empathetic and understanding of all mental health problems - even the ones we can't see. And the fact that these serious conversations are happening over social media, can only be a good thing.