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The Forgotten Eating Disorders

July 10, 2017

       I was having a discussion with a socially conscious friend about how the mental health community is still so far from equal representation in the media. To The Bone, a Netflix film starring Lily Collins, is a story about a girl struggling with anorexia. The movie is based on a true story and I don’t mean to disrespect the very real struggle the movie represents, however, the story of a cisgender white female struggling with anorexia has already been told and people are more familiar with that aspect of an eating disorder than anything else. Many people are unaware of how varied eating disorders can be and that’s because they’re not talked about enough. I get that one movie or TV show can’t tell every story but that’s why instead of several shows and movies about the same story, we need more diverse stories being told.

        To The Bone depicts an extremely frail girl struggling with anorexia. This is tragic and awareness is important. There are many stereotypes surrounding people with anorexia like that they’re vain. Some people even think it’s okay to make rude comments about their appearance instead of offering support and love. I am all for bringing awareness to this tragic disease but I would also like to see more depictions of other types of eating disorders that are largely ignored by the media. I struggle with something called emetophobia, a fear of vomiting. This phobia causes me to avoid foods that could cause me to get sick, especially at restaurants. I wash my hands obsessively and have a very small list of “safe” foods like rice, bananas, and bread. I struggle with feeling malnourished and weak due to my limited diet and the panic attacks I suffer when I develop a stomachache. I don’t go out with friends as much now that I fear getting sick from food at a restaurant. At no point in telling this story have I said anything about a body image issue. In fact, I dislike how much weight I’ve lost and would like to gain several pounds. Not every eating disorder is about body image and when we make it seem like it is, we let people who are struggling slip through the cracks and have their struggles go unnoticed. It can also cause people to ignore those who appear to be at a healthy weight. We need to start reminding people that eating disorders are mental. You can be at a healthy weight and size and have an eating disorder. I’ve also struggled with fearing an allergic reaction from food ever since I suddenly developed nut allergies as an adult. If I became allergic to food I ate all the time in my mid-20’s, what else could I suddenly become allergic to? I often had panic attacks that would feel like an allergic reaction upon taking a bite of food and I would avoid eating the rest of the day. I wanted to eat. I wasn’t afraid of feeling full. I was just scared the food would kill me. I’ve since learned that other people have struggled with this but I never see it talked about and I thought that I was alone.

        Orthorexia is another eating disorder I’ve struggled with. Orthorexia is an eating disorder in which the sufferer is obsessed with eating perfectly. They may follow a strict paleo diet, never allow themselves a treat, obsessively count macros, do juice cleanses, obsess over toxins, etc. In an ideal state of mind, you eat healthy as much as you can but can eat a burrito from Chipotle or get an ice cream with a friend without feeling extreme guilt or like you need to drink nothing but cucumber juice the next day. I read a diet book that I shouldn’t have once and it told me that in order to be healthy I had to eat a fruit smoothie for breakfast and if I ate anything like oatmeal, I was ruining my digestion for the day. If I had a day where I couldn’t have a fruit smoothie, I would panic and think I was being unhealthy. I was afraid of all of the toxins the books I was reading were talking about and bought every detox tea imaginable. While going through this disorder, I was at a healthy weight and had great muscle tone. No one would have thought I was suffering from an eating disorder. But I was miserable. I was consumed by guilt if I ate a chip instead of a carrot. I punished myself with gross teas and juice cleanses that made me feel lightheaded and weak. I didn’t have a drink on my 21st birthday because I didn’t want the toxins and didn’t even have a slice of cake. My mental health was suffering and food controlled my life. Sadly, I see orthorexia every day with the rise of the popularity of detoxes and fit teas. This is why I think it’s so important to start addressing this eating disorder and bring awareness to the people who look healthy on the outside but are suffering on the inside.

        A major problem that many people are noticing with the release of the To The Bone trailer is that there is a lack of cultural diversity in eating disorder advocacy. I’ve seen many depictions of middle to upper class white women struggling with an eating disorder but what about what it means to be poor and/or a person of color and struggling with an eating disorder? What about the LGBTQ community? With every movie starring a white female we leave marginalized groups wondering when they’ll see their stories. People of color have their own individual experiences with body image that white women haven’t experienced. I would like to know their stories and what their struggles with recovery are. Many people don’t consider that someone who is poor could have an eating disorder because they may just assume their low weight or malnutrition is from poverty itself. I want to know the stories of the people who are living in poverty and struggling with an eating disorder. The LGBTQ community has been left out of the eating disorder conversation far too often. Transgender and gender-neutral people often struggle with their bodies, especially if they are in a body that doesn’t match their identity. Not every transgender individual can afford the surgeries they need to have a body they feel comfortable with. Some gender-neutral individuals feel insecurities in regards to feeling okay with some parts of their body but feeling like other parts don’t align with who they are. This type of struggle can lead to eating disorders and these stories deserve to be represented.

        Men struggling with eating disorders don’t get enough attention either. We sometimes see men struggling with an eating disorder as a result of being a part of a sport in which weight is crucial, like wrestling. This is an important story to be aware of but what about the men who have eating disorders because they’re struggling with their body image? What about the men who are struggling with a need to feel in control? What about the men with emetophobia? Or orthorexia? We tend to think of women being affected by these things but they can affect anyone. Men aren’t weak for having an eating disorder and it’s time to bring more awareness to them so they can get help and don’t have to hide. We need to be aware that it’s not okay to make fun of a man’s body and assume it’s different than making fun of a woman’s body.

        It’s great to bring awareness to deadly disorders and get a conversation started. Though I’m disappointed in some aspects of To The Bone, I’m glad the movie is motivating people to be more vocal about their individual struggles. I plan on writing novels to bring awareness to the less heard of eating disorders I’ve struggled with because I want to be the change I’m not seeing. We all need to raise our voices and ask for our stories to be told. Make the movie about the girl who is afraid to go on a date in case she gets sick from the food. Write the book about the thin black girl who sees her body glorified and sexualized in the media and begins her struggle with binge-eating without purging (a type of eating disorder we don’t hear about enough). We can’t have awareness without more equal representation and diversity.

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