This article discusses eating disorders, disordered eating, and mental health.
Beginning on Feb. 27 and running through March 5, Eating Disorder Awareness Week strives to educate the general public on the dangers and issues surrounding eating disorders. Organizations and individuals in recovery alike utilize this time to share facts, stories and attention grabbing graphics on social media in order to raise awareness.
Unfortunately, some people miss the mark with their content and inadvertently cause more harm than good in the very community they are trying to serve.
For this year’s EDAW, I think there are some posting habits we should leave behind in 2022. The theme for 2023’s EDAW is “It’s time for change” — I think it’s time to change how we advocate for EDs.
The aim of sharing content in the name of EDAW should always be to reduce the stigma and misinformation surrounding the presentations of EDs. However, when an individual shares their story, they can often fall prey to a resurgence of past disordered behaviors (such as “proving” they were sick or reassurance seeking). This can unintentionally trigger others or develop a false narrative that everyone with an ED has lived your exact experience.
Now, I’m not saying it is wrong to share your story if you are an ED survivor. I actually hope more people begin to feel comfortable talking about mental health. But, it is important to remember your audience will likely include others affected by EDs.
Firstly, and most commonly, I see the dreaded before-and-after photos. This is mainly problematic because it reinforces the false belief that you have to lose a noticeable amount of weight or be considered underweight for an ED to be valid.
This is incorrect. In fact, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, “less than 6% of people with eating disorders are medically diagnosed as ‘underweight.’”
Additionally, weight loss is only a diagnostic criteria of some of the EDs featured in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. There are also multiple diagnoses that have nothing to do with weight loss (and some that might even result in weight gain.)
Transformation photos can insinuate that one body type is more desirable than the other. While it is true that a healthy body (which isn’t always the thinner body) is important, EDAW should not be the time to promote any standard of body morality.
Furthermore, transformation photos can be triggering to those in the ED community who are either not yet recovered or in an early stage of their recovery journey. Seeing photos of sick individuals can increase body comparison thoughts (such as “I was never as small as that person”) or influence the disordered mind into striving for that body type.
Beyond transformation photos, another similar form of posting occurs when an individual uploads photos that can be coined as “sick pictures,” usually depicting medical devices, hospitalizations or treatment stays.
It is so important to note that someone with an ED does not need to be hospitalized for their experience to be valid or dangerous. Accessing treatment for an ED is something that has multiple systemic barriers, often rooted in racist, fatphobic and classist origins. The ED field is flawed and advocates are working to change this.
Actually, according to Eating Disorder Hope’s compilation of a few studies, only a third of U.S. patients with anorexia access treatment of any kind. Also, only 6% of those with bulimia access treatment as well.
While those statistics only reflect the circumstances of two EDs, those numbers are clearly very low. An awareness post that revolves around the hospitalization or severity of an ED creates the false narrative that everyone who has an ED goes to the hospital.
The need for medical devices in the treatment of EDs are highly variable. What one person needs, someone else doesn’t. Using a photo to “show” that you were sick only creates an idea that you need to look a certain way to be valid.
It’s not just pictures either.
Talking about lowest weights, vital signs, lab values, specific behaviors and any other gory details of the illness isn’t raising awareness. It’s really just another disguised way of saying “look how ill I got,” to whoever is willing to listen.
At the end of the day, being explicit can be really harmful to the group of people EDAW is trying to raise awareness for. Why would you create an unsafe space for those you are creating space for?
Before you post this year, ask yourself “why do I want to post this?” If your intention is to help people learn about EDs, remember that what you put online has the potential to be impactful.
If you aren’t sure of a great way to raise awareness for EDs, some of my favorite things to share are facts about marginalized groups suffering from EDs, resources for accessing treatment, mantras that helped in recovery, things you gained in recovery or a recent challenge you succeeded in.
If you or a loved one may be struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, there is support available to you. The National Alliance for Eating Disorders offers free, virtual support groups online at https://www.allianceforeatingdisorders.com/. Project Heal offers free, remote assessments and recommendations for the care of you or your loved one’s ED at https://www.theprojectheal.org/. Both of these organizations can help you access the care you deserve. Recovery is possible.