I never know how to react to National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Of course people are aware of eating disorders. In this society, it’s impossible to escape hearing about them. Celebrity A loses twenty pounds and the tabloids are all plastered with “SCARY SKINNY” headlines. Celebrity B goes to “rehab” and emerges a month later completely cured and boasting about her extreme body love. Parents are told to be on the lookout for diet “danger signs.”
So of course there’s a need for a week full of activities raising awareness. Anything that can stop one more female or male from suffering is worth it. But in the end, what can a campaign like this truly accomplish?
What do we see out there this week? Flyers and statistics about how x percentage of girls will eventually go on a diet. Messages about loving your body and embracing your curves. Media literacy campaigns. Articles about how moderation in all things is best.
Makes sense, yes?
Helpful to those in the thick of it?
Anywhere close to delving down and yanking out the root cause of eating disorders?
Not even close.
Because what these programs don’t often tell you is that having an eating disorder is utter hell.
I’ll repeat that. Utter hell. Yeah, it’s comforting to know that you’re skinny. And yeah, following that soul-tugging compulsion to exercise for one hour more is going to make you feel better for a little while.
But seeing a photoshopped cover model shot of Jennifer Aniston back when I was in high school didn’t set me on the road to anorexia. Barbies didn’t do it. Going on a diet didn’t do it, either. Because lots of people go on diets. Lots of people cut out carbs or desserts or fats or sugars or fruits or breakfast or whatever the hell they decide to do.
It’s the eating disorder that then makes you cut out the rest of your life.
Because that’s what happens. Maybe the diet started it, but there was something inside of me that kept going. That decided that, yeah, this was who I was now. I was the skinny one. I was the runner. I was the gym rat. I was the girl who could splay her fingers against her chest and feel bones rising up to greet her. I was the anorexic.
An awareness week wasn’t going to pull me out of that. At one point, hearing about awareness campaigns just made me happy to be part of a select club.
And I had to be the best member of that club.
So who is Eating Disorder Awareness Week for? Maybe it’s for those people on diets, teetering on the edge. And maybe these body positive messages and media literacy campaigns will help pull them back to safety. I hope that does happen. Because if it helps one person, that’s a good thing.
Maybe it’s for the caregivers and loved ones, some of whom I’ve come to realize suffer just as much as those going through the disease. But what will dry statistics do for them? What good will knowing what percentage of middle school girls feel bad after reading magazines do if their daughter is hooked up to a feeding tube? Or screaming at them for putting butter on their mashed potatoes?
There’s no campaign out there than can put you in the mind of someone suffering from an eating disorder. There’s no way to understand how the simple thought of touching a spoonful of peanut butter to your lips or the concept of exercising for one minute less can fill your entire being with paralyzing dread.
You can’t be aware of a life like that unless you experience it for yourself. And no one wants to experience that. Not even the person with the illness.
That’s the tricky part. No one with an eating disorder actually wants the life they’re living. No one wants the obsessions and the compulsions. The hunger pains and the exhaustion. The loss of friends, the loss of connections, the loss of experiences.
The loss of a life, whether literal or figurative.
No one wants that life, but they still don’t want to give it up. They can’t, because even taking one step away from the disease is heart-stoppingly terrifying.
It makes no sense. Yet it continues. And continues.
Until something happens. And recovery begins. That “something” is different for everyone.
But for me, it started with removing all the labels I had placed upon myself. All the labels I had ever placed upon myself.
The skinny one. The gym rat. The runner. The perfect student. The smart one. The perfect daughter. The perfect wife. The perfect mother.
Perfect, perfect, perfect.
So maybe there isn’t a perfect National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. And maybe that’s okay.
Because weeks like this are a step. To continue the dialogue and let people get their messages out into the open. To have people discuss what’s helpful and what’s not helpful.
To let the rest of society know that joking about a celebrity’s weight loss and saying she should eat more to look better isn’t the solution to what she’s struggling with. That saying “Oh, man, I’d love to have an exercise addiction” isn’t much of a joke.
To tell everyone that a label-less life is pretty damn scary at first, but it’s worth it.
To be aware that even amidst the hell, there’s hope.
Oh, there’s so much hope.
The National Eating Disorders Foundation has created a confidential, 3-minute eating disorders screening questionnaire that is featured on their website this month. If you or anyone you know is or may be struggling with disordered eating or an eating disorder, please click on this link. Then talk to someone about it.