The many misapplications of eating disorder awareness

Every year at the end of February, National Eating Disorder Awareness Week sparks conversation and dialogue surrounding the murky waters of eating disorders – it is taboo. There is a stigma, but a week for awareness gets people talking. While I admire this, more awareness should be devoted to challenging the dominant narrative. When we think of eating disorders, we think of young, white, educated, middle-class women. Additionally, we think of this concept primarily in the context of anorexia nervosa and secondarily with bulimia nervosa. Cumulatively, the proliferation of this limited perspective is damaging in more ways than one and excludes a wide variety of groups.

Take, for example, Geneseo’s own athletic center. There are two rooms: one with treadmills and weight lifting where men predominantly work out and another with stationary bikes, elliptical trainers and other cardio equipment where women predominantly work out. The latter, however, is where a larger number of posters about eating disorders are present.

The idea of directing eating disorder awareness mainly toward women is common; however, it is flawed. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, while men are generally happier with their bodies, 10 percent of those seeking professional eating disorder treatment are men.

Within this population, gay men are overrepresented; despite only representing 5 percent of the population, 42 percent of men with eating disorders are gay. This may be due largely to distress associated with experiencing homophobia on top of cultural pressures to be thin in the LGBTQ-plus community.

Additionally, NEDA reports that Asian-American, African-American, Latina and Native American women and girls may experience higher rates of body dissatisfaction and eating problems as compared to white women and girls.

The media often remains silent on minorities with eating disorders – indeed, it is usually the traditionally perceived narrative that is described, even during such awareness weeks. Representation makes a difference; those who do not see themselves represented may be less likely to seek help.

There is a disproportionate amount of attention on anorexia and bulimia. Both are serious mental illnesses and come with severe health consequences, but representation is imperative. Those who suffer from disordered eating in any capacity may be more hesitant to look for treatment if they believe they are “not sick enough.”

Eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) is diagnosed when someone does not meet the criteria for anorexia or bulimia, which may be something as negligible as being a few pounds away from the required weight or showing a combination of symptoms.

This does not detract from the seriousness of EDNOS. With a 5.2 percent mortality rate – higher than that of anorexia or bulimia – EDNOS is the deadliest eating disorder. Arguably, the lack of representation and awareness may contribute to the mortality rate. If the discussion surrounds anorexia and bulimia, perhaps individuals are not seeking treatment because they believe they are not at risk or that it is not as serious.

After National Eating Disorder Awareness Week is over and the tables in the College Union have gone, remember the importance of representation. Awareness is not truly awareness if we are only speaking to a portion of those with eating disorders and if we are not representing the diversity of those afflicted.

Eating disorders are mental illnesses first and foremost; the physical effects are the symptoms. Weight neither defines a person’s worth nor the severity of an eating disorder. There are resources available for those suffering from disordered eating at any weight. Whether or not someone’s story follows the dominant narrative, there is life after an eating disorder.