Think Broader: The Narrow Eating Disorder Conversation Isn't Helpful

by Sarah MacKenzie

Most people hear the term "eating disorder" and almost immediately, an image of an emaciated, attention-seeking, middle-class teenage girl comes to mind.

She is as vapid as she is selfish in her obsession to emulate the size-zero models she idolizes.

However, the damaging misconceptions about eating disorders are as narrow and shortsighted as the definitions of beauty to which society is held.

Eating disorders often originate with extreme feelings of inadequacy and a perceived feeling of lack of life. They are extremely debilitating and seriousness illnesses.

But, their causes almost always extend far beyond superfluous, albeit dangerous and toxic, attempts to control purely the aesthetic, despite the assumptions society generally makes.

There is perhaps no other condition (other than mental illness) that is more heavily stigmatized as eating disorders. Members of society heavily scrutinize and judge eating disorder victims, even if just subconsciously.

And yet, often even after recovery, the feelings of shame and embarrassment that remain are crippling.

If anything, those feelings are as intense as those of self-antipathy and internalized shame, which most likely promoted and prompted the illness to develop in the first place.

If an individual develops an eating disorder, it does not, by any means, reflect that he or she is a submissive, weak, vain or self-centered person.

For many victims, it serves as a way to avoid deeper, genuine feelings of hopelessness, darkness and isolation. It is a way of gaining a voice when you feel as though you don’t have one.

Eating disorders, just like so many other illnesses, do not discriminate. And yet, as I write this, millions of individuals from all corners of the globe suffer in silence. This isn’t because their situations aren’t serious or sincere, but rather, because it may not fit nicely into any society's paradigm of what an eating disorder constitutes.

In our media-saturated, body-obsessed, superficial culture, it is certainly hard to ignore the message that falsely communicates thinner, more attractive people are not only healthier, but happier as well.

But, while these unrealistic illusions of “perfection” create a toxic environments in which eating disorders flourish, they are not solely to blame. To some extent, we do overemphasize the role of the media in influencing eating disorder victims and their damaging behaviors.

Ultimately, these diseases function as security blankets to protect against intense and deep-rooted insecurities, usually with little connection to eating patters or ill perceptions of body. It’s merely through obsessing over the latter that we can attempt to control the former.

As a society, we are guilty of toning down the harsh reality of these disorders by blaming the media.

This act leaves us with an obstructed and disillusioned understanding of what these diseases actually involve and the strength and determination required to make full recoveries. We blatantly ignore the effects and role of genetic predisposition and brain chemistry.

Instead, we rely so heavily on preconceived attitudes based off of conception rather than science. This happens despite the fact that eating disorders, much like all mental illnesses, run in families. Our genetic makeup has heavy hand in determining our susceptibility to develop such a disease.

This certainly does not mean, for instance, that because your mother had an eating disorder, you will also have one. But, as science explains, you are more likely to develop the disease, as opposed to another individual who has absolutely no genetic history at all.

Extensive scientific research has also revealed a likely biochemical or biological cause of eating disorders. According to these findings, certain chemicals in the brain that regulate hunger, appetite and digestion have been found to be unbalanced in individuals who succumb to eating-disorder associated behaviors (The Jed Foundation, 2015).

Thus, of course, it is highly likely that these biochemical, biological and genetic influences will have extremely negative implications and start to take their toll.

This especially occurs when combined with external factors, like a highly toxic media culture and intensified feelings of anxiety and helplessness, that we fail to fully identify in eating disorder victims.

Let me repeat just one last time that individuals with eating disorders (or any mental illnesses) are not weak, self-indulgent, vapid or manipulative because they suffer from said illnesses. They suffer under the constraints of debilitating, destructive and devastating diseases.

These diseases seek to gain control over arenas of an individual’s life that are seemingly irrelevant to bodies and self-esteem. They seep into every crevice and are grueling and exhausting challenges to face every single day. It is not a choice.

The longer we, as a society, stay in the dark, the harder it is for those who suffer to see the light.

Because ultimately, it’s unlikely that someone will seek out help from a life-threatening illnesses for which they are ostracized, judged and stigmatized.