The World Never Tires of Minimizing Eating Disorders

Whitney Thompson (right) in an ad for Love Your Body Day

The Daily Mail reports today that Whitney Thompson, the plus-size winner of America’s Next Top Model season 10, is starring in an ad for Love Your Body Day, in which she poses nude in order to encourage other women to love their bodies, and beat eating disorders.

Ah, the fantasy world in which ads like this accomplish something! Sure, it’s all fuzzy and nice to have women who don’t meet traditional body expectations get naked in public. I get it. But unfortunately, ads like this — in my humble opinion — do absolutely nothing to promote body love, and in fact might do more harm than good if they’re directed at young women with eating disorders (at least…they would have for me…cue flashback)

Let’s just start with talking about how these ads affect women who don’t have eating disorders. The idea we’re working with here is that because Thomspon loves her body enough to pose naked on a billboard, other women might look at it and start loving their own bodies, too. In other words, the idea we’re starting with is bullshit. Most women I know who hate their bodies need a little bit more help to overcome that feeling than the knowledge that there’s some beautiful chick out there who doesn’t hate her body (Because yes, while Thompson might weigh 15 pounds more than industry standards, she’s still a beautiful. Must be tough to love yourself when you’ve won an international modeling competition.)

So there’s that — now, let’s talk about eating disorders. I’m going to say something here that might not be the most popular thing to say, but it has to be said. Once upon a time I was hospitalized with anorexia (that’s not the unpopular thing). At that time, I had a few major fears that prevented me from wanting to eat. One of those fears was that I would get fat. In fact — here we go — I was part of a support group led by a recovered bulimic. She was chubby. Her chubbiness made me not want to recover.

And such is the perhaps unfair, but honest, kinds of things that someone suffering from an eating disorder is prone to thinking. It’s the same line of thought that made the women I was in that hospital with do 500 sit-ups when the nurses weren’t looking, compete with each other over who could finish less of their dinner, and strive to be the thinnest, even if it meant winding up on a feeding tube. I can’t speak for bulimics, but the one thing I had in common with my fellow anos was that we were all fighting to the death (literally) to not gain weight.

And so, I wonder, why does anyone think it’s a good idea to show people with an eating disorder a picture of a plus-sized model? The only answer I can come up with is that people never tire of wanting to make eating disorders about nothing more dangerous, profound, or dark than wanting to be pretty. Because it would be kind of scary if there were women out there who had real feelings, right? Feelings that might be borne out by starving ourselves or binging and purging or overeating, but that actually have to do with control, fear, shame, guilt, power, family, and everything else that women are not supposed to talk about. Maybe the most helpful thing we could do as a society to battle eating disorders, rather than taking another picture of another beautiful naked woman (shaped a little differently this time!), is to start to take those feelings and the women who experience them (a.k.a., every woman) a little more seriously.

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    • Eileen

      Thank you. I hate, hate, hate when people make eating disorders out to be only about weight, because, God, normal women, even those who hate their bodies and want to lose weight, don’t find themselves envying Holocaust victims their bodies. Being a bit too thin is about weight and looks. Having an eating disorder is about control and power. Your body is not something you want to be beautiful as much as it is something you want to have the power to change. It really annoys me when people seem to think that fighting eating disorders is about sending the message that you can be bigger and still beautiful.

    • gotplaid

      Thank you for this. It is so refreshing to hear this take on eating disorders.

    • eEv

      Yeah. I’m not sure why they need to bring eating disorders into it. Can’t they just have it be a celebration of different kinds of beauty? Because as you said, an eating disorder is a serious, deadly illness that needs treatment. The idea that anyone in the throes of an actual eating disorder would go “Oh look, she’s hot! I’m recovered!” is absurd. And, as you pointed out, it trivializes actual sufferers.

    • Julia

      Thanks for writing this. I’m a recovering anorexic and I am always confused by these campaigns that try to combat eating disorders using physical beauty. There was that “tell her she’s beautiful” campaign earlier this year that made me feel this way too. With anorexia, being thin is your identity, and it feels like that’s the only good thing about who you are. The only way I’ve ever found to truly recover is to find the value in yourself that is not connected to appearance. These ads are way off base and one wonders if they’ve ever consulted with a professional who deals with eating disorders or with those who have had one.

    • Emily

      In addition to everything that’s already been said (which I wholeheartedly agree with, by the way) it only makes things worse that these models appear in ads about loving your body no matter what. They seem to be calling the model fat by doing it. “This gargantuan tub of lard loves her body, so you should love yours too!” That’s what’s always gotten me about these ads. A girl who’s bigger than the model would just feel even fatter.

    • Ellen

      So true. If I saw a billboard of a naked plus-sized lady while considering getting help, I would just think “Ugh, if that’s what it’s like to love your body, I’ll keep hating it.” Completely triggering and, while inspirational in theory, definitely not so much so in practice. Thank you for voicing this!

    • Diane

      Agreed. Though I must also say, that seeing the ad the first thing I thought was. They consider that girl plus sized??? Really?? Because not only does it not help the girls who have eating disorders it doesn’t help bigger girls either.

    • porkchop

      These models can totally cure your eating disorder–if they were peacefully sleeping in this picture, they could also cure your PTSD.

    • Beth

      I agree completely! I mean, why do people waste their money on these campaigns? An eating disorder is essentially a disease, and you can’t just slap a picture of a bigger girl saying “You’re Beautiful” in front of someone who has severe anorexia and assume that will help. Invest the money spent on these dumb billboards into treatment centres and hospitals to actually help these people. That’s like putting an ad in a magazine that is targeted towards people with depression saying “Cheer up!!!” and putting a picture of a bunch of happy people on it. It’s not helping.

    • LeighC

      That “plus size” model looks like a perfectly normal person to me. Now, if they took the girl behind her and put her in front I might take their message seriously.

    • giggerota

      Ummm… this Whitney Thompson person is supposed to be plus sized? Ooookay. However, she looks pretty bland, in a bland, pretty way. But who, I ask you, is the black model posing with her? Because holy shit, she could cure any eating disorder I might develop, because I would want to eat to look like her!!!

    • another recovering sufferer

      I must add my thanks to those which have already been said for this honest look at how the world tries to trick people into thinking something’s being done about the state of eating disorder support. I agree with you utterly.

    • Chickalupe

      Okay… call me nit-picky, but am I the only one who remembers that anorexia and bulimia ARE NOT the only kinds of eating disorders? Being overweight usually has psychological roots as well!

      The girl who stuffs herself as a substitute for love, or the girl who eats to punish herself for a perceived failure; they have an ‘eating disorder’ every bit as genuine as if they were bulimic or anorexic. Uh, it’s called ‘Compulsive Overeating’, guys! Based on this article and the comments I’m seeing here, it leads me to believe that people have forgotten that, if they ever knew.

      …Just bugged me, sorry to rant. I actually like the picture; and I like Whitney. I was rooting for her all of Season 10 on ‘ANTM’!

      • jen

        thank you, that’s exactly what i’ve been thinking.

      • Eileen

        Speaking only for myself, all I can say is – of course you’re not. In the case of this ad, however, the target audience seems to be those women who suffer from anorexia nervosa/athletica or bulimia, not binge eating disorder. I think people are more likely to recognize binge eating disorder as a serious psychological disease than anorexia or bulimia, if only because the latter two are often trivialized as nothing more than a diet gone too far.

        And I like the picture, too – I just don’t think it’s going to do much for eating disorders.

      • Jessica Pauline Ogilvie

        Hey Chickalupe — You’re not the only one who remembers that, and that’s why I included overeating in the article: “…it would be kind of scary if there were women out there who had real feelings, right? Feelings that might be borne out by starving ourselves or binging and purging or overeating…” Maybe you didn’t read that far down…? ;) But since my personal experience is with anorexia, I wouldn’t try to make the same kinds of points about how images like this affect anyone with any other kind of eating disorder — I can only speak for myself, and I think I made it fairly clear that that’s what I was doing. Feel free to expound if you have experiences that you’d like to share…

      • Chickalupe

        Wow, I read the whole article twice, and somehow managed to miss that particular line. My bad! I wasn’t trying to put down your article at all. *sheepish grin* With my eye skipping over it, I got a big ol’ head full of righteous indignation built up right quick, let me tell you!

        Your article makes several good points. I realize that showing an anorexic or bulimic sufferer a picture like that above may, in fact, have the opposite effect intended.

        However; as someone who has always been a heavy (read: fat) person, seeing pictures like this would have made ME feel better as a young girl. The idea that someone even a little bit outside of the “norm” could look so amazing would have blown my mind as a teenager, simply because fat women are almost never portrayed in the media as being capable of real beauty, even today.

        But, then again, I guess I’m not the target audience here. I’ve never been diagnosed with any kind of eating disorder; I’m just big and always have been. I can definitely see where you’re coming from in one respect; if the proposed ‘Love Your Body Day’ is about addressing body image in general, this ad works– it shows two women who are comfortable in their own skin, despite their size. But, if their target audience is SPECIFICALLY those who struggle with bulimia/anorexia, then maybe this wasn’t the way to go. Obviously, as someone who has suffered from such a disease yourself, you did not find the photo to be something you could relate to; or something that would have helped you in your situation. Perhaps they need to consult with people who have actually HAD anorexia or bulimia, to find out what is effective and what misses the mark.

        I guess the main truth is that no one advertisement is going to be able to resonate with everyone. I do concur with whoever commented that the money on this campaign probably could have been better spent in donations to hospitals and care centers who help people dealing with these diseases. I also completely agree that such things have a long history of being trivialized in the media; but I’d like to believe that, at least in this case, they had the best intentions!

    • Jamie Peck

      I don’t think this ad is supposed to cure people of their eating disorders. But having more images of all different body types out there combats the type of society which is conducive to eating disorders in the first place. Or, if you are going to reject the beauty myth as a cause of eating disorders, then more mild forms of body dysmorphia. Like the millions of women who spend a ton of money each year on diets that don’t “work.” Speaking from personal experience, seeing all types of women hanging out naked on sites like SG has definitely made me more comfortable with how I look. I’ve never had an eating disorder, but I’ve certainly gone through periods where I felt really shitty about my failure to look like the chicks in the magazines, even though I know that shit ain’t real.

    • Camilla

      I want to thank the writer for this article. Your honesty is refreshing. I agree with you, fat people don’t make mentally ill people who suffer from eating disorders want to quit being skinny. Let’s get real ladies, its about self image and a glossy ad of a gorgeous woman who is size 12 isn’t going to be a instant self esteem boost. We will know when the fashion world gets in touch with real women, it’ll be a time when we don’t make a huge deal over one ad with a plus size model. It will be when plus size isn’t a size 10-12. Learning to love yourself doesn’t come from a magazine it comes from within.

    • Me

      I found it disheartening that The Gloss published this article alongside “Gallery: Top 10 Best Models of All Time.”
      This article attempts to make a point, but doesn’t offer anything other than lets not have pictures of naked women and glide over eating disorders. What’s more, I feel if The Gloss took this post seriously, they would have done a better job considering what was right next to it. It basically looks like a joke. Or a watered down version of journalism with anything to say.

    • c.j. good

      This is a topic that resonates with many people. I was certainly impressed by this article. thanks so much for sharing and bringing awareness. I look forward to reading more. Allow me to share an upcoming event: CELEBRATE RECOVERY on Sep. 30, 2010 8PM CST – Free Teleseminar. Special Guest Experts will confront the most interesting and challenging questions about childhood obesity, adult obesity, addictions (alcohol, substance abuse) and eating disorders. You are invited to join. RSVP at the link here.

    • Freya

      Bit off topic, but I find it ridiculous that an advert which is airbrushed to such an extent is being used to try and promote body confidence. There are plenty of people who hate their bodies because of cellulite, scars etc. No one’s skin is as flawless as either of those models so, regardless of their size, the image portrayed by them is extremely unrealistic. It’s an ideal which no ordinary woman can achieve without the wonders of photoshop!

    • Anon

      Brilliant article, very true. If I’d seen that ad when I had an eating disorder it simply would have strengthened my resolve to starve myself.

    • Anon

      Completely agreed. Seeing that ad would have made me starve myself for longer if I’d seen it when I was anorexic.

    • Kara H

      Bravo! Well said.

    • Kara H

      There needs to be an advertisement with a girl so skinny she’s obviously on the brink of death with text circling her that are to the affect of “Talk about it…it can help.” or “Confused? Having feelings of being out-of-control? Talk about it.” and then list some psychiatric facility website at the bottom. The same can be applied to overeaters.

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    • Julie

      When I read this, I was outraged. Really?!? Why a board with a picture of Whitney saying basically “Get help and love your body?” Is this supposed to help people with eating disorders? Because I have ED-NOS and my first reaction is: wow, she is chubby so I don’t want to become like her. Loving your body and getting help comes from within, not some stupid billboard that suddenly thinks it’s going to cure people.