• Mon, Nov 18 - 2:44 pm ET

We’ve Been Talking About Eating Disorders All Wrong

how to disappaear completely

A nurse came into my fifth grade classroom one day and showed us a video about “the dangers of drugs,” in which a little boy with an upsetting home life tries LSD and sees colorful dragons on his bedroom ceiling. The intended effect, obviously, was to terrify us. On that afternoon, twenty curious ten-year-olds decided that they couldn’t wait to try acid.

Similarly, campaigns intended to raise awareness about the dangers of eating disorders may actually encourage eating disorders.

Kelsey Osgood, author of the popular new memoir How to Disappear Completely, argues that photos of emaciated bodies are often triggers for people dealing with anorexia, regardless of whether those images are intended to be aspirational or cautionary. In her spot-on, brilliant piece for Time, Osgood has this to say:

I believe that so many young women want to be anorexic because our society has communicated not the horrible consequences of eating disorders, but what might seem to be the benefits of them, namely, that they make you skinny and special.

Osgood’s book tells the story of how she actively trained herself to become addicted to not eating. She cites young adult novels, Lifetime movies, and celebrity appearances on Dr. Phil as examples of media whose anti-anorexia messages encouraged and instructed her own eating disorder.

So if our attempts to thwart the problem end up just fanning the fire, what can we possibly do? According to Osgood, we need to totally overhaul the way we talk to young people about ED:

We need to change the vocabulary we use and the tone we invoke when we discuss anorexia, refusing to employ it as shorthand for ‘fragile and interesting.’ We also need to staunchly refuse to include what could be interpreted as prescriptive materials in narrative accounts, namely daily calorie intake, exercise routines and lowest weights of active anorexics.

Yes. Right on. We’ve ranted about a few anti-anorexia campaigns in the past, and we’ve criticized the way various celebrities have spoken about ED, and our sister site, Blisstree, has had a lot to say about avoiding triggers. But we can all try a bit harder to prioritize this problem and talk about it in more helpful, less dangerous ways.

Via Slate / Photo: Penguin

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  • Julia Sonenshein

    God, this is so spot on. Anorexia is completely sexy, and every cautionary tale reads like an instruction manual.

    • Joanna Rafael

      Totally, anorexic characters are so often idealized in such a disturbing and romantic way: mysterious perfectionist ballerinas and fairy girls, they seem SO perfect, but they are deeply troubled.

    • Muggle

      I sneak peeks into teen novels every now and again, and I swear I’m always running into books where this one female character is SO PRETTY and SO AWESOME and EVERYONE LOVES HER except her perfectionism, which is the only turn-off. Then it turns out the character (who doesn’t need to be a ballerina, just a teenage girl) has anorexia which is shorthand for “deeply troubled”. In trying to portray anorexia as horrible and unhealthy, the authors inadvertently send the message that anorexia will make you beautiful, just don’t make it too obvious or you’ll annoy everyone with your perfectionism and possibly get sent to a boarding school or some shit.

    • elle

      Yep I suffered from anorexia/bulimia and every novel I read about it or every movie I saw about it showed me exactly how to hide my weight loss, how to convince everyone you are eating, how to etc. and every single girl was so fab and beautiful and all the secondary and tertiary characters wanted to be her.

  • Muggle

    Absolutely spot-on. Every time I hear someone’s story about dealing with anorexia it feels like an instruction manual. We don’t talk about the mental health issues underlying eating disorders, just the fascist beauty standards that are an obvious link. It’s simple, neat and most of all pretty. And eating disorders are portrayed as pretty all the time, even unintentionally. Eating disorders, as well as the anxiety disorders that often lead to them are not pretty. At all. But that means they’re not pretty enough to talk about.

  • Natalie

    As someone who suffered with anorexia and bulimia for years, I agree. Everything I read and watched just gave me better ideas on how to hide it or achieve better results. Plus, everything would say “talk to an adult or counselor for help”…. well, I didn’t want help. I wish the ads/campaigns would have said “talk to an adult or counselor or this number for support”, that would have been WAY more appealing to me. Then eventually the adult or counselor could give me help. I also wish I would have understood that my eating disorder stemmed from my depression and anxiety, that it was a mental thing.

  • Joe Cardillo

    Very true. The other thing I’ve noticed is that the language directs mostly negative…instead of helping people focus on things they might value other than being thin and beautiful (sense of humor, empathy, creative, etc..)

  • Kaitlin Reilly

    I completely agree — so many narratives (whether memoir or works of fiction) use exact height and weights, calories counts, measurements, etc. They essentially act as instruction manuals, whether they intend to or not. If you’re in an unhealthy mindset it’s all too easy to compare yourself to the people you are reading the stories of — even if, and often especially if, these people seem “sicker than you”. It honestly can be just as triggering as visiting a pro-ana site.