National Eating Disorder Awareness Week Offers Opportunity for Education

Anuradha Lingappa

This week, Feb. 23March 1, is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from a serious eating disorder. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric disorders. Many important issues have days or weeks dedicated to raising awareness, and sometimes I wonder what the point is. Why would you raise awareness about an issue for one day or week, and then tacitly ignore it with no follow up for the rest of the year? However, raising awareness for eating disorders is absolutely crucial, not because people have never heard of them, but because, like most psychological disorders, they’re surrounded by misconceptions and stigma.

The first time a guest speaker came to talk to my school about eating disorders and struggles with body image, I must have been in second or third grade. Someone came every couple of years subsequently, and they all followed the same general storyline of taking on increasingly problematic behavior, which leads to worried loved ones, hospitalization and then a magical recovery. Yet, despite focusing on recovery and rehabilitation, the speakers themselves always gave off a pretty strong vibe of self-hatred. They would always talk about their shame and how mentally weak they were to succumb to an eating disorder in the first place. I should have been learning that internalization of society’s unachievable standards of beauty warp perceptions of the self. Instead, I picked up a very problematic idea: that people who let external pressures affect them to such a degree must be shallow and weak-willed. I could not have been more wrong.

Eating disorders are very common, especially in college student demographics, and the underlying feeling of having an inadequate body extends even further. In our society people see an estimated 3,000 advertisements a day, featuring beautiful airbrushed models who are skinnier than 98 percent of American women. Disorders like anorexia, bulimia and binge eating come from a feeling of control, or lack thereof, over the body, especially in regard to how it looks. They manifest as extreme, unhealthy and obsessive behaviors relating to food and the body, especially weight. Dismissing eating disorders or people who have them is not an okay response for an ally. They are clinically significant illnesses, not lifestyle choices.

Awareness of eating disorders is important because education and early recognition of symptoms save lives and enhance recovery. Don’t allow symptoms, such as harmful body talk or development of problematic food rituals, to go unnoticed. Offer support and be sensitive.