Talking About the Tragedy of Eating Disorders

By Erin Matson, NOW Action Vice President

Imagine an ugly scenario: Suicide bombers have begun to strike the nation’s high schools and college campuses. Young women seem to be the primary perpetrators and targets of the violence, for reasons that are not agreed upon. Horrified parents lie awake at night worrying about their daughters. Something must be done.

In the case of eating disorders, an epidemic affecting as many as 10 million women and 1 million men in the U.S., our response has been one that would provoke outrage and condemnation within the scenario above. A sliver-thin few of the one in five dead 20 years after anorexia begins are put on pedestals, while very specific instructions of what they ate, how they exercised and their height and weight upon death are published to “raise awareness.”

This deadly practice must end. The well-publicized life and death of Isabelle Caro, a French model and actress who struggled with anorexia until it killed her at 28, is a case study in exactly how not to fight eating disorders. A 2007 “No Anorexia” advertising campaign by Italian fashion label Nolita featuring her badly emaciated naked body was ultimately banned within that country, although it lives on today on the “pro-ana” Internet as “thinspiration” for dying young women around the world. In her sickness she was frequently sought for modeling, acting and television spots to raise awareness. Upon death, her diet was published along with her weight at various points of her life.

It is not worth doubting the sincerity of those who unwittingly provide templates for destruction; excuses for unhealthy behavior that is “not that bad”; or glorify those struggling with eating disorders for the tragic act of self-hatred, dying or even death. We desperately do need to raise awareness so that more perfectly good daughters might live. S

o how do we do that? Let’s start with how to share stories, something I’ve thought about quite a bit in my work for the National Organization for Women Foundation’s Love Your Body campaign. In this role I robustly encourage more women telling their stories of negative self-image and eating disorders. I’ve learned through tears and hugs from women I don’t know that sharing my own recovery story in an empowering way helps others break their own silence and shame, and believe they can and will feel better.

For example, I turn the heat on the modeling industry that tried to recruit me while I was at my sickest and that named a woman I was hospitalized with the winner of a contest while she was on a day-pass, her plastic bracelet still flopping on her wrist. I speak of an innovative bill in Israel that will require advertisers to provide notice of airbrushing and Photoshopping. I talk about the 2010 report from the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls that links sexualization of girls in the media with three of the most common mental health problems of girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression or depressed mood. It is my hope that in future reporting on eating disorders the media will commit itself to also raise this kind of awareness. It can serve as part of the solution, not the problem.

I encourage every woman and girl I meet to love herself, and recognize the truly radical act this is when billboards, magazines and screens of all sizes bombard us with images of women Photoshopped to death. I believe loving ourselves has profound political implications. When we realize we are real, and beautiful for the simple fact of being alive and doing the best we can, we can begin to drown out the negative messages insulting to the dignity of everyone.

We can begin to believe we have the power to make advertisers stop using self-hatred as a weapon to sell products. We can hold insurers accountable to providing coverage for treatment. We can celebrate the innovative ways young women are fighting for positive self-image, like the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus NOW chapter collecting and sharing photographs of women students eating their favorite foods to name just one. We can build critical mass for legislation like the Healthy Media for Youth Act that stalled in the 111th Congress, which would have promoted healthy, balanced and positive images of girls and women in the media, and countered messages that objectify girls and women.

We do need to raise awareness and fight eating disorders. There are healthy ways to do it.

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