Continue to reduce the stigma surrounding eating disorders
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, around 30 million Americans will be diagnosed with a clinical eating disorder in their lifetimes. However, there is a significant stigma surrounding these illnesses —including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS). Many believe the illness is self-inflicted and an expression of vanity, according to a report by Professor Gina Dimitropoulos from the University of Calgary.
This could not be any further from the truth. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), around 50 to 80 percent of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa patients have genetic ties — meaning those with family members who suffered from eating disorders are more likely to develop them.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, making it more pressing for the public to be educated about these illnesses.
On Dec. 20, 2016, Massachusetts General Hospital released a report that revealed that approximately two-thirds of women with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa will recover. According to the study, previous reports indicated that only half recover within their lifetimes. While recovery occurs at a faster rate for those with bulimia, around 63 percent of those diagnosed with anorexia recovered from their eating disorder within 22 years, on average. The report highlights that eating disorders do not have to control a person for their entire life. While this report provides important insights into disordered eating, it should not allow individuals to be too at ease about the mortal risks of eating disorders.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, the physical side effects of eating disorders include heart failure, osteoporosis, electrolyte imbalance and death — to name just a few. The death toll attributed to this disease is high; somewhere from five to 10 percent of its victims die within 10 years, and 18 to 20 percent die within 20 years, according to ANAD. Eating disorders not only are deadly but also are uniquely difficult to treat and have high relapse rates.
In recent years, individuals in the media have embraced the discussion of eating disorders with more open minds. In an Aug. 12, 2014 Glamour piece, “Girls” actress Zosia Mamet depicts her eating disorder as a monster. Her brush with ED began the first time someone called her fat; she was eight. Mamet says of her teenage years: “I used to stand in front of the refrigerator late at night staring into that white fluorescent light, debilitated by the war raging inside me: whether to give in to the pitted hunger in my stomach or close the door and go back to bed. I would stand there for hours, opening and closing the door, taking out a piece of food then putting it back in; taking it out, putting it in my mouth, and then spitting it into the garbage.”
Finally, her dad drew the line and forced her to seek treatment. He grabbed her by the shoulders and told her, “You’re not allowed to die.” In her misery, she could not clearly see the effects her disease had on those around her. She received the support and treatment necessary to be what she calls “an addict in recovery.” However, there are so many others who never get this opportunity. Among these individuals is singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse.
The media’s obsession with beauty and thinness has graced the covers of every fashion magazine as thin models showcase the latest designer fashions. This creates the idea that to be thin is to be beautiful. Winehouse’s affliction with bulimia nervosa was largely ignored and misunderstood by the media — and it began well before her problems with alcohol and her drug addiction. An August 6, 2015 Pitchfork article recounts the moment Winehouse told her mother that she found an extraordinary new diet — “eating and then vomiting — that allows her to eat without gaining weight” in Asif Kapadia’s documentary “Amy.” Both of Winehouse’s parents ignored the statement, thinking it would be something she would just grow out of. Winehouse never received treatment for her disorder for reasons including lack of early intervention and little support from those around her.
While Winehouse also struggled with both alcohol and drug addiction, the media circus failed to properly understand and depict all of her struggles. When they discussed her bulimia, it came from a very uneducated perspective — depicting finishing a giant plate of food as progress, according to the same Pitchfork article.
While the autopsy report claims that her cause of death was alcohol poisoning, her brother Alex blames her bulimia as a contributing factor. He said in an interview with the Observer Magazine that Amy’s affliction with bulimia “left her weaker and more susceptible. She would have died eventually, the way she was going, but what really killed her was the bulimia,” according to a June 22, 2013 article in the Guardian. Why didn’t the media ever discuss Winehouse’s disordered eating in the same light as her drug addiction or alcoholism?
The stigma against eating disorders in this country must stop. They are not as few and far between as many expect. Worse yet, they kill. While the new Mass General report may provide some interesting insights, we must not lose sight of how destructive these diseases can be to those affected. It is high time rehabilitation for eating disorders is treated with the same importance as rehabilitation for drug and alcohol addiction. Better yet, society should encourage more early intervention efforts. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are not self-inflicted but rather severe psychological illnesses. Just like alcoholics and drug addicts, people with eating disorders cannot just stop without adequate support. It is time to start understanding 30 million Americans’ personal hell.