A few days ago, I was requested to give my opinion on eating disorders. Quite frankly, I think that any "opinion" that deviates from what is an eating disorder is ignorance. Eating disorders are eating disorders. They are mental illnesses and not "choices", destructive patterns of behavior that develop over a period of time by people who are using food to deal with problems in their lives. Unfortunately, eating disorders are given so much stigma in today's society that many do not realize them for what they actually are.
Before I begin, I would like to say that eating disorders can afflict just about anyone. Eating disorder sufferers are of all genders, races, ages and sizes. You cannot always "tell" that someone has an eating disorder and you cannot "choose" to have an eating disorder (a wannarexic is not an anorexic though they have problems of their own). This is not just a modern problem but has been a problem that has existed for centuries (the term "anorexia nervosa" was coined in 1873).
Below are the diseases classified as eating disorders. In order to understand what I'm talking about, you have to understand the specific disorders. It should be noted that I did not include pica and rumination because I did not think of them as pertinent to the discussion.
The disorders recognized by NIMH:
Anorexia nervosa- Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder in which the sufferer eats less than the healthy amount of food per day through intense weight to lose rituals. This is marked by low body weight, low self-esteem/distorted thinking and by a loss in menses if the sufferer is female. Usually, this is done in order to gain control and perfection. 20% of anorexia sufferers die as a result of their illness either by suicide (brought on by the depression the condition brings) or of direct physical complications of their illness. Also, a number of permanent physical complications may ensue. Most of its sufferers are female and the illness is likely to develop in adolescence though this is not always the case.
Bulimia nervosa- Bulimia is an eating disorder in which the sufferer goes through regular periods of binging followed by purging in order to gain control. Methods of purging include intense exercise, vomiting and laxative abuse. It can result in problems of the throat, teeth, intestines, muscles and more. Despite the common perception, many bulimia sufferers are of average weight or are overweight.
Binge eating disorder- Binge eating disorder is where the sufferer consumes large amounts of food in one sitting but doesn't purge. This is often rapid, out of control and sporadic eating that is done because the sufferer is anxious and/or depressed. This is technically classified under EDNOS. While this eating disorder happens to be downplayed and its sufferers deemed as having poor self-control, this is a very serious eating disorder. The sufferers of this disorder have just as many underlying emotional problems as sufferers of anorexia and bulimia. They risk complications of obesity as well as risking intestine ruptures while they binge.
EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified)- EDNOS is where the sufferer does not meet the criteria for anorexia or bulimia. The sufferer may have anorexic behaviors but be of a normal body weight or they might still have their period if they are female. EDNOS includes purging disorder, in which the sufferer purges after only small intakes of food and binge eating disorder.
The disorders not yet recognized as mental illnesses but are considered by many to be:
Night eating syndrome- An emerging eating disorder that primarily affects young women, night eating syndrome is what it sounds like. The sufferers eat large quantities of food at night while skipping meals during the day.
Orthorexia nervosa- Orthorexia nervosa is when a person has an obsession with being "pure" and eating pure foods to the point of unhealthiness. It differs from anorexia nervosa because of the different goals of its sufferers though it appears similar. This is not yet officially diagnosed as a mental disorder.
Diabulimia- Diabulimia is a type of disordered eating in which someone with diabetes cuts off their insulin to lose weight. Its sufferers suffer many of the ailments seen in people whose diabetes remains untreated. Again, this too is not officially considered a condition.
Now that eating disorders have been lined out, it is important to consider the effect that this has on the sufferer and their families. Eating disorders cause the sufferers to lie about their food intake and become obsessed with their eating habits. The eating disorder literally takes over the sufferer's life and oftentimes, it ends it. While the eating disorders are different as well as the behaviors displayed by those who suffer it, an eating disorder signifies a severe emotional disturbance that should not be underplayed. Oftentimes, eating disorders are not really about eating and weight but are about gaining and losing control.
The idea that these disorders could be glamorized is sickening, especially when you consider the fact that many of these pro-mia and pro-ana people do not have an eating disorder at all. Eating disorders are deadly as well as physically and mentally detrimental. The true suffering of those who have it is what makes this so deplorable. One may choose to starve themselves and choose to engage in disordered eating but you cannot choose to develop an eating disorder. These behaviors show themselves over time.
Also, I do believe that the public has a number of misconceptions about eating disorders, the idea that they can be chosen only one of them. Eating disorders and their sufferers are both glamorized and reviled by today's culture when in fact both of these approaches are wrong.
First of all, the media does not cause eating disorders. They can certainly trigger eating disorders and cause low self-esteem but they do not cause them. Eating disorders develop over time, like I said, and they are also a result of long-term emotional problems. Models and actresses (and actors) are more at-risk to develop eating disorders simply because of the type of environment they are in. They also don't "choose" to have eating disorders though.
Secondly, not only do eating disorder sufferers not choose to have an eating disorder but they are not selfish. They are sick people in need of help who are acting that way because they are ill. Many of them are also depressed too. You can't expect an addict to stop getting high or drinking because you tell them to stop so how can you expect an eating disorder sufferer to stop their behaviors because you tell them to stop? It's pretty easy to take care of the physical problems for the most part if solved early but it's so much more than that.
I remember when Isabel Caro, a European model known for her shocking anti-eating disorder ads, died after a long battle with anorexia. Some of the comments were downright shocking. Commenters were calling her selfish, vain, stupid, ridiculous, ungrateful. They asked how she could have done that when there were people starving in Africa and who had been starved in Africa? Isabel Caro had a choice. These comments were shocking and only revealed societal stigma of eating disorder suffered.
At the end of the day, eating disorders are serious health problems that need to be treated as such. At the same time, eating disorder sufferers need to be treated as they are- sick people who need help. They deserve to be treated with compassion and their situation needs to be treated seriously.
Society needs to lose this stigma against mental illness. It's deterring progress and it's not doing justice to the seriousness of this problem.