“I Had No Idea” ~ Starting the Conversation

By Jocelyn Gardner '17
Mental Health Columnist and Webmaster

Trigger Warning: eating disorders, disordered eating, body image

What does it take to be “healthy?” Who sets these parameters and standards? In the search for balance, many people lose sight of what is most important: everyone is a different individual with particular quirks and nuances-- this is beautiful; this is natural. Tragically, we are not taught to value our health and our bodies.

There is a mindset in popular culture telling people a certain lifestyle leads to being “healthy,” which is presented as being thin and fit, and as having perfect skin, hair and teeth. If you are “imperfect,” you must be doing something wrong; you must correct this by meticulously regulating what you eat and when and everything else your body can be doing. There is a sort of desperation, presented in magical fixes and hacks, to achieve this “healthy” ideal-- think about the “superfoods” that guarantee weight loss, or the miraculous one exercise that will give you sculpted abs. Even the antioxidant-heavy health fads claiming to deliver you from the risk of death by cancer are capitalistic manipulations of our drive to “better” ourselves. Also, be wary of “science.” Advertisements are trying to hook you and will market something that seems trustworthy.

I feel like we generally know that media has contributed to the damaging mindsets that lead to low self-esteem, depression, dissatisfaction with ourselves, disordered eating and full-blown eating disorders. They also contribute to the critical way we view others’ bodies. We don’t realize how deep the malicious ideas run, however. Now, of course, the scenarios mentioned above explain how the “facts” we internalize are detrimental to us through the flawed paradigms and misinformation. The presence of the harmful information seen everywhere– it is unavoidable-- in daily life is not to be underestimated. But while they are seen as pertaining mainly to the physical, or that they have very physically manifested effects, much of what happens takes place internally; the mind is at the core of these matters.

National Eating Disorder Association’s Awareness Week (Feb. 22-28) is the inspiration for the topic of this article. “I had no idea” refers to the theme of this year’s NEDAwareness week and ties in perfectly with the theme of raising awareness, which is a goal shared by this column. (Another goal is for you to think critically about mental illness and the interconnected world surrounding and affecting it...) “Raising awareness” is a phrase thrown like confetti in terms of various causes. NEDA doesn’t mess around with the idea, however, citing early intervention and prevention as well as recovery and help-seeking as solid reasons raising awareness is necessary and beneficial. And what’s more? They provide evidence that their awareness week, in which 44 countries and all 50 states participate, achieves. Website traffic and use of helplines, screenings and social media (#capturehope) increases are hard to argue with: this campaign gets results.

I would normally say that there isn’t really a point to me spouting facts you can find on the internet, and move on to my next point. The problem is, the internet information about eating disorders and disordered eating is inconsistent, incomplete and riddled with stigmatizations. So, I will briefly describe them, but my disclaimer here is that this information should be used to help understand people and the relationships between people, bodies, image and food.
NEDA’s website (which is reliable, despite my previous bash-fest of the web) defines eating disorders as “includ[ing] extreme emotions, attitudes and behaviors surround[ing] weight and food issues.” According to the DSM-V, there are four diagnoses of eating disorders: Anorexia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, Bulimia Nervosa and Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. Anorexia involves a low self-esteem related to body image with extreme dread of weight gain. Binge Eating Disorder has episodes of out-of-control binge eating, which can be coupled with severe feelings of shame and guilt. What sets Bulimia apart from binge eating is the purging. People have a stereotypical idea of all of these, but many people don’t understand that purging includes many behaviors, such as exercise, physically purging food, diets and fasting, to compensate for binges. The last category refers to anything that doesn’t meet the criteria for one of the others. “The commonality in all of these conditions is the serious emotional and psychological suffering and/or serious problems in areas of work, school or relationships” (NEDA).

People are even less aware of disordered eating. “In our culture there is an obsession with size and weight, diet and exercise-- the pervasiveness of disordered eating is astounding,”  writes Dr. Carrie Gottlieb, a psychologist specialized in eating disorder treatment in a post on Psychology Today. She continues, “Research suggests that up to 50% of the population demonstrate problematic or disordered relationships with food, body and exercise.” This is what I was talking about earlier-- the prevalence of the propaganda-like information normalizes some thoughts and behaviors that can be considered disordered eating; they promote bad relationships. People may not also be aware of conditions such as Restrictive/Avoidant Intake Disorder, which limits or restricts the types or amounts of food one eats. (Often due to fear of vomiting or dislike of textures, etc.) and Pica, the persistent consumption of non-food items. Dr. Gottlieb gives some tips to prevent/manage disordered eating, such as avoiding diets, adopting inclusive meal plans that suggest moderation and diversity, healthy limits on physical activities and focusing on enjoyment of the activities themselves, resisting negative body talk and throwing away the scale.

I would see these taken a step further. The relationship with your body should be a loving one-- the one you deserve. It isn’t easy to get to that point, and it will take time and effort, especially since the conditions we’re discussing are often so deeply rooted. That said, it’s hard to imagine how scary taking those leaps of faith into self-care and healing are. But balance will come with time. There is a lot of fear involved when you don’t know what’s going on, which is why awareness is such a key idea. Realizing that something is off is terrifying, but taking the next step is so crucial.

The last thing I want to say for the time being on this topic is that it is often trivialized and should absolutely not be. Eating disorders stem from very real psychological places. People think they’re about food, when, much of the time, the feelings and thoughts are more essential to what is happening. These are not topics to be joked about, and food, exercise, body image, etc. are also not laughing matters. In the spirit of my last article and Awareness week, I would ask that people think about how they can refuse complacency in the collective mindset that promotes sick ideals and invalidates people. Your language can, and often does, harm. While it may seem harmless to talk about topics in a certain way, it’s important to recognize that this  seemingly-casual speech may seriously jeopardize someone else’s mental state, especially that of someone in recovery, Raising awareness  and being mindful of others in speech in action literally saves lives, (eating disorders have one of the highest fatality rates among mental illnesses) and for conditions that can in effect turn one’s body against one, people should not need to face fear of ubiquitous triggers in addition to what they must go through.
So let’s turn “I had no idea” into a quest for us-- a healthier us. The kind of health that allows us to love ourselves for who we are in every sense.

Tiernan Field House is having a few events for NEDA Awareness week also, with meditation on Monday at 7 pm, a self-care fair on Bowling Green from 11-2 on Wednesday, and a talk called Body Mass Index (BMI): What’s True and what’s NOT at 7:30pm in the Field House.