What to say

Celebrity Eating Disorders: "Nicole Richi...

I can’t say it enough: I think it’s really important to be open and honest about things I’m struggling with, whether it’s straightforward stress or more complex issues affecting my diet and overall (by which I mean both mental and physical) health.  There is such a strong stigma in our society when it comes to any kind of mental illness that when someone does feel comfortable opening up about their experiences, I feel they should do so.  This is the main reason why I try not to beat around the bush when it comes to talking about eating disorders, depression, and anxiety (three things that I can talk about with some authority since I’ve experienced and continue to struggle with all three); in my opinion, there is something to be gained by not hiding what is going on, how difficult things can be, and what it’s like to live with these things on a daily basis.  In addition to helping to break down the stigma, I hope that my approach will show someone else who is struggling that there is hope, and that things can get better.

But I also understand that things of this nature are deeply personal, and not everyone is comfortable wearing their diagnoses on their sleeve.  I respect those people who choose to remain silent.  In the case of conditions like depression or anxiety, it can be somewhat easy to fool people into thinking that things are fine, and you’re not suffering.  Sadly, it’s not uncommon for people to do this (I know I’ve certainly done it a fair bit).  Eating disorders, however, are pretty hard to conceal or disguise, which adds to their complexity and makes their stigmatization feel all the more personal–after all, EDs are worn on the outside, and on display for everyone to see whether we want them looking or not.  Because we can’t conceal our bodies, our disorders risk becoming the subject of public scrutiny and even though it’s possible no one would say much of anything if we were depressed, it seems that once something manifests itself physically, it’s fair game for everyone and anyone.  All of a sudden, something that is private and personal is being commented on by anyone who cares to say something.

This happens all the time in the media–it seems like every couple months there is a new starlet who is photographed looking gaunt and slight.  Instantly, she is diagnosed with anorexia by all the glossy gossip magazines, everything she’s doing wrong (starving herself! smoking too much! not sleeping enough!) gets criticized, and the message gets passed around that this is a matter of public concern (when really it’s just another excuse for us to talk about someone’s body; we’re still criticizing it, it’s still not the right size, it’s just that this time around it’s too thin instead of being too fat).  Now of course I think that eating disorders are in fact, a matter of public concern, but individual cases of EDs aren’t unless the individual chooses to make it so.

Of course there are situations in which this is not the case, but for the most part I think such situations entail public exposure on a much smaller scale.  For instance, if you have a friend who you know is engaging in disordered behaviors, you ought to say something and try to get him or her the help they need.  But what do you do if you see someone who appears to need help?  I’ve seen a couple women in my neighborhood (one of whom is an actual neighbor of mine) who, to me, look like they probably have active EDs; however, it would be inappropriate for me, as a complete stranger, to approach them, even with the best of intentions.  As much as I would like to do something to help, I can’t really.

Knowing what to say and how to say it is, in my opinion, central to helping someone recover, and I think that as a society, we have a long way to go before we will really know how to address these issues on a large public scale.  For now, I think it’s essential that we all do what we can on as large a scale as we can, even if that just means asking a friend if they need help finding resources for recovery.  One thing is certain: we need to determine how to speak publicly about these private issues, find a way to discuss them in a manner that doesn’t result in a criticism of someone’s appearance, or judgment on the way they are living.  Until we can establish how to do that, we are going to have to hope that the other, smaller actions we are taking are enough.

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  1. Amen, Sister! Who among us is not guilty, to some degree, of judging critically someone’s health based on their appearance, whether they be obese or obviously undernourished. Thank you for publishing this post!

  2. Coming out of the ED closet was HUGE for me… it was such a hard decision but it was so helpful. I like to think that it helps others, but it helps me more than I think it is a benefit to anyone else. More and more I’m feeling comfortable with being open about my struggle, but it’s still hard because people are so judgmental about it… assuming it’s a choice I’ve made.

    But this line: “eating disorders are in fact, a matter of public concern, but individual cases of EDs aren’t unless the individual chooses to make it so” was SO SPOT ON. The media, as a whole, still chooses to shine the light on EDs in a negative judging way that makes them seem shameful. Why wouldn’t we feel embarrassed about opening up when that is the message that is perpetrated?

    I really look forward to a day when people stop judging others value/worth on appearance, and I hope to be able to keep being a part of the movement toward that dream.

  3. I agree that mental illness needs to lose its stigma. That’s extremely difficult when people who struggle with it will not disclose their diagnosis. Most people with mental illness lead a very normal life but society only hears about the extreme cases: the depressed mother who murders her children, the schizophrenic who kills his father, etc. Those are just the extremes and not the norm when it comes to people struggling with mental illness.
    I appreciate your honesty.

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