No matter what situation or context is, I can’t help but feel that personal connection to discussions about eating disorders. It’s inevitable, it has been a part of my life for quite a long time throughout my short existence. Of course it by no means defines me as a person, but as someone who has experienced its wrath firsthand, I feel myself in the role as an advocate to help others truly understand what it looks like.
I don’t see myself as being some motivational speaker that can help every single person who is struggling. That’s not realistic, especially when eating disorders take on a wide range of appearances. But as a general public tries to discuss the issue, they like to simplify things into a very narrow mindset of what to look for.
Probably the most frequent culprit blamed for triggering people is the media. Whether it’s fashion models or diet plans or body builders or whatever else, we assume those images as the main reason for young people to start thinking about their body.
Which yes, media plays a huge influence in all of our lives. While the media cannot tell us what to think, it definitely tells us what to think about. The media functions through visualizing certain categories of images and people that fit a strict list of criteria. Women should look and act in ways that fill the mold we are used to seeing. We have to behave in these generic ways to find beauty and success.
Again, to explain this concept, I feel I have to simplify everything, but the dynamic between image and audience is very complex. But undoubtedly for young people growing up in a world dominated with advertising and messages, they cannot help but feel influenced by the very narrow scope of what the media chooses to show. By ages as early as 8 or 9, kids are already considering their body size and fear a vague unknown we label as “fat.”
We tend to focus on the media’s influence on eating disorders because it’s something tangible, that we can grasp and understand. But this assumption comes nowhere close as to truly comprehending the complexity of an eating disorder. For many people, yes, it can tip the scale (no pun intended) that sets off self-destructive thoughts and behaviors. What we tend to gleam over, however, is how the media affects the people it does. Not everybody sees an underweight model and chooses to strive toward that shape.
Personally, I don’t remember a distinct moment when my eating disorder began to show up in my life. It was a very gradual process. But I never once turned to certain media images to obtain an exact replica of somebody else’s body. If anything, I tried to look at other people in my own life just to try and find a way to know what I looked like. When I felt like I couldn’t control my thoughts of low self-worth and depression, I wanted some way to control that made me feel special and worthy. My disorder is very genetic and self-originated. My environment left myself vulnerable to allowing those thoughts to take over, but they aren’t the only stakes at play.
And for others, it’s truly a very situational thing. They feel stressed or overwhelmed and resort to certain behaviors, then eventually they snap out of it and never feel the urge again. For others, it’s just always there, creeping in the background,. It’s essentially an addictive coping mechanism, a vicious cycles that never steers from a predictable path.
With all of this in mind, my main point is this: we can’t expect to label one cause of this problem and have all the answers. Not even close. Eating disorders aren’t a choice. They aren’t just young girls picking up a magazine and starting a new diet trend. Their results and symptoms are physical, but everything is else is purely mental. The media is a tool to help us put images to these thoughts. We learn to distinguish negative emotions as feeling and looking “fat.” Fears of gaining weight usually are not actually a direct fear of gaining weight; it’s a mask to disguise what the true fear is. We’re visual creatures with natures that like to label things, but most things in life just can’t go by a single definition. That’d be way too easy.
Heck, we use the media to explain how the media causes eating disorders. That leaves people who don’t look like the average image of a someone with an eating disorder discrediting their illness, that maybe it’s not actually there, that they’re not sick enough to seek help. If we never look beyond that tunnel vision, we’ll never be able to start reaching out to the diverse group of people affected by eating disorders. Any gender, race, economic status, religion, sexuality: they’re all at risk. Again, physical characteristics don’t play as much of a role as we care to believe.
Do I think people who have never experienced these thoughts will magically know how they feel? Of course not, just like any other situation or disease. But perhaps they can at least recognize that a picture or TV show representation of eating disorders doesn’t define anything. Every case is different. And it can happen to anyone.
As always, for those who may be struggling right now, your feelings are valid and you deserve help and support. You are not alone. An advertisement is not a diagnosis. And one of the best role models you can look up to is yourself.
Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie