‘But Anorexics Don’t Eat’ and Other Unhelpful Stereotypes – Let’s Call Them Out

A recent conversation with a consultant rheumatologist which was supposed to be about my osteoporosis actually turned into a conversation about the causes of eating disorders. While I left feeling confused about my bones, the conversation did get me thinking.

The consultant’s view was that eating disorders don’t get enough media attention and aren’t ‘sexy’ illnesses. While the whole idea of an illness being media ‘sexy’ seems a bit dodgy to say the least, I think his idea is wrong. Eating disorders, and especially anorexia, are ‘sexy’ and they do get quite a lot of media attention.

The problem is that they get the wrong kind of attention. Far too much of the coverage and commentary out there is melodramatic and sensationalist. Even articles with some sensible and sensitive content often can’t help sneaking in the odd comment or two about extreme-sounding behaviours or critically low weights. These comments are distressing and often triggering for people suffering from these illnesses.

Cut the Melodrama

My plea to the media and to social media influencers in 2018 is to cut the melodrama. All eating disorders have dramatically dangerous effects on the lives of people suffering from them. Not everyone with an eating disorder reaches the critical stages which are media ‘sexy’, and when they do, this isn’t a drama – it’s the culmination of an awful tragedy, often the worst point of years of pain for the sufferer and their loved ones. We need to keep this at the forefront of our minds when writing anything about eating disorders – they really hurt.

Typical Media Coverage

After thinking about the various news reports and magazine articles that I’ve read over the years, I’ve pulled together a few typical subjects that need calling out.

1.Anorexics don’t eat / live on an apple a day

So many media stories focus on the most extreme forms of eating disorders, especially anorexia. So then when you admit to someone that you’re suffering, you might get the line, ‘But you ate well today, and anorexics don’t eat.’

Actually, I’ve always eaten – just not nearly enough. How else have I survived the last decade! This view is dangerous as it can prevent people seeking help. I was terrified when I had to recount my day’s eating at an eating disorders clinic – was I ‘anorexic enough’? Yes I was; it didn’t take those extremes to seriously damage my health.

2.‘Does the celeb have an eating disorder?’, plus accompanying before/after pictures

These reports are almost as glib as the ones about what she wore at an event or who she might have snogged last week. There isn’t any sympathy shown, just an invite to voyeuristically gaze at the before/after shots, often in bikinis.

These reports are just as damaging as their opposite – ‘Is the celeb getting fat?’ – again voyeuristic and extremely hurtful. No one deserves to be treated this way as some kind of punishment for daring to be in the public eye. And the before/after shots are potential triggers for those of us struggling with eating disorders.

3.Celebrity ‘what I eat in a day’

These articles aren’t about eating disorders, but they often might as well be. Quite a lot of the supposed diets in these articles are restrictive, involving needlessly cutting out food groups. For someone with an eating disorder who’s trying to re-introduce more rather than fewer food groups, this is damaging.

The other issue here is the potential lie behind the words. Some of the diets sound very restrictive and if the celeb really followed them they would have an anorexic BMI – sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t – again very confusing for someone in recovery. The message should be to just tell the truth or don’t say anything about it. I also don’t need to know what clothes size a celeb is. So what if she’s happy and healthy?!

4.Eating disorders, especially anorexia and bulimia, as illnesses of the young, white, middle class females who still feature in the majority of the stories

Yes, these people do get eating disorders, but so do others with whom they have nothing in common. Thankfully, this view is shifting and there has been more recent attention given to male, older, and non-white sufferers. But there’s still a long way to go to change this stereotype.


My New Campaign: Call it Out or Big it Up

I’ve been impressed by how people are starting to call out some of these stereotypes, and this year I’ll be joining them. But what I’d also like to do is show the positive as this content should be encouraged. I’ll soon be launching a new section on my site: Call it Out or Big it Up.

This new section will be a monthly round-up collecting the best and the worst of media coverage on eating disorders and body image. I aim to raise awareness, challenge the stereotypes, and to help build pressure on the media to change.

Join me and contribute. Write to me in my contact form, email me at hannab@hannabeatsana.com, or connect on Twitter @HannaLou84 and let me know the best and the worst of the media in 2018. I’ll post as many of your finds as I can and I will contact the publications involved to share my views. Why don’t you do it too and help to build the pressure to change?

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