…Or apples. Or plates, with or without knives and forks. Or a tape measure around an anonymous waist. Or a pair of feet standing on the scales. Or a white teenage girl sitting with her head in her hands. Unfortunately, these are the images most often used to symbolise eating disorders in news media, by healthcare providers, and even by some support organisations.
I Want to Feel Interested!
When I see these images, I feel either bored or depressed – often both. For one thing, they further the eating disorders stereotypes that we need to fight against – that eating disorders are all or mainly about food, that all anorexics survive on an apple a day, and that eating disorders only affect young, white, middle class girls.
There’s actually a danger in these images too. They might reinforce the denial of a reader who doesn’t feel s/he matches the images. The ‘I survived on an apple a day’ stereotype and associated images certainly didn’t help me in admitting my problem over the years. I wouldn’t still be alive after ten years on an apple a day, given that a decade eating quite a bit more than this has still left me with many anorexia-related long-term health problems. Most people with anorexia, especially those who have it for many years, do eat – just not enough.
But even when images aren’t dangerous, they’re just plain uninspiring – too much ‘say what you see’. And when it comes to pictures of scales, I can see these in my mind all day anyway. They’ve been burned onto my brain for a decade, and I really don’t want to see any more!
As for food pictures and the knives, forks and plates, it particularly bothers me when support organisations use these as headline images or logos. It’s like a therapist who specialises in helping people to overcome severe arachnophobia placing an image of a giant tarantula outside the treatment room. It probably wouldn’t help to encourage a potential patient to enter. Similarly being confronted by scales and eating utensils as the headline images for an article or a website doesn’t give me the hope or the courage to read on.
I Don’t Want to be Scared!
The other images that drive me crazy are the before/after pictures used in so many news stories, particularly when it comes to anorexia. Most typically, these depict a young white girl wearing very few clothes and looking severely emaciated. These images can be very dangerous to anorexia sufferers. I spent years comparing myself to pictures like these, telling myself I clearly wasn’t anorexic enough and that maybe I should try harder to become more like these girls – and then maybe people would notice and help me. Or I told myself that I was a failure at anorexia as I couldn’t reach that level of illness. I look back and think how sad it is that I wanted to look like I was at death’s door, so strong was my subconscious drive to disappear. Images like these simply reinforced this destructive drive.
On top of that, many eating disorder sufferers have extreme levels of body dysmorphia, so we can’t even accurately compare ourselves to the images anyway, and we often know this deep down. So the lack of certainty in our comparisons when looking at them is really distressing too.
So how about some Inspiration, not Thinspiration?
I’ve written this post partly to get this off my chest after a decade struggling with these images. That’s a great thing about blogging!
But I’ve also written it as I want to start a conversation about how we could change the use of images in media content on eating disorders.
A few suggestions to get things going:
- Using more positive slogans instead – The Be Real body image campaign (https://www.berealcampaign.co.uk/) and eating disorder charity Beat (https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/) use these well
- Using motivational pictures/GIFs – I really like Beat’s use of these on Twitter
- Showing more diverse images – such as a bunch of people of all shapes, sizes, ages and colours to demonstrate that eating disorders can affect anyone
What do you think? Please do post your ideas, comments, and even images. Maybe we can inspire each other and start to fight against the stereotypes!