Importance of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week

By Libby D’Orvilliers and Sarah Dickstein

This week has been proclaimed for the third year in a row by the Biden administration as National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. 

During the week, held from Feb. 26 to March 3, numerous organizations and individuals seek to spread awareness about the complex conditions that are eating disorders. 

Eating disorders are biologically, psychologically and socially-influenced disorders, meaning that there is no one cause and that they can affect anyone regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation or body size. Yet, the media does not seem to realize these facts. The media has it wrong. Again.

You may be familiar with movies and shows that depict a sensationalized version of an individual struggling with an eating disorder. More often than not, the individual is a thin, white, straight, affluent, teenage girl.

The media consistently judges celebrities for their appearance. Every time suspicions arise that a celebrity’s appearance changes — weight, facial features, etc. —  there are always people reporting “before and after” or “what happened to them?” While eating disorders are commonly seen in the media as only affecting this narrow population of individuals, this is far from reality and is not representative of the actual people that struggle with eating disorders. 

So what is the reality? Well, let’s take a look at a few facts and statistics.

The media has structured a stereotype that if someone has an eating disorder they must be visibly and medically ‘underweight;’ however, fewer than 6% of people diagnosed with eating disorders are also medically diagnosed as ‘underweight,’ according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD). This statistic indicates that around 94% of people with eating disorders are not classified as underweight. Instead, they are described as having medically ‘healthy’ weight or ‘overweight.’

Keep in mind that there are populations of people who go undiagnosed because they do not meet the underweight criteria required for specific diagnoses. Using the ‘judging a book by its cover’ method will not clarify if a person has an eating disorder or not just by looking at them.

There are also misrepresented population demographics in the media when it comes to eating disorders. A study conducted by Lucy Bassett and Maya Ewart published in the Journal of Eating Disorders analyzed the demographics of those struggling with eating disorders. The results showed that in American television shows and non-documentary movies, 84.85% of the groups represented with eating disorders in the media were white.

In an article published in the journal Eating Behaviors, Norman Kim wrote that “large-scale studies have found that rates of all eating disorders are the same or higher in all racial and ethnic groups as compared to white individuals.” Kim discussed how problematic this is because not only are people of color getting misrepresented in the media, but they are also less likely to receive care for their eating disorders.

Bassett and Ewart found that only 10.61% of the characters struggling with eating disorders were men. In reality, one-third of individuals struggling with an eating disorder are male. This inaccurate representation has to change, because all people deserve to be seen and cared for. Raising as much awareness as possible for underrepresented groups will promote change as they will be seen and recognized in their struggles.

Project Heal notes on their website that “transgender and gender nonconforming  individuals are at least four times as likely to struggle with an eating disorder than their cisgender counterparts.” Bassett and Ewart’s study found that all individuals in the media’s depiction of eating disorders were cisgender.

These are just a few of the ways media gets eating disorders wrong. This misrepresentation of deadly disorders in the media highlights the importance of weeks such as Eating Disorders Awareness Week in providing education and debunking myths and stigma around these disorders perpetuated by the media. The most important thing to remember is that eating disorders have no one look or cause and they can affect anyone regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation or body type.

Accurate representation of individuals affected by eating disorders is needed in the media to emphasize to the public that anyone can have an eating disorder. Take the time this week to learn more about eating disorders and how you can help end the stigma surrounding them. 

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