A story is a powerful thing. A story is an idea with a body. The plot and details flesh things out so we can picture something abstract (like love) in the normal day-to-day goings on of a person not too different from us (like Juliet). We see similarities, things we connect with in this character and this life. We begin to imagine that this idea that has meaning for one life might have meaning for my life too.
Maybe that’s why Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader during World War II, reportedly said, “Ideas are more dangerous than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns. Why would we let them have ideas?”
According to tradition, Victor Hugo, the author of Les Miserables who occasionally butted heads with France’s political leaders and had to flee the country a time or two, warned, “all the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.”
These men were talking about control on a grand scale. They were talking about revolution. They were talking about ideas as the seeds of a great tree foolishly planted in a flower pot. If the seeds take root and grow, they will spread. They’ll expand. They will burst their containers and lay claim to the very ground beneath them. That’s why it’s Dictatorship 101 to shut down education and enforce strict censorship rules and book burnings, to limit people’s exposure to new ideas. Because an idea that catches on can topple everything.
We think of that as a good thing. Knowledge is power, right? And we want the power to be spread out to as many people as possible, not confined to a few elite. The more we all know, the more likely we are to make better choices and the less likely we are to take advantage of each other’s ignorance. In general, I’m completely on board with this. But there is one area that I’m starting to wonder about…
I worry about the ways we talk about eating disorders in this country. And we talk about them A LOT. There’s even a National Eating Disorder Awareness Week at the end of this month sponsored by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) with special events and information blasts. Reports of eating disorders’ prevalence, especially among women and girls, are everywhere, to the point that I wonder if we haven’t almost set up developing an eating disorder as a rite of passage. When American girls hit puberty, they get boobs, a period, and an eating disorder. With the amount of attention we focus on this issue, it seems that the ones who don’t struggle with food and body issues become the outliers, an uncomfortable place to be at a time in life when establishing identity and finding a place in the world feel more important than ever before. But this perception is inaccurate.
Before you keep reading, answer this: what would you guess is the percentage of teenagers in the United States who struggle with an eating disorder?
I’m betting you guessed more than 6.1%. And that’s not just among girls; that’s only 6.1% of all teenagers in the U.S. Although it’s true that of those who do struggle with an eating disorder the majority experience the onset of symptoms at age 12 or 13, only 6.1% of American adolescents actually develop any diagnosable disorder. That means the vast majority–almost 94%–have a relatively normal relationship with food and their bodies. The consequences for those who do experience eating disorders can be dire, correlating with an array of severe physical and mental health problems and even death, but they are a small subset of the population. So why do we make it seem like this is every girl’s struggle?
At the same time that we normalize this dangerous problem, though, we also sensationalize it. Well-meaning survivors, advocates, and reporters share the horrors of these disorders with huge audiences of teens and parents in the hopes that people will recognize the dangers and warning signs, seek help for themselves and others when needed, and avoid the pain of the disease and its long recovery. I get where this approach is coming from. It gives people who’ve struggled with these disorders the space to talk about them in a way that feels empowering and healing, and it teaches the public about the risks associated with these behaviors, helping them to understand just how serious this issue is. That’s a good and noble thing, but it can have some unexpected side effects.
You see, I learned my eating disorder from the very people who were trying to protect me from it. On my own, I don’t know that I ever would have thought to distort my eating habits so drastically. And I am certain I wouldn’t have come up with the creative ways I found to do it and keep it hidden without their help. By the time I started using food as a coping mechanism, I had already lost count of the number of times I’d heard about the perils of eating disorders from small group lessons, science classes, magazine articles, TV shows. These sources gave me all the information that I needed to take up the habit for myself. In an effort to tell how out-of-control things could get, these programs almost always included an “at my lowest point” section, where the narrator would describe some trick they used to nurture their eating disorder, some anecdote that exemplified the control this thing had over them at their darkest moment. I’m sure that the vast majority of their audience heard this part and thought, “My God, how horrible! We’ve got to do something about this.” I’m sure that is the intention in talking about it this way. But some of us didn’t. Some of us heard it and thought, “That’s brilliant. I can use that.”
Eating disorders don’t just happen. At least not in my experience. They are a very conscious choice that runs away with us. They’re an idea, a dangerous idea that takes on a life of it’s own, growing roots powerful and far-reaching enough shatter the structures of the life that supports and contains us. No matter how strong the protective structures are–no matter how supportive the family, how informative the warnings, how frightening the consequences–the idea, the disorder, still perseveres. In fact, Debora Spar, author of Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, suggests that eating disorders tend to hit hardest among those who seem least likely to fall into their trap. They are “the affliction of ‘good girls,’ girls who…were raised to be good at school, good at home, good, essentially, at everything.” Under this pressure and with no other socially appropriate outlet (after all, Spar says they know “not to talk back to the teacher, not to fail the exam, not to drive around with the boy next door”), a dramatic but private show of control over food becomes their invisible rebellion. It’s the smart, put-together girls who know better, the ones we don’t think we have to worry about, who may actually be most eager to get some gardening tips from these cautionary tales.
For those of you reading this in your recovery, I know talking about it is part of the healing process. Don’t neglect that. Find people you can trust and share your story whenever and however you can. Don’t keep it hidden, because secrecy just feeds the shame that keeps the monster alive. Please don’t hear me telling you to keep your mouth shut. In small, personal ways, we all need to find ways to share our secrets. I am just asking that we be very thoughtful and careful about how we decide to share these experiences in public, especially when we do so as a platform to keep others from ending up in the same boat.
Learning how to talk about this–learning if I should even talk about this at all– is an ongoing challenge for me. When I first started to give it a try, my attempts eerily mirrored the disorder. I would choke back the words I wanted to speak, hungrily swallowing and gulping them down until I felt so full that I couldn’t stand it. This feeling of fullness and pressure would overwhelm me, and I had to get it out. So at the first opportunity, I’d word-vomit, spilling everything in way too much detail, way too quickly. Thoughtlessly, uncontrollably, I just kept talking until there was nothing left. It was very much a compulsion, not a conversation. That is completely fine and normal as a first step to asking for help and learning how to do something different, but sometimes we let that compulsive over-sharing phase hang on even into our PSA-style discussions.
Neither this nor the silence are healthy. There has to be a better way. Sharing our story should be healing, but these public conversations are not the place to do our therapy. Talking about it in private is about us and our healing; talking about it in public has to be about our audience. Kids who are at-risk for developing these disorders need to know the dangers, but they also need an alternative. They don’t fall into this because it seems like a good idea. They fall into it because they think they can’t do anything else. What if our conversations focused on that? What if in every public conversation about this we treated our audience as if it contained someone who is either already in the midst of an eating disorder or on the brink of developing one? It’s not all that likely, but it is possible. And aren’t these the exact people we’re trying to help? So don’t give them a how-to; give them a way out. Give them hope. What can they do instead? What good and beautiful and powerful idea will be strong enough to take bloom instead of this destructive one?
For those of you who haven’t struggled with this, you strong and lucky majority, what saved you? What protected you? Please tell us, because we need to hear that testimony too.