It's the beginning of Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2016 and I'm already starting to sweat a bit. In theory, I think EDAW is an excellent opportunity to make an often secretive disorder less shameful and better understood. It's just the way that both the traditional media and social media can choose to open dialogue that makes me cringe.
Let me explain. The first time I was particularly aware of EDAW would have been, oh, 2008. For those who didn't know me at that point, I was 17 and in my first year of college. My days consisted of a timetable of history, politics and philosophy classes that I sometimes bothered going to, afternoons doing shots in the pub and... a pretty serious eating disorder. During the college years, I never ate a thing whilst I was there or let anyone see me drink anything but Coke Zero (I didn't mature onto Pepsi Max until a bit later, bless). The lessons that I missed were mostly because I'd been up all night the night before in agony or I needed to binge or I needed to exercise, the latter two always taking priority over my education.
But for as ill as I was at that point, I looked healthy. Sure, my hair was falling out and my skin was a war zone, but my weight was healthy and so I managed mostly to keep it a secret.
So picture it: 17 year old me walking into reception at college, barely awake- barely alive- only to come face to face with images of Ana Carolina Reston and Kate Moss on big boards announcing EDAW. For those who don't know the name, Ana Carolina Reston was a South American model who died of heart failure as a result of Anorexia in 2006. You've maybe seen her photos, particularly if you've ever happened upon a Pro-Ana website. Kate Moss, of course, is another model associated with Pro-Ana, especially since she made some pretty problematic comments that seemed to promote eating disorders.
There were no pictures of people who looked like me on the EDAW boards. There was no reference to the fact that there are other eating disorders aside from Anorexia. There was no mention of the silence and secret agony. There were just sensational photos of emaciated, but still unarguably beautiful, women.
The problems with viewing eating disorders in this way are many, but the most significant, to me, are invalidation and competition.
By invalidation, I'm talking about how, of the 750,000 people with EDs in the UK (I'm using Beat's statistics here), only 75,000 are Anorexic. Falling back on the same tired examples of people with eating disorders being extremely underweight invalidates the 90%+ of those with eating disorders who are not. It says that those people aren't important and that they don't suffer enough to be counted. By using images of models, you're invalidating the average person with an ED. By only using images of women, you're allowing the 11% of those ill who are male to feel even less than they already do.
By competition, I'm talking about how eating disordered behaviours are often triggered by details of other people's disorders. I still have a lot of triggers myself: specific details of other people's weights, specific details of other disordered people's diets, specific details of other people's exercise and, when I'm particularly unwell, images of emaciated people. I don't expect underweight people to lock themselves away, but I'd hope that people wouldn't send me pictures of their jutting hip bones.
In the years since that first EDAW that I was aware of, I've noticed a trend on social media of people posting pictures of themselves at that worst for this week. I'm not saying don't do that, but what I am saying is, be aware of consequences. If your worst was you at a terrifyingly low BMI and you want to show how well you've done to overcome that, all power to you. That's up to you. But if your worst was you at a healthy weight, you overweight, or you obese, your pain is just as valid. You don't have to have been force fed to have been ill enough because, truth is, with eating disorders there is never 'enough.' There is pain, but there is also hope.
Just... be aware. Be aware that anorexic supermodels do not constitute the majority of EDs. Be aware that posting certain details of your disorder may be triggering to somebody on your friend list. Be aware that there are other ways of marking this week than posting pictures of jutting bones.