I get a lot of emails.
A lot of emails. Like many others, I’m flooded with a wide array of messages from all directions on any given day. These range from teaching requests, to heartfelt letters from students, to exciting opportunities, to promotions, to newsletters I forgot I accidentally signed up for three years ago. Every day I open my inbox to a whole new world of conversation and information.
In September 2015, I received an email from a reporter at CNN who wanted to write a story about me for CNN Health. Of course, my immediate reaction was excitement. Who wouldn’t feel flattered by the idea of having your journey featured for the world to see? Underneath my excitement, however, was a lingering of doubt: what would the focus of the article be? How would it portray my story? How would it portray me?
I’ve consumed a lot of media about eating disorders. All you have to do is Google “anorexia” or “eating disorder” and thousands of articles will come up. Each one tells a similar story: a girl struggles with insecurity/depression/anxiety, begins under-eating/over-exercising/developing poor habits, has severe health complications, and eventually either overcomes the disease or sadly passes away. It’s a story that is, unfortunately, all too common in our world today. But more than that, it appeals to the odd, and somewhat morbid, fascination we have with eating disorders.
My issue with these articles isn’t that they are making the extremity of eating disorders aware to the general public. My issue is the shock-appeal they often strive for. Nearly any article you’ll come across meant to share the story of someone struggling with an eating disorder (more often than not, anorexia nervosa) with be laden with shocking numbers of low weights and pictures of skeletal bodies meant to shock and terrify and, somehow, intrigue the reader. The emphasis shifts away from a meaningful dialogue on the complex emotional and environmental factors of mental illness and into the territory of voyeuristic ogling at just how ugly an eating disorder can become.
And more than that, it lends itself to the competitive nature of eating disorder “culture”. While many use the internet as a means to connect with and help uplift others struggling with the disease, just as many (if not more) use it as a way to feed their disordered behavior.
The “Pro-Ana” community largely exists on free-to-use blogging and social media sites such as Tumblr and Instagram. This community serves as a forum for those in the deepest severity of their disorder, where they not only praise anorexic behaviors as signs of “self-control”, but promote anorexia as a “lifestyle” in order to achieve happiness and a desirable outward appearance. They exchange photos, dangerously minimal food diaries, and enlist one another to become “accountability buddies” to ensure they don’t “cheat” on their “diet”.
It’s a despicably toxic gathering of severely ill people who desperately need help they are not receiving. It’s enabling sick people to believe they are well. It’s promoting the all-too-common idea that anorexia is a choice and that those suffering should be looked down on for their risky behaviors. It’s only recently that forums such as Tumblr and Instagram have begun to crack down on the existence of these communities, asking their users to report anything related to glorifying eating disorders or self-harm, but the fact is, it’s the internet, and they will always find a way to congregate.
With this community comes competition: who can be the thinnest? Who can be the unhealthiest? Who can be the sneakiest?
I was lucky enough to never assimilate into this community. But even so, I was not able to escape the competition an eating disorder (and a society that promotes fruitless, one-upping comparisons between women) culminates. I obsessively consumed news articles and memoirs about men and women with eating disorders. My disease was all that consumed my life and my actions, and reading about it seemed to be the only thing of interest to me. To this day I could recite to you some of the stories I read time and time again of people struggling with the disease: Portia De Rossi’s book on her extreme battle with alcoholism and anorexia, the story of the 12-year-old girl named Kitty made famous by the New York Times reporter (and her mother) Harriet Brown, and countless others with seemingly the same story.
As I read these stories in my disordered state, all I could takeaway was this: I’m not sick enough.
Each one read like an argument for why they needed to recover. Stories of shockingly low weights, ways they restricted, how long they’d exercise and how little they’d eat. It would be a long retelling of how terrifying their disordered life was, and then a quick paragraph at the end about how their mom was worried or they had an epiphany at a stressful time in their life or they nearly died, and they decided to get better and they’re doing great now.
Knowing the mindset of a disordered person, I always see this not only as an attempt to warn the public on the danger of disorders, but as the lingering affects of a mind riddled with anorexia. We want to convince you we were the worst. We were awful. We did horrible things. We were the thinnest. We were the sickest. We were in the most danger.
And I’ll tell you why we do this. It’s because, even in recovery, we struggle to believe that we are worthy of it. We struggle to believe that we needed to recover, to relieve ourselves of the suffocating habits and routines that we found comfort in. We struggle to believe that we deserve to nourish and care for our bodies. We struggle to believe that we were ever “sick enough”. We struggle to believe that we are enough and we are allowed to care for, love, and accept ourselves.
We are justifying to ourselves, and to the world, that we “deserve” recovery.
I don’t believe this is always a conscious decision. But I know that the temptation lingers for me, even today. Sometimes I want to write out just how “bad” I was, just how sick I was. Like I need to justify that I was really an anorexic.
And when a disorder can inspire an entire community of mentally ill people to obsess over who has the most prominent collarbones or who ate the least or who weighs the furthest below 100 pounds, is it so hard to believe that they will fall prey to the trap of allowing themselves to tell their stories with near pride in just how far they fell down the rabbit hole?
That’s why when I got that email over half a year ago, I was nervous.
But as I spoke with the amazingly talented and professional reporter Ashley Strickland, I was pleased with the obvious angle she was taking with my story. The emphasis was not so much on my disorder, but more so on the way I have been able to overcome and grow from it. Very little details of my disordered life were aired for the public, and much more was spoken about who I am today. I felt extremely comfortable, and even proud, with the direction of the article.
The response was overwhelmingly beautiful. As I type this, on a desk next to me is a thick stack of handwritten letters from people who have connected with my story. The article was a blessing I’m truly grateful for: it allowed my voice to be truly heard, and it allowed others to know that I would be willing to listen to theirs, too.
But it did put me in the public eye. And I started getting more emails.
And some of these emails wanted to write more stories about me. When I started speaking with them, however, I realized the stories they wanted to write were not ones I was interesting in being a part of. In fact, they were the kind of media I would never condone as a productive and necessary part of the ongoing conversation around eating disorders and mental health.
They were asking me questions about my lowest weight, how I got to that weight, did I have pictures of me at that weight? They didn’t want to talk about how we can overcome eating disorders. They didn’t want to talk about why people develop eating disorders. they didn’t want to talk about the work I’m doing now that I’ve recovered from my eating disorder.
They wanted a shocking story and a picture of a skinny girl because that’s what gets attention.
Now, I will talk about my eating disorder for the rest of my life, as long as it feels relevant and as long as I believe it is helping others. I will tell you what it’s like to work to overcome one, I will tell you just how hard it is, and I will tell you what it’s like to live in the aftermath of one.
But I will never exploit my mental illness.
It’s time that we shift the conversation around eating disorders. It’s time we shift the focus away from comparison and competition on who had it worse. It’s time we start talking not about the disease that attacks us, and start talking about who we are once we are able to shed it from our skin. It’s time we start focusing on who we are, not what we are struggling with.
When we write articles and stories and post “before and afters” of anorexia and compare our lowest weights and discuss who was in the hospital the longest, we are feeding the root of this disease. We are feeding the need to compare, to one-up, to validate our actions. We are feeding the unnecessarily toxic and competitive relationship women are led to have between one another. We are negating the value of the women who are struggling with this disease.
We have come a long way, but we are still going.