by Kara Moloney
Note: This piece originally appeared on This Is Your Brain On Recovery. and has been cross-posted with permission.
Eating disorders are incredibly devastating and prevalent diseases in Western society. Chances are, everybody reading this knows someone who has suffered from one of these crippling mental illnesses. I attended a very small school growing up, and yet, there was at least one student at every grade level (that I knew of) with an eating disorder! As an adult, I have met a handful of colleagues in the workplace that have suffered as well. Despite this, these diseases are rarely discussed. Why is this? I feel like there are a number of reasons.
1. You don’t need to look like a skeleton to have an eating disorder.
My first exposure to a person with an eating disorder was by watching a TV biography on Karen Carpenter. The famous musician, who notably succumbed to her eating disorder, suffered from anorexia nervosa. Her illness and death was heavily publicized at the time. When people think of eating disorders, the image of a skeletal yet spirited Carpenter usually appears in one’s mind. However, anorexia is the least prevalent eating disorder! Bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder (BED) are much more common. They are also incredibly easy to mask. Even some of the behaviors associated with these diseases (such as exercising to purge calories or overeating to the point of discomfort) are normalized in our society. Comments such as “I’ll be paying for this slice of pizza at the gym later” are so commonplace that we oftentimes brush them off as normal. The concept of “earning” food items because you went to the gym is not normal, it is disordered.
2. They are not that fun to talk about.
How many times have you shared a good joke about suicide to one of your coworkers? Probably never. The very idea of joking about something so devastating is repulsive to most people. However, mental illnesses need to be addressed no matter how taboo the subject might seem. Perhaps it’s not something you joke about, but the simple act of sharing a helpful info-graphic about mental illness on social media is enough to open up an avenue for discussion.
Like any illness, the key to curing eating disorders lies in finding the cause of the problem and removing it. While curing appendicitis by removing an infected appendix is much easier than getting to the systemic root of eating disorders, I believe a ‘cure’ is possible. However, this will never be accomplished if we keep quiet about the problem. Education of children and adults alike that nurtures a positive body image and promotes healthy relationships with food and exercise can start with a simple conversation (or “share” if you prefer getting active on social media).