Well-respected media outlets have a tendency to conflate eating disorders with weight obsession and dieting. Granted, in many circles disordered behaviors around food and weight are now considered within the norm, but that's a troubling reality newspapers and magazines need not take at face value. It's frightening to imagine a world in which severe dieting or purging meals or extreme exercise are barely even something to think twice about, but here we are.
Meanwhile, journalists, striving to find a role, any role, in the internet culture, have latched onto the public craving for dramatic stories about personal struggles with food and weight and have, for better or for worse, received the attention they're looking for.
A case in point is an article in the New York Times this past weekend. In the Modern Love column, a woman outlines her story from a lonely, eating disordered life to the happiness of marriage and the miraculous ability to eat again. She refers to her years of being emaciated alternately as a source of pride and as the pathological focus of her disease, never quite being sure on which side of the fence she belongs.
The rounds of purging and starving and secrecy are just part of her journey, swinging on a pendulum from disease to a mere stage of development. Can it be that her extremely low weight, one that merits hospitalization by any clinician's standard, is just another badge of honor? Even by the end of the story, the answer is never quite clear.
Finding love is the next step in her journey, one that allows her to start eating again. She reluctantly admits to a more healthy weight while finally recognizing her eating disorder and starting to get help. Somehow, she thinks that neither her friends nor family had any idea she was sick, and that everyone thought she just looked thin and believed in the same delusion she did.
She writes about gaining weight but neglects to tell her readers whether or how her eating disorder symptoms have improved, furthering the fallacy that normalized weight equals recovery. She is grateful that a relationship awakened her to her illness rather than an ER visit or a family intervention, but the final impression is that she has been cured by a loving man, a dangerous conclusion for her readers suffering with eating disorders.
At first glance, there certainly was something brave about writing this story. I applaud someone willing to confront the secrecy around her eating disorder and let others see that there are paths to improvement and recovery. There is no doubt that this woman has found more peace in this relationship than she had prior. However, writing an article for a platform as widely read and as influential as the New York Times bears a larger responsibility.
The writer and the editor must understand that the readers most interested in this article are those either afflicted with an eating disorder or the family of the loved one who is ill. The unwillingness of the writer and newspaper to directly address the realities of her severe illness and the medical consequences, let alone possible mortality, of the starvation and purging sugarcoats her suffering. Couching her disease in a love story allows other sick people to identify with her and just hope for the right man to come along in order to get better.
To confuse the situation further, her central message is one very much accepted in the eating disorder treatment community. Meaningful relationships in the world are critical to recovery. The reality of these illnesses is an inward preoccupation with food and weight which intrudes upon personal relationships. Finding connection, caring and love helps speed up the process of getting better but isn't a cure. In that vein, she really got it right.
In order to get through to her readers, the writer needed to face her own fear and be more honest. She needed to name her illness and speak more widely and knowledgeably to her audience. Revered outlets like the New York Times provide critical exposure for eating disorders but have a responsibility not to turn severe illnesses into a rite of passage or a modern-day fairy tale.
Even if a story is likely to draw in readers, the editors need to consider their role as educators about these misunderstood and difficult to treat illnesses. The writer's flippant yet self-deprecating comments about her weight both trigger obsessions for people with eating disorders and propagate false beliefs these illnesses. She ought to know better than to throw frighteningly low weights around several times in her article. People in recovery have a responsibility to state the facts about their disease, confront the bias and stigma and help others understand what constitutes effective treatment.