Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Images of Eating Disorders

Notice what's not in the official National Eating Disorders Awareness Week materials:
skinny women staring into mirrors.

I know that yesterday I made a point out of saying that eating disorders are only tangentially related to beauty. But one aspect of EDs that’s more directly related to beauty is the imagery we use to portray them, and what messages those images send. 

The #1 image selected—by amateurs and professionals alike—to illustrate eating disorders is a photo of an extraordinarily thin woman, who may or may not be staring into a mirror and seeing a distorted (larger) version of herself. Runner-up: same woman, but this time standing on a scale. (I’d put together a collage of them but that would defeat the point I'm hopefully about to make. Google-image eating disorder photos if you want to see what I’m talking about.) 

 The images often chosen to represent eating disorders not only leave out a huge chunk of sufferers, they also glamorize the disease, even if the sharp-relief ribcages and clavicles are selected to startle. We’re a society obsessed with the thinness of women and what women are eating (all the better when the two go hand in hand!), so it’s difficult to show the side effects of some EDs without glamorizing them to an extent. This goes double when we're talking runway images (which a lot of them are): If we can count the ribs of a model strutting down the runway, we simultaneously get to gawk at her perceived illness while also seizing permission to take her in as an object. I'm guessing that people putting these images out there in this manner claim that the subjects are so underweight that they cease to be attractive—a hollow defense when we’re talking about images of working fashion models. Anorexic Isabelle Caro’s billboards were indeed shocking (indeed, the pictures in the link may be triggering)—and now, after her death, tragic. But let's not forget: Isabelle Caro was a fashion model, i.e. a member of the profession that defines glamour. We couldn't help but glamorize her sickness even as we mourned it.

But on top of the accidental (I hope) glamourization of EDs, these images reinforce the idea that anorexia and bulimia are the only EDs worth mentioning. In fact, the most common eating disorder diagnosis isn’t anorexia or bulimia or even binge eating disorder, but ED-NOS, or eating disorder otherwise not specified. ED-NOS can encompass everything from someone who appears anorexic but is still getting her periods so doesn't meet all the diagnostic criteria for anorexia, to someone who chews and spits food, to people with selective eating disorder, to overexercisers, to people with unshakable food rituals, to people so obsessed with having a "clean" diet that it controls their lives. Last year the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders finally made binge eating disorder its own category; until then it too was lumped in with ED-NOS.

How this links to imagery: If someone as tragically sick as Isabelle Caro is the main visible face of eating disorders, what does that say to the average-weight or overweight woman who is torturing her body in different, less visible ways? I’ve known women who delayed getting treatment for years because their bodies didn’t match what their image of an ED was. In any addiction, there's always someone sicker than you whom you can use to justify not getting help, but it becomes particularly dangerous in EDs because of the perfectionism that's evident among so many sufferers. A normal-weight woman with ED-NOS can tell herself that eating nothing but raw vegetables for a week is healthy, not a sign of an eating disorder, because she doesn't look like that; a binge eater can rationalize that she just doesn’t have any willpower, because look at "those" people with eating disorders; an anorexic can always find someone “better” at anorexia to prove she’s not that bad off—or that she has farther to go.

And, you know, I get it: I’ve worked in magazines for a decade, and I know that dramatic images summon our attention. To complicate matters, the external symptoms of EDs make for easy pickings of illustration; it’s a helluva lot harder to effectively illustrate perfectionism and alienation from emotions than it is to illustrate someone who’s just lost a bunch of weight. (Google-image other mental illnesses to see what I mean. Did you know that hugging one’s knees in stark lighting is a side effect of depression?)

I’m not sure what the corrective measures might be. I’d love to see more media outlets cover EDs in a comprehensive way. There's some solid treatment of anorexia and bulimia in ladymags, but next to nothing on binge eating or ED-NOS: Sunny Gold’s Glamour coverage of binge eating disorder was literally the first time I’d seen BED discussed anywhere. (Her site and excellent upcoming book chronicle her journey in more depth.) I’d like to see press give as much ink to, say, Monica Seles’s memoir about overcoming BED as it did to Demi Lovato’s recent check-in to an ED clinic. (Demi who? Exactly. But did you even know about Seles’s illness and recovery? Lazy book publicist—or us preferring the glamour of visible self-destruction over a quieter tale of an athlete downing 10,000 calories in a sitting and gaining 37 pounds?)

But (ahem!) to keep this beauty-focused, what I as a beauty blogger want to see is more thought and creativity put into the images we all use to depict eating disorders. I want an end to ED images that have a dual reading as glamorous; I want an end to ED images that invite us to scrutinize patients' bodies; I want a close watch on ED images that perpetuate the idea that people with eating disorders must be thin, or white, or young, or pretty, or women. I want media outlets to choose images that show that people with eating disorders aren’t all thin—and that they do things other than stand on scales and look in mirrors. 

Some of them have a difficult time grocery shopping:

Many of them ascribe inappropriate emotions to food:


Some go through the long, hard process of treatment:

And others, eventually, recover.

But the best idea I’ve heard came when I e-mailed some friends about what images they think would be appropriate to illustrate stories about eating disorders. We hashed out the problems with scales (what number do you show?), food (could that be that a trigger?), bodies (best done verrrry carefully), and of course the mirror shot (invites the viewer to judge, and...yawn, so not original). And then, in response to my question, “What art would you choose to illustrate a piece about women with eating disorders?”, one woman quietly, simply replied, “Art by women with eating disorders.”

So today, I give you just that.

Top row: Art by Sarah Coggrave. Bottom: Art by Katie Seiz.


  1. I have always thought of Anorexia as the popular girl, while BED, and EDNOS are the nerdy outsiders. I never fit the glamorous depiction of anorexia, because, well, I was never anorexic, but I was definitely a EDNOS - exercising my period away for a whole 2 years - but even so I felt like my sickness didn't count. Or wasn't "that bad". Because I looked pretty darn healthy, and I could run 8 miles and lift 150 lbs and I ate every three hours...Having healed from that place, partially by force of crappy genetics, makes me look back and think, how many other women are suffering what I suffered? You would never know because we only ascribe sinewy model-like figures to those at risk.

  2. I wasn't sure if you self-identified as someone who'd gone through ED-NOS--I'm so glad you're vocal about the positive changes you've made in your life about maintaining a healthy diet without upsetting your mental health.

    You know, I think the mind-set you've expressed here is pretty common, which is exactly why it's a problem. Perfectionism is a common issue with ED sufferers, and the idea that anorexia is the "perfect" disease sets up women who need help but who aren't anorexic with this sort of ghost of what they "should" be. (I read an interesting piece once about a woman who was diagnosed with bulimia instead of anorexia and was devastated.) Not that it's any better for people who are anorexic, of course! I know you're not alone in not having felt that your illness "counted" as an ED, and I can't help but wonder how many people exclude themselves from treatment that would lead them to happier, healthier lives because they don't think that they "really" have an eating disorder.

    The more we conflate thinness with EDs instead of making it clear that thinness is one side effect of one eating disorder instead of the disease itself, the more anorexia is going to be seen as sort of the "queen bee" of eating disorders. I think that before treatment there's this self-perceived hierarchy of illness, with the sickest anorexics being seen as being at the top of the pyramid. (I've met women who redoubled their symptoms before finally entering treatment so that they wouldn't be the heaviest anorexic there.) But the people I know who have gone through treatment (including women with anorexia, bulimia, ED-NOS, and binge eating disorder) shed that idea, instead seeing it for what it is: a mental illness that can't solely be measured by the size of one's body.

  3. Eating disorders are serious health problems that must be treated immediately. This has a great effect to the psychological aspects of the one being affected. Since this is a psychological problem, this means that Eating disorders are all in the minds.

  4. Eating disorders will definitely lead to many kinds of body disfunalities. The eating habit of a person is closely related to their beauty as well mind. So, choosing the right eating habits is essential for the good functionality of both body and mind. It is definitely reflect in the outer appearance as well.
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