Happy belated National Eating Disorders Awareness Week! Yes, a week late, but still relevant. National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is an incredibly important recognition of the shame and stigma behind these life-threatening illnesses. It shines light on the devastating impacts of eating disorders and the diverse groups of people they harm (not just wealthy white women).
With NEDA Week always comes an onslaught of related Instagram posts, especially from those in recovery. For the most part, I think that’s awesome. Down with stigma, up with openness and body positivity! However, there’s still a talk we all need to have about eating disorder awareness social media, because there are those in “#recovery” who make NEDA week actually kind of the worst. As someone with many dear friends in recovery and who is in recovery myself, I’ve observed that the classic NEDA Week Instagram post has taken a problematic turn over the past several years. The eating disorder recovery community seems to have slipped into an unfortunate trend of posting one’s thinnest photos as, through a very convoluted logic, proof of one’s illness and a way to represent its horrific consequences.
There are more things wrong with that approach to recovery than I care to count, and especially to the delicate art of the recovery Instagram post. Unpopular opinion: if you post a photo taken at the height of your illness where you look attractive by Western patriarchal beauty standards (and you tell us that it’s from the height of your illness), you’re already doing it wrong.
Here’s a less subjective take on this ED-Instagram epidemic: weight loss can be an alarming indicator of many eating disorder subtypes, but so can weight gain. Additionally, weight loss doesn’t need to result in visible emaciation or an “underweight” BMI to be incredibly dangerous. Size alone is not what defines these illnesses, especially because the physical consequences of them are very much internal — heart and organ health, dental health, bone density, etc. — not weight as an isolated symptom. The self-perpetuating source of each of these is the emotional suffering of the victim, and is equally as valid for a high-functioning student as it is for someone whose illnesses has landed them in a hospital bed. So, if you’re body positive, in recovery, or neither but want to be (or don’t want to be, for that matter), let’s stay away from the weight-oriented, fatphobic recovery posts.
“But it’s my body!” you might say. Or, “Don’t skinny shame me!” Or, “I shouldn’t be ashamed of my illness!” All very true, and this is not an op-ed about skinny-shaming (which is kind of the “All Lives Matter” of the ED recovery world). This op-ed is about the fact that we, as a society, have hallucinated a relationship between illness and size, and even those harmed by that false logic often perpetuate it. The myth that to be sick is to be small can make the difference between seeking help and not, and, in turn, between life and death (out of any mental illness, anorexia specifically has one of the highest mortality rates).
Awareness is not for the thin-bodied only; pictures of the rhetorical you at your thinnest is an inherently fatphobic invalidation of those who suffer and are not thin.