Hunt: Eating disorders are culturally accepted forms of self-harm

Virginia Hunt, Op-Ed Contributor

Content Warning: This story includes mentions of eating disorders, self-harm and suicide.

I remember very little from the time I had an eating disorder. The memories have been lost in a cloudy haze of primal hunger. But one thing that remains is the echoes of praise I received from people for my waifish figure. 

The romanticization of emaciation is not a new phenomenon. The rise of the “heroin-chic” aesthetic in the 1990s featured women like Kate Moss, showcasing thinning hair and pale skin — common symptoms of those with restrictive eating disorders. The glorification of this appearance wove itself into all fabrics of our media, from Tumblr thinspo threads to controversial Yoplait ads. 

Despite the media’s obsession with thinness, the graphic and agonizing sides to anorexia were never shown. Constipation, vomit, hair loss, tooth decay and so much more remain hidden in the shadows of the spotlight. This gentrified story is not a symptom of naivety but rather a lie by omission. Society’s one-sided narrative is a means of perpetuating eating disorders, ultimately fueling diet culture’s capitalistic goals.

The industry wide endorsement of emaciation in modeling by brands like Prada was viewed as a way to make more money not only for the fashion industry, but also for diet and weight loss industries. By creating a body image goal that was unattainable for nearly the entirety of the population, these industries ensured they would have a consistent flow of capital. Brands including Weight Watchers prey on customers, primarily women, who they know might strive to achieve the anorexic look or be associated with brands whose aesthetics do.

As predatory marketing continued through the early 2000s, hospitalizations due to eating disorders increased. From 1999-2000 to 2005-2006, these hospitalizations rose by 18%, according to a study sponsored by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. These brands perpetuated self-harm by equating beauty and thinness that led to this increase.

When most people think of self-harm, many think of someone they loved, know or maybe even themselves and their experience with self-mutilation. The term “self-harm” does not usually appear to us as something beautiful or romantic but rather agonizing and traumatic. 

However, we apply these glamorized terms to eating disorders. Fundamentally, eating disorders are self-harm, and it is a betrayal of the issue’s urgency to continue to ignore this. It is time for us to start treating these disorders as such.

Showing the graphic nature of this reality isn’t the answer — victims of eating disorders deserve dignity. I do not believe the correct way to combat the current media appeal to the thin ideal is by unveiling eating disorders’ gruesome sides. As we’ve seen following shows like “13 Reasons Why,” in which the lead character is shown cutting herself and ultimately bleeding out, portraying these acts can be extremely triggering and may even desensitize its audience to the issues at hand.

Marketing that uplifts eating disorders furthers their aestheticization. Fashion, diet and fitness industries have formed an iron triangle that must ultimately be dismantled and called what it is: a scam. But these disorders aren’t just a scam — they are the deadliest mental illness. They are often a way to turn emotional pain into physical pain, similar to other forms of self-harm. 

When society chooses not to accept the commercialization and beautification of eating disorders and disordered eating, we will ultimately help not only save the lives of others, but also save the quality of our own lives. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 51% of Americans want to lose weight. This is how my battle with anorexia started, and none of us are immune. The acceptance of eating disorders has become a pandemic, and fighting it is overdue.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 800-931-2237, or contact the 24/7 NEDA crisis text line by texting “NEDA” to 741741. If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “HOME” to 741741. 

Virginia Hunt is a Medill Freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.