I’m thrilled to have Nancy Tucker on my blog today as part of The Time In Between Blog Tour.
Nancy’s guest-post is about the tropes/cliches of the Eating Disorder Discourse. I’ve certainly heard a few of those headings in conversations and definitely read them in articles – how about you? Would love to hear in the comments.
You can follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyCNTucker
Five Eating Disorder Misconceptions
Guestpost by Nancy Tucker
Despite what sometimes feels like a fantastic increase in general awareness of – and sensitivity to – mental illness, eating disorders remain the subject of a plethora of damaging fictional tropes. For me, the five most infuriating have to be:
‘It’s all the fault of the media’
I always feel like we’re just on the brink of cracking this misconception, and then another tabloid puts out another gratuitous, scaremongering story about airbrushed models and ‘thinspiration’ and we’re right back to the start. I’m the first to say that the proliferation of waif-like models isn’t great , because it permeates our subconscious with ideals which are, for most, unachievable, but to pin down such images as ‘the cause of eating disorders’ is like blaming tear-jerking film for depression: not just attributing a massively complicated internal battle to a simple external stimulus, but attributing a mental illness which only a minority of individuals develop to a stimulus to which nearly the entire population has, at one point or another, been exposed. It’s ignorant, and betrays a complete failure to grasp the complexity of eating disorders, but it also just doesn’t make sense. Sadly, I think this means that, just as we can’t attribute the development of eating disorders to exposure to images of skinny models, we can’t hope to ‘crack’ the problem through ‘body acceptance’ movements, or by convincing young women that ‘men like curves’. Indeed, my own eating disorder experience has taught me that the most valuable thing one can do for sufferers is not to engage in discussions about body shape and size on any level, as it is literally impossible to say the right thing.
Eating disorders are ‘all about control’
Spouting this phrase seems to have become the means by which people believe they can articulate that they understand eating disorders on a very deep level. Indeed, it’s not even so much that the urge to control doesn’t play a major part in many sufferers’ experience of an eating disorder – it’s that eating disorders are never ‘all about’ any one thing. I also take issue with the idea that eating disorders, and anorexia in particular, represent a form of superhuman control: in fact, being wholly in the grip of self-starvation is the very definition of being out of control, as is evidenced by the unpleasant, unsavoury, ‘unhinged’ things an eating disorder can drive one to do.
Anorexia is ‘strong’
Megan Trainor did a very god job of getting a lot of people very angry when she described not being ‘strong enough’ to have an eating disorder. It’s this sort of warped thinking – i.e. that starving oneself is a manifestation of extreme and enviable willpower – that drives eating disorder sufferers deeper and deeper into the disease, convinced that self-abuse through food is both a means and an end in and of itself. Of course, this isn’t true: the self-starvation in eating disorders is not about strength – if anything, it’s a sort of weakness, as it shows the sufferer’s inability to stand up to the mental tormentor (the ‘anorexic/bulimic voice’). Having been there myself – for years – I don’t say this to be derogatory, but to (gently) present an alternative way of thinking: in fact, true strength lies in standing up to the demons and rejecting the impulse to retreat from life into a ‘shell’ of starvation/restriction/bingeing/purging etc.
Anorexics don’t want to eat
This is a myth I think quite a lot of anorexia sufferers would, on some level, like to perpetuate, as for many being in the grip of the disorder means coming to associate appetite – for all things, but food in particular – with being too needy; too greedy; too much. But, of course, when one is starved one’s drive to eat is not diminished, but increased ten, twenty, a hundred fold, hence the complete and utter food obsession anorexics will (sometimes, grudgingly) report. Anorexics are starving – of course we want to eat.
Weight is a good barometer of sickness
This is one of the most persistent misconceptions out there, and also one of the most deeply WRONG. Whilst the visible emaciation of anorexia might be visually striking, some of the ‘sickest’ eating disorder sufferers out there are of normal weight or overweight. Bulimia tends to keep one at an average weight, and yet regular bingeing/purging puts the body at risk of a whole host of serious problems including oesophageal tears, electrolyte imbalances, vocal cord damage and heart attacks. My therapist says the patients who keep her awake at night worrying are very rarely the most underweight, because the most underweight patients are rarely the most unwell. We really need to try to get away from thinking of weight as an illustration of sickness – ‘S/he was really sick. S/he only weighed (x)’ – those two statements should be entirely independent, because in reality the two things are in no way linked.
When Nancy Tucker was eight years old, her class had to write about what they wanted in life. She thought, and thought, and then, though she didn’t know why, she wrote: ‘I want to be thin.’
Over the next twelve years, she developed anorexia nervosa, was hospitalised, and finally swung the other way towards bulimia nervosa. She left school, rejoined school; went in and out of therapy; ebbed in and out of life. From the bleak reality of a body breaking down to the electric mental highs of starvation, hers has been a life held in thrall by food.
Told with remarkable insight, dark humour and acute intelligence, The Time in Between is a profound, important window into the workings of an unquiet mind – a Wasted for the 21st century.
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