Eating disorders are an unspoken pandemic throughout the world, but instead of being treated as the diseases that they are they are often stigmatized and even monetized. There is a pervasive idea that eating disorders only effect the over pampered rich white woman and should therefore be ignored and derided as a symbol of privilege.
- About 25% of individuals suffering from eating disorders in the UK are men.
- Eating disorders may be associated with or even symptomatic of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
- There’s no positive correlation between high socioeconomic status and eating disorders and for some eating disorders the correlation is actually negative.
And all of the above points mean that the pervasive social understanding of eating disorders is directly damaging to individuals with it. Men have a harder time overcoming the associated social stigma and getting treatment, women with ASD are not treated and have their conditions exacerbated, and people who may not be well off are being targeted by predatory “health,” schemes.
I have skin in the game. I have suffered from anorexia nervosa. I’m also on the autism spectrum. And where I sit on the economic spectrum … well it’s really none of your business, but there have been a few times in my life where I had to choose between rent and groceries. I chose rent. For reasons which are beyond the scope of this article my socioeconomic position has and does fluctuate. I am — however — a white woman so at least that part of the stereotype fits.
The problem we have though is that eating disorders are almost valued more than the individuals who suffer from them. This association of eating disorders (ED) with wealth is not completely off the mark. It’s true that people with ED occupy a range of socioeconomic levels, but they are also — particularly women with ED — themselves status symbols. This is where things get really weird.
It was noted particularly after the whole “detox tea,” and “appetite suppressant lollipop,” incidents that the Kardashians/Jenners are promoting a truly unobtainable standard of *checks notes* beauty. Their look is curvy but with the sought after flat tummy and thigh gap. It is fine to be skinny. It is also fine to be curvy. But it is nearly impossible if not actually impossible to have a low enough body fat ratio and simultaneously the amount of breast tissue that would constitute “curvy” without surgery. The reason the Kardashians/Jenners look like that is because they have access to personal trainers, nutritionists, private chefs, and plastic surgeons. For them that’s perfectly fine. They’re spending their own money to achieve an aesthetic that pleases them. Fine. But that aesthetic is impossible to get to without money and that look has become associated with wealth.
This association is not just “you can look this way but only if you’re rich.” It’s “if you intend to become rich you must look like this first.” And you can yell at capitalism all you want for this, but a bigger part of the problem here is the fetishization of particularly women’s bodies. When I was at my worst — when I had to pad and belt size 0 jeans just to keep them on my body and when I wore extra layers so it wasn’t obvious that the outline of my pelvis was visible even through my clothes — I was regularly invited to what were essentially high-society parties in order to pretty them up. Models are often invited to such parties for exactly that reason. They’re living status symbols. Same for ballerinas depending on exactly what kind of party it is. I went to these parties because I thought I might be able to secure charitable donations for a few things I was involved in and I did actually have reasonable success, but that’s not the point.
Models sometimes are paid for prettying up a party, but I wasn’t and I don’t think a lot of the dreadfully thin women you might see at a party like that are either. We are invited because it makes the host look like he or she can “afford” skinny women. We go because maybe we can get charity donations or network connections or in the case of models because there might actually be money involved, but it’s not all that lucrative to us. We are not wealthy ourselves, we’re just the display of wealth. We come with the flower arrangements and expensive champagne. We are “invited,” as status symbols not for ourselves but for others. So again, you can point towards skinny privilege and access, but what does it say about a society where someone can essentially colonize someone else’s body?
The dangerously thin body is valuable, but not to the person who inhabits it. And that is why eating disorders are stigmatized. If we get healthy our bodies are more our own. If we get healthy it’s harder to scam us out of whatever money we do have with fake dieting plans, diuretic teas, and those absurd lollypops.
One day in lab I commented to my lab mate that I needed to move some skeletons and equipment in order to collect data. She was very concerned that I wouldn’t be able to safely lift the various boxes and such that I was proposing moving and suggested I find one of our male colleagues to help me. This wasn’t a bad idea but what I hadn’t told her until then was that I had been moving things about to get my data on a more or less daily basis alone and unaided and because I was not climbing ladders to do it I did not feel I was violating any safety protocols. I explained this to her and she blurted out, “you’re too skinny to lift those things alone.”
So I rolled up my sleeve and flexed. The subject was immediately dropped.
When one starves, the body cannibalises first fat, then muscle, then bone. In fact it will destroy bone and muscle straight away, but not at the high rates it will once it’s burned through all the fat. Women also sort of hide how much muscle we truly have. We don’t have the hormones to build up the truly huge muscles men can, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have strong dense muscle tissue. And women do tend to have a bit more subcutaneous fat so it’s not always clear how “cut” a woman is. When I had this conversation with my lab mate I was on the mend. I was still dangerously thin, but my muscle was building up.
And because I am a mesomorph it was building up fast.
One of the realizations that helped me get better was — strangely — that as a mesomorph I do not have the body type to be truly thin. I can be strong. I am strong. But I cannot be thin. I cannot be both thin and healthy. And what I mean by this is not that I can’t reduce my body fat down to athletic levels. I mean that for me if my ribs and pelvis are visible and not obscured by muscle then it’s because I’m sick.
Another friend took me to work out with him and I decided to do some lat pulldowns. I set the machine at 50kg and tried to pull it down so I could sit and get to work. Instead I ended up doing a pull up. I thought that was quite funny so I did a few more. Clearly I did not weigh quite 50kg. But I then set it down to 45kg and that I was able to pull down. This put my weight between 45 and 50kg.
I had been obsessively watching Black Swan at the time and I noted that not only was Natalie Portman in her role as Nina not quite as thin as I was but neither were the real ballet dancers surrounding her. So for amusement I thought I might have a look at how I compared to ballet dancers of my height. I’m 5'4" or 162.5cm.
I don’t blame you for not reading Russian. No one would. Aside from arguably Leo Tolstoy and I think even he could be readily convinced otherwise. And the Vaganova Ballet Academy is notoriously strict. But if you have a look you will note that I would only be acceptable if I were a boy. Girls of my height are meant to be between 40.5 and 44.5kg and I was at least 45.5kg. I was at least a kilo or about two pounds heavier than would be allowed among ballerinas. And I still looked thinner than them.
Moreover, if you pop over to the NHS BMI calculator and play about with it my weight range at the time straddled the line for underweight and healthy. I was definitely not healthy at the time. It was pretty clear I was underweight. (They do presently have a disclaimer that the calculator should not be used if you are suffering from an ED, but we’re making a point here so ignore that for a moment.)
The disparity here could be down to the fact that the Vaganova Ballet Academy teaches children and adolescents who have not reached their adult weight yet. A sixteen year old girl is unlikely to weigh the same as an adult woman even in the unlikely event that they are the same dress size. Some of this is down to the development of breasts, but much of it is changes in bone density during late adolescence and young adulthood assuming no pregnancy and good nutrition, and possibly developments in muscle tissue.
According to the NHS, a healthy weight for me is between 48.9 and 66kg (107.8–145.5 lbs). That is a huge range. That’s almost 20 kilos and almost 40 pounds. Part of this is due to the fact that some people gain fat easier than others or have lighter bones and some have larger bones or easily gain muscle. You have to have a pretty wide range to account for natural human variation. Most people’s actual healthy range is probably narrower.
But I’ve been all the way to the extremes of those ranges. At times it was because I was too fat and then too thin, but I’ve also done it with muscle. I remember in one instance I had finished a Judo workout and went to the locker room to change with one of the other girls from the Judo class. She complimented me on my abs and we were talking about what weight class we would spar in. I decided it was as good a time as any to weigh myself. At the time with toned abdominals I weighed about 146 lbs. I was changing from my gi into size 0 trousers but still technically overweight. And I was rather frustrated because it meant I could not class down. I would have to compete in a weight class I didn’t think I could handle.
I’m in Palaeopathology, so I am not necessarily sure the wisdom on ectomorphs, mesomorphs, and endomorphs is entirely correct. I have seen variability in human populations within and between populations — in fact, that’s what my doctoral research was on — but I don’t know if I could slot that morphological variability into three classes like that. But assuming it is correct, I’m definitely a mesomorph. I gain muscle easily and quickly. I’ve always been strong. When people tell me something is heavy I tend to be able to lift it with ease. I enjoy weight-lifting. And I even have the relatively short but hourglass form that mesomorph women supposedly have.
Ah, but there’s the rub. I’m that sought after hourglass. When I’m healthiest I’m strong. I might be a little chubby from time to time but when I’m healthy, I am strong and have the hourglass figure. I will never both be healthy and look like a ballerina. I won’t say that no woman can be healthy and super skinny because there are some that can. But putting undue value on pursuing a body type that is not yours just so other people can use you as a prop is not empowering, not healthy, and feels awful. I really like being strong. And I can only do that if I eat.
I have no idea — nor do I care if we’re being honest — whether the Kardashians/Jenners are ectomorphs, mesomorphs, or endomorphs. They’ve got so much money it hardly matters. You cannot be thin like an ectomorph, curvy like an endomorph and have the hourglass and strength of a mesomorph all at the same time. Unless you are willing to dedicate tens of thousands of dollars to achieving that aesthetic. Find what it is about whatever shape you are that is valuable to you and nurture that. With a healthy diet. And exercise. But don’t obsess over impossibilities.
One does not recover from an ED. Even if I never again skip a meal I will still be anorexic. I got lucky. I was smart about the way I starved myself (and no, you’re not getting “diet tips,” here,) and I knew about refeeding syndrome and avoided it when I decided to start eating again. So I survived. For now.
If you have an ED I hope you can find help. I had to handle it without therapy but there are increasingly programs available and they’re just a google search away. But know that there’s no bottom to that hole you’re digging. And if you don’t stop you will die. It’s okay to be upset. It’s okay to feel horrible for now. And it’s very okay not to match the image society has of you. Don’t compare yourself to other people or think that you don’t deserve help because you don’t fit an artificial image. My disease made me thin. Other people with ED fluctuate so much you can’t really tell or even gain weight. The risks are the same and it’s actually easier to dehydrate and die from bulimia particularly if you’re utilizing diuretics than it is to die from anorexia. Don’t do either but regardless of how fat you think you are you deserve help.
If you know or think you know someone with ED and think you can handle it be there for them. Do not judge them. It’s not really about being pretty. It’s about control. I know from the outside people with ED seem vain, but the obsession is more like an addiction than anything else. Also do not try to compare yourself with someone with ED because it’s not really contagious per say, but there there be dragons. Also make it clear to your friend that you will value them and love them regardless of their weight or size. Make it clear that your support and friendship is not conditional on their look. You value them as a person: not an object. You don’t have to tell them they’re beautiful because it’s not really about that. And you also don’t have to solve their problem for them. All you really need to do is show them they have innate value independent of the appearance of their body.