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Friday, February 25, 2011

Difficult Conversations.

This past week has been National Eating Disorder Awareness Week.  I've been struggling with the idea of posting something on this topic, but realize that if people don't begin having healthy conversations, little progress will ever be made...

Eating disorders have had an indirect and profound effect on my life, since a family member was diagnosed with one nine years ago.  Previously, I had no real idea how dangerous and difficult these disorders could be.  It was easy to joke around about "throwing up lunch to lose a few pounds," obsessing over our looks and how much weight we needed to lose to be "perfect," and even easier to look down our noses at girls who were rumored to be anorexic.  It was especially easy to be an outsider to this disease, until it took a direct hit on my family.  Since the first time I realized that an eating disorder had infiltrated someone I care deeply about, my thoughts and understanding about the disease and its victims have changed drastically. 

At first, it was something that needed to be kept a secret.  Eating disorders are, after all, "dirty little secrets."  They are considered taboo, even though there are more people in the United States with eating disorders than there are those with Alzheimers (source). For some reason, society has kept this disease hidden in the underbelly of psychiatric medicine, giving it less attention, insurance coverage(!), and medical funding than schizophrenia, and allowing it to cause more premature deaths than any other psychiatric disorder (source).  Eating disorders are much more than a few facts, however.  They affect real people and real families, and they are not just about "food."  There is a very intricate and little understood network of factors and conditions that lead to the development of eating disorders, and while I've been involved for nine years, I still don't fully understand their complexities. 

One thing I've learned from being a family member of a person with an eating disorder, is that society is completely unaware of the effects that negativity and unhealthy self-images have on the people around them.  I can't tell you how many times I've overheard someone joking about overeating by saying, "I'll just take a minute to throw it up in the bathroom," someone being critical of their own or someone else's weight, or someone obsessing over each and every pound and clothing size dropped; things that I, myself, discussed and joked about before an eating disorder was holding my loved one hostage.  

Comments like these now cut me to the bone.  I take them very personally, which is a fault of my own, but after having to see someone I love struggle so severely with a disease that has essentially been influenced by society's embrace of a need to be thin and superficially beautiful, it's difficult to let these comments go.  It would be no different than someone jesting about cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's, or any other disease.  I think it's difficult for people to realize that there's anything wrong with joking about eating disorders, because it is such a secretive illness, and many people think it's not a real disease.  

It took a very long time for our family to be able to admit to people that there was a problem, and to this day, it's still difficult.  Bringing my involvement with eating disorders into this public arena is difficult for me, but I felt that I should participate in NEDA Week and bring more awareness to the cause, since eating disorders affect my life every single day of every week.  

If you're reading this, and care about this cause, please go to the National Eating Disorders Awareness website and do some research on eating disorders.  Read some of the personal stories about people who have recovered from eating disorders and family members who have had loved ones with this disease.  Even if you don't research the illness, please be mindful of the comments and images you're putting out into society.  You may not be personally affected by such negative comments or the narrow definitions of beauty that are so commonly embraced, but some people are, and you could potentially save someone's life by refraining from the negativity and embracing your own beauty. 

"Life is messy. Life is imperfect. Life is about progress, not perfection."  
~ Elizabeth Showers, as quoted on Alicia's blog, Alicia B. Designs

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