Your perception of eating disorders has been shaped by white supremacy, colonization, capitalism, fat stigma, and more.
The National Eating Disorder Association posted this imagine on July 23rd, 2019 on their facebook page. The quote come from a social media account I cannot locate (@fyeahmbello). The image was created by Alyse Ruriani. NEDA removed this post the following day. Prior to its’ removal, I had a chance to skim the comment section. It was disheartening.
People expressed anger or confusion because NEDA “got political” or forwarded a “SJW” agenda. Those that use the term “SJW”P social justice warrior) are people that at best, dismiss issues of inequality and injustice, and at worst, have “alt right”, white supremacist, ableist, misogynist, transphobic, homophobic, antisemitic, Islamophobic, and often fatphobic. views. If someone considers social justice a bad thing, I don’t imagine they have much to contribute to the eating disorder recovery community.
Those with more moderate beliefs, who don’t want politics to be a part of the recovery community, need to understand that eating disorders ARE a political issue. They are a social justice issue. Healthcare is both a social justice and political justice issue. NEDA is an organization devoted to eating disorder education and prevention, as well as making treatment more accessible. If NEDA is putting out information that conflicts with your political views, maybe its your views are the problem.
There were folks who said discussing racism and other “isms”, divides the community. They say that since we are all trying to overcome the same problem (eating disorders), we should focus on that instead of social issues they feel are unrelated. These people are almost exclusively white and cisgendered. People who think of these issues a unrelated or periphery are not marginalized, or at least not in the ways the people speaking up for themselves are. So it’s easy for them to dismiss discrimination and social inequalities, because they aren’t personally affected by them (Think of the people who say, “I don’t see color.” Usually, these aren’t people who face racial discrimination.)
Others refuted the image’s claims, because the message didn’t reflect their own personal experiences. For some reason, a significant number of people missed the words “perception”, and believed this image was referring to the cause of eating disorders specifically. These people insisted that the factors listed (white supremacy, colonization, capitalism, weight stigma, etc.) don’t pertain to eating disorders, because their eating disorders were a result of trauma they experienced. Setting aside what the post was actually referring to- how eating disorders are perceived and presented in media- all of these factors can be sources of trauma for those who experience them. Imagine experiencing the trauma of homelessness, hunger, and/or discrimination, in addition to physical or sexual trauma.
I am white, and I am a mid fat. (Meaning I am fat, it’s difficult to find clothes that fit me, my doctors dismiss my health concerns as a result of my weight, but I don’t face the same barriers people in bodies larger than mine do). I was raised in a middle class family, and have a comfortable lifestyle, despite living paycheck to paycheck in piles of debt. I don’t know how it feels to be a larger fat or a person of color. I don’t know what it’s like to be homeless, or on the verge of homelessness, or face food insecurity. But there are plenty of people who have spoken out on how these experiences contributed to their eating disorders, and/or made accessing treatment difficult or impossible.
Check out Gloria Lucas’ episode of the Food Psych Podcast.
Read Stephanie Covington-Armstrong’s book, “Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat”. A significant part of the story pertains to how poverty and food insecurity led to the author’s Bulimia. She also talks about how no one suspected her eating disorder, because she was a black woman. Members of her family shamed her for seeking professional help, due to cultural taboos about mental health treatment.
NEDA took down the post because they were unsure how to deal with the hateful comments. And my knee jerk reaction was to flood all of their social media handles, possibly send emails, and make phone calls, to call them cowards. I didn’t do this. Mostly because of Chevese Underhill Turner.
Turner founded the Binge Eating Disorder Association, which recently merged with NEDA. She is currently NEDA’s Chief Policy and Strategy Officer. On her own facebook, she shared her frustration and disappointment with how NEDA handled this incident. She said that change takes time. At BEDA, she had plenty of experience dealing with this type of blacklash, but many of the people at NEDA don’t know how to handle it yet.
Many of the comments on NEDA’s post were not intended as hate speech or bigotry. Several people read a statement that didn’t pertain to their own experiences or beliefs, and so they responded with confusion, disbelief, and at times, anger and cruelty. We are all at a different place when it comes to understanding the dynamics of privilege- but simply stating that race, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, etc. plays a role in how society views eating disorders- or even impacts how people develop eating disorders- should not be such a controversial statement. And while people, primarily white, middle class, ablebodied folks, need education on these topics, marginalized people should not have to hold their hands and spoon feed them these concepts. Especially since these people are quick to lash out, directly or indirectly, at marginalized people when faced with ideas they don’t understand. But I also understand as a person with privilege, I am responsible for educating other people.
I remember when a Facebook page called Beating Eating Disorders posted an image that simply stayed, “Black Mental Health Matters.” The responses to this post were far angrier and defensive than the ones I saw on NEDA’s more recent post. Many people, primarily white folks, took this to mean that their mental health didn’t matter. The comments were full of people saying they were going to unfollow the page. Frankly, I think we are better off without them. But I know discussions need to happen. Gaps need to be bridged.
I know I still have a lot of privilege that I will never fully unpack. But I just can’t imagine getting angry when my race isn’t the primary focus for 5 seconds.
We are all on eating disorder pages or social media accounts because we are recovering from the same mental illnesses, or supporting someone who is. But when people refuse to look beyond their own experiences and point of view, they reinforce the barriers to treatment, support, and community so many of us are trying to take remove. These online spaces may be even more important to people in larger bodies, POC, LGBTQIAAP, and especially people in poverty, because formalized treatment is far more difficult to access. And yet these spaces, when unmoderated, can become cesspools of hate and bigotry at worst, and a series of microagressions at best.