By Rosa Hannah, Co-Chair
The New Year is right around the corner, and so are the resolutions to lose weight, exercise more, and eat healthier to become a “Better You.” It’s hard to avoid this popular wish, especially with discount memberships to gyms and diets. Everyone around you talks about how in this New Year, they’re going to be a “New Person.”
By Sarah Wahid, Co-Chair
I’m not going to lie, I’m guilty of indulging in products such as SkinnyPop popcorn. I’m a lazy person who doesn’t like messes; so the appeal of yummy pre-popped popcorn in a family sized chips bag is obvious. However, I was cramming for my finals while chowing down a bag of SkinnyPop with my boyfriend last night when I started to think about the product name.
by Katie Regittko, Social Media Coordinator
I was in sixth grade when I started to realize and explore my identity as a queer and trans person. And, like many other students, that’s also when I started to hear negative comments and derogatory slurs about LGBTQ+ people in my school. It was by no coincidence that I began engaging in eating-disorder behaviors shortly thereafter.
Historically, eating disorders have been depicted in mass media (television shows, magazines, and works of fiction) as illnesses associated with white, straight, cisgender female adolescents. However, they affect people of all demographics and backgrounds. In fact, there have been multiple studies that show that LGBTQ youth are disproportionately susceptible to developing eating disorders.
Research shows that as early as twelve years old, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are at a much higher risk of binge-eating and purging, including laxative abuse and/or vomiting, than their heterosexual peers. Additionally, a survey of nearly 300,000 college students found that transgender students had over four times greater risk of being diagnosed with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, and two times greater risk of eating disorder symptoms such as purging. The most recent study on the subject conducted by the National Eating Disorders Association and the Trevor Project found that 75% of LGBTQ youth have either suspected or been diagnosed with an eating disorder, and 71% of transgender students have been diagnosed with an eating disorder.
Essentially, LGBTQ students, and especially those who identify as transgender, are more likely to experience eating disorders and their symptoms than their straight and cisgender peers. And this may not be a coincidence: several factors and experiences play a role in the development of eating disorders in queer youth. These include, but are not limited to, stress surrounding coming out, internalized negative beliefs about oneself, and discrimination and bullying. LGBTQ people may also face challenges that prevent them from seeking out or obtaining treatment and support such as the lack of culturally-competent treatment, lack of support from family and friends, and insufficient eating disorders education among LGBTQ+ resource providers who are in a position to detect and intervene.
Many general factors that can contribute to developing an eating disorder include a need for control, experiences of trauma, underlying mental illness, and societal pressures that glorify a “perfect body”. Eating disorders do not exist in a vacuum--97% of people with eating disorders have at least one comorbid psychiatric illnesses. For me, one of the earliest major stressors in my life was an identity impairment caused by being a closeted queer and trans person afraid to come out. When that was mixed with undiagnosed and untreated bipolar disorder and anxiety, underlying traumas, and exposure to diet-culture-plagued media, I resorted to disordered eating behaviors that quickly spiraled.
As a young person struggling to figure out my sexuality and gender identity, I felt like there were no resources or people to help me during that time, and walking in the hallway to hear slurs like “that’s so gay” or “tranny” only made me feel even more ostracized. Similarly, I felt like my identity was being discredited when I came out as gender non-binary because my peers and teachers alike refused to call me by my correct pronouns. So without a community to turn to as an outlet to help me navigate and grow confident in my identity, I turned to creating an identity in another community.
In my experience, dieting websites and programs were a direct gateway into darker pathways online that promoted and advocated for eating disorder behaviors. While dieting programs and calorie-tracking websites taught me how to restrict my intake, pro-eating disorder websites and blogs taught me how to take that obsession further and hide it from others. Although I finally got what I wanted – a seemingly “supportive” community – I paid the price of years of suffering physically, socially, and emotionally.
Eventually, I did find a healthy, supportive community who encouraged me in recovering. However, the “stickiness” of the eating-disorder label followed me for a while, and there were bumps along the way. It is important to note that recovery is a process, not perfection. Now, I am proud to say that I am confident in my identity as a bisexual, non-binary, femme powerhouse in recovery from an eating disorder rather than someone whose only sense of self is connected to food and weight.
It was not an easy road to get here, though, especially as a member of marginalized communities. For me, it took hitting a rock-bottom and realizing “I can’t live like this anymore”—literally and figuratively—and years of treatment. (This isn’t true for everyone though—everyone struggling with food or body-image deserves help no matter where they are. Don’t wait for it to get worse before seeking out help!) Then, I had to learn how to navigate recovery as a non-binary individual when almost all of the resources on the subject is catered to women. What helped most was finding a community of queer and trans people, both in recovery from an eating disorder and not, who could affirm my identity and make me feel accepted. I decided to give up my eating disorder and instead start focusing on helping communities around me who experienced the same identity issues that I did. Recovery gave me the strength to put my heart and soul into volunteer work at my local LGBT Center where I spent time helping facilitate a youth support group, lead state-wide youth outreach, and plan social events for queer and trans youth. I made my goal to provide the resources that I needed when I was younger to youth who may have been dealing with the same struggles I was.
There must be a change in the way we discuss and prevent eating disorders, as we are leaving entire populations behind. For example, one of the main barriers that kept me from seeking out treatment for my eating disorder was the extremely gendered culture of recovery (i.e. female-only treatment centers). Popular culture has a responsibility to increase awareness of LGBTQ identities in general and reflect the accurate nature of our lives to include mental health and eating disorders.
We have to begin having these difficult conversations about who we really represent in body positivity and eating disorder awareness. There is no “normal” way to have a body, be a certain gender, or to love someone. What may be an offhand comment can irreparably harm a someone’s self-image.
This week is Transgender Awareness Week, and it’s time to talk about eating disorders among the trans community. Currently, transgender people are affected by eating disorders more disproportionally than any other demographic. Through awareness, prevention, and treatment, we can change that.
by Sarah Wahid
When I was a little girl, probably around four or five, my family took a trip to Disney World, as one does when you have a daughter who has memorized entire Disney and Barbie movies and dressed up as a princess every Halloween. When I was asked by Ariel, my favorite princess, who I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, "You. I want to be you when I grow up. I want to be a white princess."
By Ashley Boldt
I love to tell people that I go to a pretty amazing school. I go to a school where students stand against social injustice. I go to a school where we rally against gun violence and raise awareness for mental illness. Students are involved and passionate. I love that my friends see their educational and organizational involvement as an investment to the world, not just their career and academic resumes. I love all these things, and I am empowered by the people I surround myself with. However, despite everyone’s big plans for the world, I witness these same big dreamers succumb to the pressure of society to take be small.
The other day I was at dinner with friends when everyone began the dreaded discussion of dieting. I listened to friends I had never thought to be self-conscious around food feel the need to explain to everyone how they generally do not eat that much. The conversation creeped into everyone discussing how they liked to graze instead of eating meals or how they only ever ate one huge meal a day and otherwise simply forgot to eat. I wish in the moment I could have told my friends how they do not need to explain their eating habits to others. I wish I could have expressed to each one how amazing they were, and that their bodies need adequate fuel to make them function. I wish I had mentioned how everyone is different and requires different fuel. I wish I could tell them that it is okay to “admit” you eat. It does not make you weak. It is okay to take in food and it is okay for our bodies to take up space, but I did not say anything, and for that, I am sorry.
Although I could not deliver the message then, I hope these words can reach my friends now. It is horrible that so many women spend so much time wondering how we can shrink ourselves. We walk with bent shoulders. We diet and exercise to be small. We tell others we do not eat because we see this as morally superior. We agree with opinions that we don’t necessarily embody to avoid conflict. In a society where women are already delivered the message that we should take up less space both physically and emotionally, it is more crucial than ever that those of us who are privileged, whether by race, income, education, etc. take a stand to show that we are deserving. Not only are we deserving of equal pay and respect in society and the workforce, but we are deserving of food to fuel our minds and bodies. We are deserving of the right to feel confident and to feel unashamed to express our realities and beliefs. Despite how simple and innocent it seems, my little dinner dilemma may symbolize a much larger issue. However, this issue is one that I believe we can face as long as the already incredible women I know make the effort to take up the space they deserve in all aspects of their lives.
by Embody Co-Founder Colleen Daly
To the girl at Trader Joe’s,
I remember watching you float through the aisles, gravitating to each item with gentle hesitation. Pick up. Analyze. Return. Repeat. Pick up. Analyze. Return. Repeat.
I remember seeing frustration and fear take over your composed countenance as item after item failed your test. I remember watching you, almost in tears, venture on and out of sight. Disappointed. Angry. Afraid.
I felt your pain.
I too, walked these aisles in anguish, aware of the eyes following my weak frame with looks mixed with concern and disgust. I remember feeling unworthy of food, of indulgence, of compassion.
I remember laying in bed, begging for sleep to come. A dull but persistent ache coursed through my body, keeping me from rest. Frustrated, I tossed out about a dozen possible explanations before I realized I had completely lost connection with my body and its senses - that the pain was hunger.
I remember wasting my life away on an elliptical, stamping my insecurities deeper and deeper with each pedal stroke, trying to take up less space in an overwhelming world.
I want to hug you. To laugh with you. To remind you that you are loved beyond measure.
I want to tell you that your body is the mechanism by which you engage with the world - and that the world needs you. There are so many adventures that lay before you, if you could pry free of doubt, of shame, of anxiety, of the voices that scream that you are NEVER ENOUGH. You are always enough. You always were.
I want to sit with you and commiserate. People just don’t get it. I want to cry and laugh and yell, throw our heads back and roar.
I want to hold your hand as you walk into your first therapy appointment. I want to sit through “scare food” meals together, and catch your tears as you hold strong through the anxiety that follows.
I want to remind you each and every day that you are inherently and innately worthy, simply for being.
But I do none of those things. I watch you fade away. I wish I prayed.
I don’t know you. I don’t know your story. But I know that you are strong. You will recover. I know you will. I have to believe you will.
It has been 8 years since my eating disorder first burrowed deep in my brain. He robbed me of my happiness, my relationships, my health, my dreams, hopes, and desires. Determined to step off the treadmill and run my life based on my dreams and desires for the world, I fought like hell. I fought and I fought and I fought.
Recovery feels like a treacherous journey. You’ll climb out of the pits of your disorder. You’ll leap out of your comfort zone. You will fall - over and over and over. But you won’t be alone. You’ll have people around you who love you. They’ll be there to pick you up, brush you off, and follow you every step of the way. And when you get to the top, you’ll take in the view, and know freedom.
Over the last 8 years, I have felt the disorder slowly fade away. I can barely remember the sound of his whispers, the harshness of his voice, the roughness of his clutch on my shoulders. I don’t believe him anymore.
I listen to my body. I move it in ways that are beautiful, meaningful, and fulfilling. I eat foods that nourish my body and bring it joy. I live. You will too.
Intuition is freedom. Recovery is possible. Fight for it.
By Ashley Broadwater
I am a white, young person within the “normal” weight range (whatever that means). I am cisgender and middle-class. In other words, I am privileged. When I tell people I’ve struggled with an eating disorder, they tend to believe me. When I go to stores, I find clothing in my size. No one tells me to go on a diet. In other words, I have thin privilege.
In Embody, we talk about how eating disorders are a social justice issue. But what does that mean, exactly?
To talk about social justice we have to talk about privilege, meaning we have to talk about stereotypes. People with eating disorders are assumed to be one kind of very specific person -- white, young woman, usually a teenager or young adult, who is underweight, cisgender, and middle or upper class. But the reality is, people within every single intersection of identity are affected. What’s worse, those who fall outside the stereotype, those who aren’t believed, are at higher risk because they can’t afford treatment or fear they won’t be believed or understood. Many people with eating disorders don't see themselves as "sick enough," which can only be exacerbated by not fitting the mold. Furthermore, did you know that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, which includes depression?
Statistically, as far as those who don't fit the stereotype, we’re talking about 13% of women over 50. 16% of of transgender college students. One in ten men. These statistics only account for a few of the identities affected. It’s scary.
When it comes to eating disorder advocacy, we must adhere to the paradigm shift that calls eating disorders to be a social justice issue. If we aren’t, then what are we doing? If we aren’t advocating for those who aren’t advocated for, then who are we helping?
So what does advocacy through a social justice lens look like? It looks like this:
Someone in Embody made the interesting point one time about people who post about the struggles of bloating in eating disorder recovery on their recovery Instagrams. They talk about how they can handle the bloat because they know it’ll go away by morning.
That’s totally valid, and I feel that, and I’m happy for them. But, the point was, some people’s everyday bodies look like other people’s bloated bodies. We have to keep that in mind when we post about our struggles because for some people, that bloat doesn’t go away. And the recovery and feelings of those people are just as valid and important. Not everyone in recovery goes back to a "normal" weight, and that’s okay. We have to support their recovery and body just as much, trusting that bodies know what they’re doing, and at the same time, can get thrown out of whack after struggling with eating disorder behaviors.
This is why we Embody. We Embody because we need all intersections of identities at the table. We need all people to understand and be supportive of those struggling. Eating disorders unfortunately embody all groups of people, so by looking at them through a social justice lens, we must as well. Let's keep that in mind as we make 2018 a better year.
For resources and information, see http://www.embodycarolina.com/resources.html and https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org. To get trained in how to be a compassionate and effective ally, see http://www.embodycarolina.com/upcoming-trainings.html. To learn more about Embody Carolina, see http://www.embodycarolina.com/about-us.html. The above statistics were provided by http://www.anad.org/get-information/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/.