Ignorance promotes eating disorders

Swasti Singhai, Final Focus Editor

I could only stare at the plate of food in front of me: the mere thought of ingesting it was nausea-inducing. I would rather hide in my room all day with my newfound excuse of virtual school than face the dining table. I would rather carefully time my meals, ensuring I would eat alone so nobody could monitor the small portions I was consuming. I would rather starve to the point where I felt physical pain than eat.

A negative perception of my body wasn’t the cause of my eating disorder, nor was body-shaming. But it was the result; once people discovered my struggles with food, they began hyper fixating on my weight and physical appearance, despite knowing little about the actual issue.

After being diagnosed by my therapist, I was sent for a check-up with a general doctor. A doctor, who looked me up and down, and told me I don’t look anorexic. Who minimized any of my symptoms and struggles before even hearing them, just by saying I didn’t fit their stereotype. 

Despite eating disorders being a mental illness, my treatment was hyper-fixated on my weight, and how to recover the pounds I lost. But what I really needed was to recover a healthy relationship with food and unlearn what had become a harmful coping mechanism and my outlet for stress. What I needed was a support system, patience, and reassurance rather than victim-blaming. 

I didn’t need someone to save me, I needed someone to listen to me. 

My eating disorder wasn’t gossip, it wasn’t a phase, nor was it anything close to me taking part in a trend.

To me, it was something serious, and I needed people to take me seriously. 

I had developed a negative relationship with weight, becoming ever cognizant of the number on the scale. It was an internal struggle between wanting my eating disorder to be legitimized yet fearing the comments that came along with weight loss. 

In our world, one’s weight is equated to their health. In fact, a qualitative study conducted by the Institute of Psychology at the University of Oslo investigated the perspectives of individuals who had previously struggled with a restrictive eating-disorder and “were considered not sick enough by others” because of their physical appearance. The study found that such misconceptions were linked to delayed help-seeking and poorer clinical outcomes. 

The other side of the same coin is no better: a report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that “adolescent patients with obesity are at significant risk of developing an eating disorder, yet due to their higher weight status, their symptoms often go unrecognized and untreated.”

This is only perpetuated by the DSM-V, which includes “significantly low body weight” in the diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa, despite the fact that people with a higher body weight are at an increased risk of disordered eating compared with the general population (National Eating Disorders Collaboration). If one is beyond the BMI cut-off for anorexia, they are then diagnosed with atypical anorexia, a diagnosis that is often invalidated and left untreated. 

Unbeknownst to many, comments affirming weight loss, comments that are rooted in fatphobia, like ‘You look good, you lost weight,’ can reinforce eating disorders, and comments even pointing out lost or gained weight can result in additional guilt and shame or trigger an eating disorder. 

Especially as a member of the South-Asian community where women are often scrutinized for failing to meet beauty standards, I’ve been subjected to countless comments on my eating habits, ones that I only really took notice of after developing an eating disorder.  From being told I need to eat more when I couldn’t digest another bite, to family members questioning if my parents even bother to feed me, I’ve heard a lot. 

A study published by the APA affirms many of my personal experiences, finding that teasing on general appearance, weight, and body shape in South Asian women was significantly related to body dissatisfaction and maladaptive eating habits. 

A study on East Asian people also found that participants often receive “unsolicited criticisms about their body shape from family members.”

The fat-shaming extends beyond family criticisms to everyday life, with a leading Chinese supermarket apologizing for displaying a size chart that labeled women wearing a “L” size and above as “rotten.” 

A compounding factor lies in the fact that with the Asian tradition of respecting elders, it’s often difficult to speak up against comments on weight, particularly when those comments are justified as a way to care about you and your health. 

From personal experience, I can say it’s certainly easier to laugh it off than to delve into a discussion on internalized fatphobia and how weight is a poor indicator of health. 

To be specific, studies have shown that a quarter of adults, or 16.3 million people, nationwide who are classified as “normal weight” have elevated blood sugar, high blood pressure, cholesterol, or high levels of triglycerides—generally indicators associated with being overweight. And on the other hand, slightly more than half of overweight people were deemed metabolically healthy. 

Even if this weren’t the case, even if weight were an indicator of health, harping on an insecurity truly benefits nobody—if anything, it’ll perpetuate and reinforce disorderly eating.

So it’s certainly time that we try to have these conversations with our families. It’s time that we educate them without villainizing them, because this practice and a societal ideal of “beauty” has been passed down from generation to generation and many truly know no better. But habits aside, it’s now time that we, as a society, learn and do better.