February is National Eating Disorders Awareness Month, and the goal is to educate the public, share hope, and raise awareness about life-saving resources for those who need them. National Eating Disorders Awareness Week specifically this year is Feb. 22 through Feb. 28; the theme is “Every Body Has a Seat at the Table.”
Talking about diversity and inclusion within the eating disorder realm has always been under-discussed and crucial. The way TV shows and movies portray eating disorders still today is harmful and shocking: They focus on thin, white, cisgender women, even though we know people in marginalized communities are more likely to struggle because of the oppression and extra stressors they face. One recent, harmful movie example is “To the Bone.” While it showed people of different identities receiving treatment for their eating disorders, the main character was an emaciated, white, cisgender female, and the other characters’ storylines didn’t have any detail into the discrimination that may have played a role in their eating disorder.
While we’ve always needed more and better conversations about diverse inclusion, we need it more than ever this year. But why?
Well, for a lot of reasons. After all the mess that happened in 2020, we’re recovering from trauma that’s still ongoing. Not only were Black people being murdered repeatedly, we also saw it more in the news. While awareness can be important in its own way, constantly hearing about the brutality exacerbated the racial trauma that Black people and people of color experience. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Another reason entails the effects of the pandemic. More seriously, people of color are dying disproportionately from COVID-19 because of racism and extra public health-related barriers. Other pandemic effects include financial insecurity and weight gain, which can worsen eating disorders and lead to fatphobia — the literal fear of fat people, or of becoming fat.
Because of hiring freezes and job losses, many people are facing financial insecurity. This can lead to or worsen eating disorders because people are more likely to ignore or dismiss unhealthy behaviors. Additionally, those individuals may not financially be able to feed themselves adequately or receive treatment. For example, one writer for the National Eating Disorders Association who’s transgender and is low-income shared that when he struggled with eating, people just assumed it was because he had little money. And unfortunately, this issue affects more than just him: Teen girls from low-income families, for example, are 153 percent more likely to struggle with bulimia than teen girls from wealthy families.
As far as size discrimination, we hear countless concerns about quarantine weight gain and the “quarantine 15,” and those anxieties can result from fatphobia, which can worsen eating disorders. And the thing about fatphobia is it isn’t only something felt internally, but also something experienced externally. Because of fatphobia, people who are fat don’t get accurate medical treatment, are denied jobs, and more. They never have a “seat at the table” — unless they engage in eating disorder behavior and are able to lose weight.
While these forms of oppression are some main ones I’ve seen recently, I know that they’re far from the only ones existing in our world today. We also have to discuss the struggles and treatment barriers faced by men, LGBTQIA+ people, Jewish people, and more who have eating disorders.
So, when we say “Every Body Has a Seat at the Table,” we’re saying our awareness work around eating disorders must include people of color. It must include people of all incomes and of all sizes. It must include all genders and people of all groups. People with marginalized identities especially need our support and advocacy because they’re dealing with extra challenges and traumas that compound their eating disorders. Moreover, because they don’t fit the stereotypical image of someone with an eating disorder that we see so often, they may invalidate themselves and other people may be less likely to believe they need help..
As a white cisgender woman, I won’t be sharing my story this National Eating Disorders Awareness Month. Instead, I’ll be amplifying the stories with diverse voices by retweeting their content on social media, sharing accessible treatment resources and free LGBTQIA+ recovery support groups, and continuing to talk about who needs awareness most. If you’re demographically like me, I encourage you to do the same. You may think “every body has a seat at the table,” but if you haven’t experienced discrimination in every identity, you simply cannot know.
For more educational content on this topic and stories from people who don’t fit the inaccurate mold, two significant works to check out are “Hunger” by Roxane Gay and The Marginalized Voices Project video by the National Eating Disorders Association. With eating disorders having the second highest mortality rate of any mental illness, we must educate ourselves and support those struggling most.
Ashley Broadwater is a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, where she studied Public Relations in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. She’s passionate about mental health, body positivity, relationships, Halloween, and Dad jokes.