By: Ali Hougnou, 23, Provo UT: Founder of Project HEAL – Utah Chapter
Until recently, the faces of eating disorders found in the media consisted primarily of emaciated, young, blonde haired, Caucasian women—captivating the attention of celebrity obsessed and image focused males and females of all ages worldwide with headlines such as “SCARY SKINNY”. The messages conveyed by media regarding body image and nutrition, most times seemed contradicting to consumers, leaving us with the idea that you should avoid being “fat”, as well as avoid becoming a “skeleton” who has an eating disorder.
In its “prime”, the medias noteworthy “scary skinny” obsession made headlines around the world, where really their thought processes probably sounded something like… this-is-what-an-eating-disorder-looks-like-which-in reality-is-terrible-and-we-don’t-mean-to-glamorize-it-but-we-thought-you-should-all-see-what-eating-disorders-look-like-and-become-educated-by-purchasing-our-magazines (because obviously everyone in the media industry has a doctoral degree in psychology and are passionate about educating society about accepting your body and the truth about eating disorders…said NO ONE EVER). This focus on “scary skinny” endorsed the stigma that having an eating disorder only applies to young females who are severely underweight. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that it is uncommon for an individual diagnosed with an eating disorder to be underweight—what I am saying is that the image of what an eating disorder looks like in the media consisted of similar images that promoted this inaccurate ideology that to have an eating disorder you must be emaciated, when in reality there is NO “cookie-cutter” eating disorder. Furthermore, females are not the only ones who struggle with eating disorders, males are just as prone to battling an eating disorder, however the stigmas surrounding males having eating disorders often acts as an inhibitor for them to voice their struggles and seek professional help. At the end of the day, the most important concept to keep in mind is that ALL EATING DISORDERS ARE SERIOUS and should be treated as such, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so on.
As someone who was identified as obese in late childhood/early adolescence and was prescribed low calorie diets and a personal trainer, I viewed the “scary skinny” headlines about eating disorders as unfortunate circumstances that someone like me would never encounter. I remember the day I received the diagnosis of my eating disorder as if it were yesterday—the med student taking my vitals, trying to make small talk with me, said “So, I heard you’re here because you have an eating disorder…” I proceeded to laugh and informed the med student that she must have confused me with another patient because eating disorders are for girls who are really thin, not a former obese child who finally managed to lose the weight everyone (including doctors, peers [aka: bullies], family members, and society) had bulldozed me into doing for the last 7+ years.
Medical professionals told me losing the weight was what I needed to do to be healthy, so how is it that a new set of medical professionals are now informing me that I have taken the dieting too far? Within the past several years no one had ever mentioned the concept of taking this whole diet and weight loss thing too far— I was under the impression that my diet was a lifestyle change, which meant I was going to be on a diet for the rest of my life; therefore it would be impossible to take something that is supposed to be endless, too far.
That day of appointments would go on to change the course of my life for several years to come. Regardless of how much I argued and debated with these eating disorder treatment specialists, they all remained firm in their diagnosis and implementation of treatment plans. I was very resistant to complying with my treatment team because I was genuinely skeptical to believe that I, Ali Hougnou, former obese child, was now being diagnosed with an eating disorder where my new lifestyle changes involve increasing my caloric intake and decreasing my exercise plan, which as you may recall, is the COMPLETE opposite of what every medical professional, nutrition specialist, diet program, media message, peer and family interactions had instilled in me the majority of my life. My skepticism was understandable—what would you think if the past 7+ years of your life consisted of being incessantly shamed and tormented for your weight, surrounded by emaciated and picture-perfect celebrities in the media with vague information regarding eating disorders presenting images of skeletal young women (which I believed my figure could never resemble), …would you simply trust these new clinicians you have known for all of 3 hours who have just diagnosed you with an eating disorder? Or would you laugh at them for their total incompetency and continue to follow your diet in secrecy because those moronic clinicians were unwilling to listen and understand that ending my diet was not an option?
I suppose I missed the memo that being diagnosed with an eating disorder was not up for debate, as I spent the next several years frequenting various treatment programs, learning the hard way that continuing to fight this diagnosis would be a battle I would luckily never win. Unfortunately, regardless of how sick I became, I struggled with feeling like a fraud in treatment because I still believed that my diagnosis of then eating disorder not-otherwise specified (EDNOS) and eventually anorexia nervosa, were both the result of errors made by professionals, as I was someone who needed to diet for the rest of her life. My extreme denial of having an eating disorder only continued to exacerbate throughout the years because initially no one had taken the time to validate my past experiences or to help me understand that eating disorders impact individuals of all genders, races, ages, hair colors, body types, and so on—the image of an eating disorder that I had seen throughout various media platforms was not the universal image of an eating disorder, rather it was an example of what an eating disorder could look like.
Regardless of being underweight and suffering medical consequences as a result, that still was not enough to convince me that I was sick and it was okay to discontinue my dieting. And the truth is, it was NEVER going to be enough because that’s the nature of the eating disorder. Thankfully I had a tenacious team of professionals, family members, teachers/coaches, and friends who took the time to help me realize this, which played a vital role in saving my life. I worry that our society’s stigmatized portrayal of eating disorders prevents individuals from recognizing their own struggles with eating disorder symptoms and regrettably remain trapped in a vicious cycle of self-hatred, that seems to have no way out. There are many resources available and I encourage anyone who is exhausted fighting this battle alone to utilize those resources.
Remember that phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover”…? It can be applied to individuals who have an eating disorder—we as a society should strive to think twice before we judge who has a “serious” eating disorder and who does not (FYI: all eating disorders are SERIOUS). Eating disorders are often invisible to the “natural eye”, yet continuing to promote a universal image of what an eating disorder look’s like forces many sufferers to continue to struggle silently, drenched in feelings of shame. An eating disorder is a mental illness, not a medical illness—the conflict with food and physical consequences experienced are merely the external symptoms of a much deeper, internal battle.
In our society’s impetuous decision to declare a “war on fat” we have adopted a dichotomous thought process within the topics of physical health and nutrition, where the image of an eating disorder is often displayed in a manner of extremes, which may influence how we as individuals define what is an eating disorder and what is not. I hope that in sharing my experiences to enlighten individuals of all ages and professions to assess their current ideologies regarding eating disorders and make any necessary modifications to create a broadened perspective that allows for individuals struggling to, vary externally, while suffering (to some extent) similarly internally. By expanding our perception of eating disorders we create room for individuals who do not fit our previous “cookie-cutter” concept of eating disorders, to free themselves from any shame of being judged by others and obtain the help they need to overcome this horrible illness.