It’s Not (Just) About Weight

Posted by on Jun 17, 2014

If you know even just slightly more about eating disorders than which celebrities have been stricken by one, then you probably know that eating disorders have a myriad of causes.

Society, however, tends to zero in on the obsession with weight loss, which gives the impression that eating disorders, at their core, are exclusively about the pursuit of a “thin ideal.” This assumption might come in part from a general cultural allegiance to that ideal, an allegiance that manifests in fad diets, a preponderance of film stars and models who glamorize thinness, and the overuse of Photoshop to mold even healthy-looking bodies into that ideal.

To be sure, that bias does seduce its unfair share of women and girls (and men, for that matter) who chase a more concrete and popular ideal in place of self-acceptance and self-worth. Sadly, too many of them end up crossing into ED territory (in the United States, an estimated 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from an eating disorder at some time in their lives). But eating disorders are not just about weight. For many—myself included—eating disorders can in fact have very little to do with weight.

weight and Norman Rockwell's "Girl at Mirror"

Norman Rockwell’s “Girl at Mirror”

The short definition my husband and I go with is that eating disorders are an outward sign of an inward unrest. The seed is planted long before the first time someone decides to “just lose a few pounds.” Those symptoms are rooted in some moment (or moments) that life suddenly felt uncomfortably out of control. Perhaps the social pressure of looking a certain way became unbearable. Perhaps you found relief from a trauma or loss by escaping into an ED-induced numbness. Perhaps chaos in your life made you crave some way—any way—to control just one aspect of your life. And where else can you find a greater sense of control and autonomy than what you do or don’t put into your body?

Regardless of their origin, eating disorders stem from that inward unrest. Weight loss or gain is merely the manifestation of that unrest—a symptom of an underlying dis-ease. The societal stigma that pegs eating disorders as a form of extreme dieting or, even worse, purely vanity-driven only serves to spread misinformation and deepen the shame that many ED sufferers already feel. To start having more a more productive conversation about this issue— for the sake of both ED sufferers and society at large—it’s critical to untether the disease from undue focus on weight and numbers. We must address the source of the illness, and not merely its symptoms.


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3 Comments

  1. I have tried so hard to explain this to other people… it seems that you have to live it in order to understand it. Most people thinks I am “this” because” I envy the model’s bodies… I don’t even look at those bodies!!! I don’t even care about my clothes!!! However, there is something… that unrest is pushing me to lose weight.

    Very good blog, congrats!

    • Hi Maria,

      Thanks so much for your comment 🙂 Yes, weight is a tough issue. Like you said, it gives people this idea that eating disorders are trendy things — like they are extreme diets that result in celebrity-thin bodies. But I’m completely with you insofar as wanting to “look like a model” rarely, if ever, crosses my mind. To this day, I still can’t explain the relentless urge to lose weight.

      This also causes some really dangerous misconceptions. If there is too much emphasis on weight, then people with EDs who are at a “normal” weight might get disregarded. Even worse, these people themselves might feel they are “not sick enough” to deserve treatment.

      Weight is a part of eating disorders, and needs to be monitored throughout treatment, but it is not the entirety of eating disorders. As you know, there is so, so much more.

      Thank you again for reading 🙂 Come back soon!
      Joanna