Social Justice

It’s about time we see eating disorders as social justice issues

When we look at eating disorders as a social justice issue, the focus isn’t just on the cause, but also on the impact of sufferers, and the barriers to recovery.

Hunger is a biological cry for sustenance – a feedback loop that shouts into the void of an empty stomach and gurgles and twists in discomfort, as a brilliant mind commands endless energy.

And in the face of a society gone mad, a brilliant mind tells hunger that it is a lie.

When we think of eating disorders, the primary thought is that they often stem from a diet gone wrong. Perhaps, they are even a dangerous cocktail of vanity and mental illness. Society pictures cheerleaders squeezing into size zero jeans with their hip bones visible over their waistbands, and think that the solution lies in inpatient programs with therapy, regimented meals, and supervision.

This image of eating disorders is symptom-based. It focuses on the effects of eating disorders, but not the macro scale that considers the cause and result of them. This view is clinical and ignores the truth of the matter, that eating disorders at their core, are a symptom of a broken society.

Eating disorders are allowed to fester in society because of two related afflictions: sizeism and diet culture.

Sizeism is the discrimination against a person because of their body fat percentage. It feeds the assumption that people in larger bodies are unhealthy. Sizeism also extends into other socioeconomic categories. According to the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination, overweight people make on average $1.25 per hour less than standard sized people.

These people may also face discrimination in the doctor’s office, and feel constant pressure to lose weight from friends and family. Even something as simple as buying an airline ticket can be a silent damnation of their size.

While larger, bodied people feel pressure to lose weight, smaller people often feel compelled to maintain their small size. The status of a small body often keeps portion sizes minimal, and exercise levels high.

The second part of our social environment that allows eating disorders to thrive is diet culture. Diet culture drives the morality behind food and food-related behaviors. Like sizeism, it rewards thinness, but it also rewards food choices. It promotes eating “healthy” foods, over “bad” foods. This is the main drive behind many eating disorders, like orthorexia, and causes people to have dysfunctional relationships with food.

A perfect example of this toxic environment is the rebranding that the Weight Watchers brand is currently taking. Weight Watchers is attempting to distance itself from the “weight” part of its name and define itself as a wellness brand. Focusing on Wellness, they intend to become safe for all – piggybacking on the warm definition of “wellness” that is not weight loss goals or a pants size – but feeling healthy.

Their image of healthy, of course, would not include superheavyweight powerlifters, or Olympic weightlifters who are capable of incredible feats with their bodies.

When we look at eating disorders as a social justice issue, the focus isn’t just on the cause, but also on the impact of sufferers, and the barriers to recovery. While our society seems to do nothing but encourage, and then demonize eating disorders – recovery is often a difficult process.

For many people, the round-the-clock support that is often required to support someone coming from the brink of an eating disorder is often unattainable. Moreso, those who are suffering from an eating disorder may not be able to take the time off work to seek full treatment strategies – such as inpatient or long-term therapy sessions.

For the one in three eating disorder sufferers who identify as male, the stereotype of a female patient may make it difficult for them to access recovery options. Nonbinary sufferers may also struggle with the identification of having an eating disorder, causing a delay in recognizing that they’re suffering from a potentially life-threatening diagnosis.

Because of the pressures that push people into eating disorders, and the difficulty in recovery, there is a greater socioeconomic drive that causes people to fall prey to this insidious disorder and then stay there. Eating disorders will continue to be a social health issue as long as diet culture is allowed to thrive. 

People need to fight back, and feel comfortable in there’s no shame in their bodies. And, there’s no shame in those bodies being hungry.