Jennifer | Beyond The Stereotypes
This is the line I used the most when explaining what it’s like to have an eating disorder. It’s easy, and it somehow encapsulates the irony of it all – the self implicated pain, struggle, and weakness.
But no matter how all-encompassing this line felt, there was always some missing element that I could never seem to communicate about my recovery story. That’s because an eating disorder is never that simple. It’s never just about the dieting or the looks, and it almost always is rooted in a complicated mixture of fear, self-doubt, and insecurity.
However, masked behind the persona of a teen girl, getting that message through to other people was never an easy task. Today, teens across the country struggle with building healthy relationships with food, sometimes culminating in dangerous eating disorders. And only to add – decades of media and diet propaganda have conditioned us to pass these struggles off as vanity issues and a pursuit of “greater beauty”, which only poses another barrier for struggling teens to break through in order to receive help and treatment.
And this was my biggest personal challenge.
Struggles Met with Skepticism
For the longest time, I was afraid to talk to the adults in my life about my eating disorder. I was scared that my struggles would be invalidated by the single idea that teens hear too much: Teen girls don’t get eating disorders – they just restrict to get skinny.
I was scared of being accused, and I was scared of being invalidated. So, I hid. I didn’t talk about my struggles, and the vicious cycle of self destruction continued. When I was finally confronted by my parents about my health, I hesitated to open up. My feeble appearance was enough to cause concern in my Mom who eagerly asked why I wasn’t eating as much. But while this moment should’ve been one of comfort and closure, it ended up feeling more like an instance of confession and embarrassment. Society had conditioned me to believe that me sharing my experiences would only ever be met with shame, and that’s exactly how I felt: ashamed. Ashamed to be labeled as a “teen who just wanted to get skinny” and ashamed of the hurt I’d inflicted on myself in the process.
In that moment, I vividly remember tearing up at the thought of explaining my eating disorder to her and the concern that drew up on her face. Looking back, I was extremely fortunate to have a kind mother who I felt safe talking to. However, it’s important to understand that not every teen does. This, coupled with the fear of invalidation is enough to prevent teens from seeking comfort, help or treatment, all at once. And I wish it wasn’t that way.
To combat this stigma around how eating disorders could stereotypically look on a teen, we have to start by setting new norms. These include new norms around the way we talk about eating disorders. We can take a first step by understanding that eating disorders aren’t all superficial, but in fact, are deep-rooted, and oftentimes highly emotional, experiences for individuals. So by opening the door to more open mindedness to what eating disorders can look like, we’re cultivating a safer space for teens to make their voices heard.
Stories Gone Unnoticed
In order to truly make these societal changes, we need to understand why they’re urgently needed in the first place. Listen to this – 1 in 5 kids today, including children and teens, have an eating disorder. But in a world where teens are discouraged to share their stories and their struggles are passed off as “just a phase” or “wanting to be skinnier”, it’s no wonder that eating disorders have flown under the radar as a trivial, unimportant matter. This drastically undermines the actual scale at which eating disorders are impacting teens, leaving many undetected, untreated, and uncared for.
I never truly realized the depth of this problem until around last Winter. As production for the school play, Legally Blonde, was well underway, I remember chatting with a few of my friends who were in the show’s costume crew. In particular, she was in charge of styling Elle in the upcoming show. But as we chatted about which pink skirt looked better with which pair of heels, the topics of body image and diet made their way into the conversation.
Members of the cast were worried about the way they would look in costumes. They talked of hitting the gym more to get fit for the show and even cutting some of their favorite foods just to look slimmer in the costumes. It was at this moment that it dawned on me. I wasn’t alone. To my surprise, one friend opened up to their struggle with an eating disorder leading up to the play. For the next half hour, we talked about it – the struggle.
I was happy that this was the first time I had been able to connect with teens sharing my struggle. But what worried me was the way each of those friends had hidden their eating disorders so well.
If it weren’t for this conversation, I wouldn’t have known they were struggling, and I probably would never have found out. A piece of my heart broke hearing that some of them didn’t know who or how they could get help. And it hurt me even more to hear that they were scared to get help out of fear of embarrassment or stereotyping. It’s these moments that have me revisit the painful idea that stigmas surrounding teens and eating disorders truly have become a barrier between a hurting teen and treatment. But every day, by taking smaller actions to raise awareness around the realities of teen eating disorders, I fight and hope for a day when no teen’s struggle goes unnoticed, unheard, or unseen.
Look Beyond The Stereotypes
Eating disorders are scary… for anyone. And it’s even scarier to think that teens, more than any other age demographic, are grappling at the hands of them. While it may seem that there is little you can do to help each individual that is struggling, we can all collectively make a change by shifting the societal norms that prevent these teens from feeling safe speaking out.
Today, I urge everyone to look beyond the stereotypes of vanity and deep into the emotions that grapple onto anyone going through an eating disorder, because the fear, the pain, and the internal struggle they battle every day are representative of so much more than “just wanting to be skinny”. And to invalidate layers of pain, is to war they continue to fight every day with themselves. Look deeper and understand that the story is so much more complicated for those affected, especially teens.
Jennifer Yu is a student at Chelmsford High School using her personal experience as a prime motivator to raise awareness for teen eating disorders. With hopes of reaching teens with similar struggles, she founded the All Bodies Coalition, a student-led organization breaking the stigmas around teen eating disorders today.