According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), up to 24 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the United States. Eating disorders also have the highest premature fatality rate of any psychiatric disease, not even including those with eating disorders that commit suicide to escape the body or illness.
Marya Hornbacher, bestselling author and award-winning journalist who herself has recovered from an eating disorder, came to Albion College last Thursday to give a lecture about how today’s society has influenced the prevalence of eating disorders.
Hornbacher opened the lecture with a vivid excerpt from her first book, Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, in which she describes purging as a nine-year-old in pigtails. When asked about this book, Hornbacher confessed that her original intent was never a memoir. She had originally wished to write an academic book since there was so little literature on the topic of eating disorders. With a push from her editor, though, she shared her story because it was a story that needed to be told.
“I think it was important for a real person story to be out there,” Hornbacher said. “There were so many of these glamorized Dr. Phil stories and none that showed the true reality of living with an eating disorder.”
So what, then, is the reality of living with an eating disorder? Hornbacher made jarring references to her time in rehabilitation centers, but not everyone is diagnosed and receives treatment. The reality is that eating disorders fall on a spectrum ranging from the stereotypical clinical manifestation to the socially accepted norms of compulsive eating and exercising behaviors. We treat the cultural madness as different and somehow better than that of the individual, when in reality we are standing in the same place. This, Hornbacher says, is the crux of the entire situation.
“When we choose not to question the phenomena [of self-abusive behaviors and mental distortions]…we choose not to change it,” Hornbacher said. “By default, then, we choose to perpetuate the syndrome, both in society and, more specifically, in ourselves.”
Zach Kribs, Mason sophomore, agrees that we as a culture have become desensitized to the entire issue. What he enjoyed most about Hornbacher’s lecture was how real she made the issue.
“I think oftentimes we exist simultaneously with these eating disorders, but we really have no idea about their prevalence,” Kribs said. “And really, unless you’re personally involved or know someone who is, you can never truly understand how much impact they have on the individual.”
Hornbacher pointed out that we as a society normalize the behaviors and attitudes that contribute to the development of eating disorders. We read magazines depicting too-thin models and buy each new food item labeled “skinny” or “fat-free” because culture tells us that beauty is the most important quality we can have. Our bodies become something we have, a possession that needs to be shaped and molded in a certain way, instead of something we are.
Eating disorders are glorified then, says Hornbacher, because individuals who suffer from them are able to master the conflict between the standards of control and consumption held in society. We are taught to have control over ourselves while at the same time we are bombarded with ads urging us to consume. Our need for control has warped one of the oldest cultural rituals of sharing a meal because we are too concerned with not-eating to enjoy it.
The change Hornbacher advises to address the higher prevalence of eating disorders is that we must question many of the assumptions we hold and choose differently than we have in the past. Culturally, we are taught certain ethics and values and then taught not to question them, but challenging them is crucial to remedy the problem. Only through making conscious choices to believe in something more than society tells us can we hope to enact change.
Dr. Drew Christopher, professor of psychology, believes that brave individuals like Hornbacher can help remedy the problem as well.
“There needs to be more public acknowledgement that [eating disorders] are a real problem,” Christopher said. “It’s important for more people like Marya to step out and describe what it’s like to have an eating disorder so that we can better understand them.”
In closing, Hornbacher talks of a run-in she had with a fellow patient in which they were both struck by the fact that they didn’t die. They had made it because they realized that the possibility of healing lay in choosing it.
“We made a choice,” Hornbacher said. “The choice was to finally let go of the bars of the cage we had built and walk out. The door was open all along.”
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