November 9, 2012

Love your body joins "don't worry be happy" as treatment for serious mental illness

I get it. I know why the public thinks being unhappy with one's body leads to eating disorders and eating disorders are a sign of not sufficiently loving one's body. As silly ideas go, this one is plausible. It SEEMS obvious that if we could just get young people to love and appreciate their unique and diverse bodies they would be less unhappy with their appearance and less likely to become obsessed with the issue and start eating in a disordered way. It's logical.

It is also wrong.

Let's try on a few analogies "for size."

Do we increase happy content in movies and TV to stop depression?

Ban conspiracy movies to prevent schizophrenia?

Do we set the pictures a bit off kilter on TV, mess up people's rooms, and show people being unhygienic to reduce obsessive compulsive disorders?

Why, then, do we continue to see eating disorders in this way?

Why is so much of the research and media about eating disorders following this childish logic?

Dear public: Eating disorders are tremendously serious mental illnesses whose symptoms of body image distress and dysmorphia and disordered eating bear little resemblance and scarcely correspond to environmental pressures about appearance. Most young kids and those not brought up with these values who get eating disorders don't even HAVE those symptoms but they still get the disorder.

We can't continue to address eating disorders with messages about loving our body and unicorns and butterflies about self-acceptance. Those messages, while important and helpful for the general public, are actually harming eating disorder patients by sending the message "if we could only convince these poor overwhelmed kids how beautiful they are they will be okay," which has a corollary: "You can't swallow toothpaste residue for terror of calories because you've taken the message of thinness too far." We're blaming mentally ill people (children, most of them) for giving themselves fears and obsessions and compulsions out of vanity gone amuck.

We wouldn't do this with bipolar or schizophrenia or autism because we GET IT that these are not conscious decisions or influences. When we wake up as a society and GET THIS about eating disorders we will, rightly, be ashamed.

7 comments:

  1. You knew I would LOVE this post, Laura :) xx

    ReplyDelete
  2. We are kindred spirits, dear Cathy: kindred spirits!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Sorry to be late to the party but EXACTLY right. xx

    ReplyDelete
  4. A friend of mine points out by email that the way people look at this is like smoking and cancer. They see the cigarettes as dangerous, that prevention will cause fewer people to smoke, and less cancer. They see the love your body as a sort of protective public health measure, an antidote.

    I explained that the analogy doesn't work for me. Smoking actually does demonstrably increase the risk for cancer and public health messages against smoking work. With eating disorders we don't know that this is true and we don't know if preventive messages work. We do know that barriers to getting effective treatment are all influenced by what we think causes EDs. The public, the patient, the family, and most treatment providers generally believe EDs are a matter of choice and vanity. The love your body message feeds those ideas.

    Again, we wouldn't do this with schizophrenia and there is a reason.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I liked the comment from Dr. Cindy Bulik in Carrie Arnold's fabulous book. She said that body dissatisfaction and body dysmorphia/EDs may not even be on the same continuum. She compared a wife saying to her husband, "Did you hear something?" to the voices in the head of a schizophrenic. Not on the same yardstick. I think I agree with that. I would hazard a guess that people with AN have body dissatisfaction PRE-illness at the same rate as the general population.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Another personal favorite analogy if mine - and one equally applicable to the "media made me do it" theory of eating disorders etiology: do you think you can cause type 1 diabetes by looking at pictures of cheeseburgers?" (attribution: Steve Nemirow)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Ack! My eyes! My eyes!

    PS, Colleen, I have come to the same thinking: not on the same continuum and the confusion about that is causing untold harm to the very cause people care about. I know people feel diminished when we take the profound MEANING they experience around the disorder but this matters because once someone has the disorder it is imperative that they not be treated as if they just thought their way in and can think their way out. I know it is revolutionary but I believe it is probably true: no matter what the strength of the motivation to not eat that first bite it just doesn't seem to matter to the course of the disorder.

    ReplyDelete