Tuesday, February 24, 2009
As a professor of journalism, I read a lot of media. And some days, what I read makes me feel downright ashamed of my industry. Today is one of those day, and the triggering story is this one, from the Washington Post.
The piece is written by a young woman who discusses the power of a parent's words to trigger an eating disorder. I have nothing against the writer; it's a heartfelt and I'm sure honest piece of writing. The writer attributes her three-year course of bulimia to a critical comment about her weight from her mother. The piece goes on to list "resources" for parents, presumably to prevent them from doing such things in the future.
I'm not defending this mother's comment. Far from it. I grew up in a family where comments like these were fairly commonplace; I know how hurtful they can be. My problem is with the editors of the Post, who did not do their homework. They accept this premise as if it were 100% true and present no other point of view. There's nothing in the story to contradict the notion that a parent's comment can in fact trigger an eating disorder. There's nothing on the heritability or biological roots of eating disorders, on the neurochemistry of starvation and purging. Readers are left with the sense that a stray comment, especially from a mother (always the mother), can cause the nightmare of an eating disorder.
Had the editors of the Post looked at any of the recent research on eating disorders, they might have been inspired to add another perspective to this young woman's story. Had they stopped to think about it they might have realized that if a parent's words were truly that dangerous, we'd have many more cases of eating disorders to contend with (because God knows parents say hurtful, stupid things all the time, myself included).
The irony is that this piece ran in a package along with an excellent piece written by Carrie Arnold, whose blog Ed-Bites and books are both well-researched and moving. Arnold's piece is informative, but its headline and deck--"Extreme Measures: When Kids' Size Is a Problem, Parents Seek New Solutions"--written by the editors, are misleading, possibly deliberately so. Since when are anorexia and bulimia a problem of a child's size? Hello, do the editors here know anything at all about eating disorders? Do they not care? This kind of thing perpetuates the destructive myths around eating disorders--that they are "about" appearance, that they aren't serious health issues, that they happen only to the children of overinvolved and overcritical parents.
Fact: Eating disorders happen in all kinds of families--rich, poor, white, black, Latino, overinvolved, neglectful, respectful, authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, large, small, functional, dysfunctional.
Fact: Eating disorders are complex and multifactorial. We don't understand their origins. We do understand that blaming parents is both unhelpful and unhealthy--and often untrue.
Fact: The family is almost always a child's best chance at recovery.
The Washington Post's concept of families seems about as outdated--and harmful--as the photo above.
I shouldn't be seeing red right now. I should be used to this. Somehow I never get used to it.