Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Seeing red

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.


Carrie Arnold said...

FWIW, Harriet, I didn't choose the head and deck for the story. My suggestion was "Treating Anorexia: Food as Medicine." Part of the reason they were chosen is (I'm guessing) that the AN story is also running alongside a story about an obese teen boy who had Lap Band surgery.

Carrie Arnold said...

I probably should also add that I didn't know a thing about the Lap Band piece until today.

However, I am pleased with the way the story came out.

Harriet said...

Don't worry, Carrie, I know that. Writers never get to choose the hed and dek. Your piece was good. Too bad about the rest.

Kate Harding said...

Harriet, I hope you'll submit some version of this as an op-ed.

Harriet said...

Dunno. This is probably their token eating disorders package for the year.

Don't mind me. I'm cranky.

Anonymous said...

I hope you will at least send them a letter that says this, Harriet. They need to hear it. I don't know why they have to make this about size, of all things. What characterizes anorexia nervosa is not looking in a mirror and seeing ribs; it's looking in a mirror and seeing ribs and being scared to death you won't be able to lose another 5 or 10 or 15 or 20 pounds because you think you're seeing a fat body.

Anonymous said...

I read Carrie's story, and it seems like that story *is* the information that balances the mother-bulimia piece. It sounds like the package included all aspects of food, culture, illness, etiology and current discussion on all of the above. If the package only focused on biological issues, it would be biased in not addressing those whose experience is ... what it is. It would seem Carrie's story would stand alone as perspective. It's tough to be a journalist when a topic hits close to home.

Harriet said...

Yes, I know that Carrie's piece is intended as the "balance." But that piece, as good as it is, doesn't include any of the new research on eating disorders. It does a marvelous job of describing the Maudsley approach. But that's not good enough in my eyes. And yes, this is a subject I feel strongly enough. But I also feel strongly about good journalism.

Gwen said...

Thanks for the link to that amazing article (and blog! Carrie is an amazing writer and an inspiration!). I get angry, too, when I consistently hear people, especially parents, spouting ridiculous ideas about leaving a child alone when fighting such a horrendous illness. It blows my mind to think that people still think this way about eating disorders. These are the same parents who would do ANYTHING to get their child off of drugs. But for some reason they are afraid to "interfere" when starving and purging are involved. I also agree with you that parents are not to blame when it comes to EDs. I had an eating disorder from the age of 14 to the age of 26. I've accepted that my tendency towards this illness is genetic. My parents' words can be a trigger, certainly, just like anyone's words can. Thanks for this wonderful, insightful blog.

AngryGrayRainbows said...

I've honestly been chewing on this post for days (maybe a week)... ;) I love it when something gets me thinking!

As a survivor of child abuse, my knee-jerk reaction is to nip at anything that even LOOKS invalidating to someone who was treated unfairly... not even abusively.

However, Harriet, I see your point. It just took me a while to cool off enough to think it through.

My thinking goes... if this woman was triggering into an ED from one comment... it wasn't the comment that did it. There was something else going on for ONE COMMENT to be fixated on to the point that it is blamed for an entire mental illness (ED).

What could that something else be... who knows. Like you say in your post, EDs are complex. Even while I know I was abused without question... I also know that I developed an ED for more complex reasons than just the abuse. Perhaps, the abuse allowed my genetic ED switch to become vulnerable to flipping on? I know society's thinness obession sure didn't help. Both of my biological parents have had (and probably still do) eating disorders, so there could be nature as well as nurture factors at play with my ED history. Who knows...

I think some things are just no one's fault. While my parents are responsible for all the horrible abuse I went through, even I cannot blame them for the ED... and I don't blame myself either. Sometimes life just happens. Contrary to popular belief -not everything is someone's fault.

Honestly, I wonder if shoddy journalism like this is put together simply to make people mad and buy a subscription to keep up with the drama...

That is my pessimistic theory lately anyway.