Friday, May 29, 2009

Families and eating disorders

This story in the Gloucester Daily Times makes me see red. Literally. For its seemingly complete ignorance of the genetics of not just eating disorders but also personality traits like perfectionism, ambition, etc. The story reads as if whenever something goes wrong it's got to be the family's fault.

We know that it just isn't this simple. Fellow blogger Carrie Arnold summed it up wonderfully in this post. We also know that the blam-and-shame game undercuts families, who are often the best (or only real) resource for someone with an eating disorder.

So knock it off, will you? You're not helping. In fact, you're hurting families and sufferers alike. Do some reading. Do some thinking for a change. Then try your hand at some responsible journalism.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

They don't even know they're doing it

Like most smallish local newspapers these days, the one in my town picks up a lot of copy from various sources. I'm not a fan of such content recycling, though I understand why it's done.

This item is the kind of thing I mean: a list that ran in a section called The Daily Dose, under a headline reading "Indulge, But Not Too Much." The intro copy reads "Almost everyone needs to indulge once in a while, so why not today, Memorial Day? Here are some ways to limit the damage, nutritionists say:"

Then follows a list of seven tips. Here's number 1 (the quotes are from the original):

Keep it occasional. There's nothing wrong with a little "cheating." Whether it's once a day or once a week depends on your weight, health, overall diet and activity level.

Can I tell you how many ways from here to next week this pisses me off? For starters, the assumption that everyone who reads this is on a diet. And not only are they on a diet, they're always on a diet. Hence the word cheating.

Wake up, people. Diets don't work. You know it, I know it, and researchers at UCLA said so several years ago, so it must be true. Yet this inane little piece assumes that everyone is continually on a diet. Or should be.

It's the assumption that gets me: the idea that any "indulgence" constitutes "cheating," that your entire life is supposed to be spent restricting what you eat, counting calories and fat grams. This assumption underlies 95 percent of the ongoing cultural conversation. It's so insidious we don't even name it, much less question it.

And check out the infantilizing language around this: We indulge like naughty children. We cheat like even naughtier children. When we're not being good, we're being bad. And like naughty children, we must be punished for our transgressions--in this case, by threats of the "damage" we're causing ourselves, and with warnings about how being fat will kill us.

I hated this kind of thing when I was 5. I damn well hate it now.

We don't hear much about findings like this one, which show that overweight heart attack survivors outlive thin ones, including those who follow the doctor's orders and lose weight after a heart attack.

My point is that by now, the bias against fat in every form is so widespread, so widely accepted, that to question it is the equivalent of throwing a rock through the neighbor's window: being a naughty child par excellence.

I wish the editors at my local paper had thought about this item before they plugged it into the hole on the features page*, but I really can't blame them. In 21st-century America, it's far worse to be fat than to be unfaithful to your spouse, to bilk your investors, to not give to charity. Several years ago, researcher Abigail Saguy coined the term moral panic to describe the way we talk and think about being fat in this society. I would add "unthinking, unquestioning moral panic." As items like this underscore all too well.

*In many ways, it doesn't even make sense. The list goes on to suggest that you "eat the real stuff" like ice cream (though only a half cup! Never more than that!) and "mix salt with fat" by adding peanut butter to your pretzels, but ends with the admonition, "Pretzels and baked potato chips are examples of tasty snacks without artery-clogging trans fats." Hello, how do you think we got to where we are now? It wasn't until the low-fat craze of the 1980s that Americans' weight began to rise.

Monday, May 25, 2009


This story in The Sun (admittedly not my typical reading) uses sensationalism and inflated language to hype a story that in itself is disturbing enough: The fact that in the U.K. in the last year, 44 girls ages eight and under were admitted to hospitals with anorexia or bulimia.

Think about that. Eight-year-olds have new front teeth. They might wear their hair in braids and play on a soccer (football to you across the pond) team. They're learning to spell and to multiply. They might have a best friend, someone they giggle with at lunch or on the schoolbus. They might have a favorite doll. They might love to scrapbook or draw.

Now think about a child that age in the hospital with anorexia or bulimia.

And now think about why a newspaper might report this story with this headline:

"Anorexia in girls aged 8 soars 25 per cent"

The second paragraph comments, "Shocking figures showed a huge rise in anorexia and bulimia among young girls over the last five years."

The journalist in me wants you to think about the facts: In 2003-04, 35 girls under the age of 8 were admitted to hospitals for EDs. So we're talking about a jump of 9 girls--hardly a "shocking" figure.

The advocate and mother in me wants you to think about the fact that even one girl with anorexia or bulimia is a tragedy, whether she's 8 or 18.