“If you develop an eating disorder when you are already thin, to begin with, you go to the hospital. If you develop an eating disorder when you are not thin, to begin with, you are a success story. So when I evaporated, of course, everyone congratulated me on getting healthy.” These resounding words were spoken by poet Blythe Baird, when she was reciting her poem “When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny” at the 2015 National Poetry Slam. Her words shine light on yet another hidden group in the eating disorder community, overshadowed by the stereotypical face of eating disorders that is primarily young, white, skinny, and female. Moreover, referencing the third sentence of Baird’s poem, we as a society contribute to the exacerbation of disordered eating in overweight, obese, or even normal weight individuals by complementing and encouraging the weight loss, before inquiring about its cause.
A study led by Jason M. Nagata from the University of California San Francisco revealed that overweight and obese individuals were twice as likely to engage in disordered eating behaviors (binge eating, meal skipping, fasting, vomiting). However, overweight and obese individuals were also half as likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder, because of the common misconception that only underweight individuals can be affected by eating disorders. Additionally, a harrowing finding made by Mayo Clinic psychologist Leslie Sim revealed that there was a nine-month delay in the diagnosis of individuals who were once overweight or obese, in comparison to individuals who were underweight or of normal weight.
Overweight and obese females aren’t the ones at risk as their male counterparts are perhaps even more overlooked. After 16-year-old Zachary Haines was classified as obese following a physical examination, he became preoccupied with extreme exercise routines and calorie intake. While Haines’s preoccupations allowed him to lose 100-pounds, they also severely diminished his physical well-being, causing him abdominal pains, irritability, and a lowered pulse rate. Despite these ailments, it would be more than a year before Haines was hospitalized and diagnosed with an eating disorder. According to his mom, Haines’s eating disorder was dismissed by specialists including “a primary-care physician, two endocrinologists, a liver specialist, and nutrition experts” all of whom applauded the weight loss, instead of addressing the glaring health problems and the exact manner in which the 100-pounds were lost.
An important issue that Haines’s story brings to light is that of positive reinforcement and its effect on individuals with eating disorders. In Baird’s poem, there is a line that reads:
Girls at school who never spoke to me before stopped me in the hallway to ask how I did it. I say, “I am sick.” They say, “No, you’re an inspiration.” How could I not fall in love with my illness? With becoming the kind of silhouette people are supposed to fall in love with? Why would I ever want to stop being hungry when anorexia was the most interesting thing about me?
While it may come from a well-meaning place, positive reinforcement can at times be a toxic source of encouragement for individuals with eating disorders. In Baird’s case, the positive reinforcement created the illusion that her anorexia was the key to leading a life of intrigue and popularity. Similarly, in Haines’s case, encouragement from doctors further promoted his behavior and thus exacerbated his health.
We live in a society where skinny equates to pretty. I hear the phrase “Did you lose weight? You look so good!” at least three times a week, from well-meaning friends and family members. It is hard not to resist the temptation to skip a meal here and there and push myself a little harder at the gym, when doing so comes with the promise of beauty and acknowledgment. To be completely honest, I have pushed myself to lose weight by going without food or by pushing a 1-hour workout to a 2 hours and while I did lose weight, I wasn’t happy. Being hungry, being nauseous, being dizzy to the point of fainting did not make me happy. We need to break out of the mindset that skinny equates to pretty. We need to become aware of the fact that a person doesn’t have to be underweight in order to have an eating disorder. So the next time you notice that someone has lost a significant amount of weight, ask them how they lost weight and strive to encourage healthy weight management.
Button Poetry. (2015, November 3). Blythe Baird – “When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny” (NPS 2015) [Video File]. Retrieved November 14, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16Tb_bZZDv0
“Eating Disorders and Obesity: How are They Related?” (2009, March 6 ). NEDIC. Retrieved November 14, 2018, from http://nedic.ca/eating-disorders-and-obesity-how-are-they-related.
Miller, A. (2014, December). Losing weight, but not healthy. American Psychological Association. Retrieved November 14, 2018, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/12/losing-weight.aspx.
Monaco, K. (2018, June 13). Eating Disorders Common in Overweight, Obese Young Adults. MedPage Today. Retrieved November 14, 2018, from https://www.medpagetoday.com/primarycare/eatingdisorders/73467.
Muller, R. (2015, March 26). Anorexia Affects More Men Than Previously Thought. Psychology Today. Retrieved November 14, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-about-trauma/201503/anorexia-affects-more-men-previously-thought.