National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is worth more than a social media post

One week to recognize a lifetime struggle

Melina Khan and Emily DiSalvo

Every year, the last week of February is observed as National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Organized by the National Eating Disorders Association, each year has a different theme to raise awareness about the dangers of eating disorders as well as the importance of treatment.

This year, the theme is “Every body has a seat at the table.” In a year in which our tables are a lot farther apart, this theme feels both fitting and ironic. It’s also a reminder to make sure whoever is seated at our table is met with compassion and understanding.

That’s why it’s important to take this week as an opportunity to learn and not just passively repost something about it on your Instagram story.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, with one death every 52 minutes as a direct result of an eating disorder, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. People who suffer from eating disorders often restrict what they eat, purge food that they have eaten or over-exercise to burn off calories. This can lead to extreme weight loss and damage to internal organs.

Infographic from Michael Clement

That’s why it is so important to understand that eating disorders are not a trendy diet or a way to get skinny fast. They are dangerous, deadly and can last a lifetime.

As two people with first-hand experience of the consuming and crippling effects of eating disorders and disordered eating, these are the things that we feel are the most important for everyone to become aware of and carry with you through the rest of your year.

First, do not glorify weight loss or excessive exercise. When you talk about people who aren’t eating a healthy amount or are exercising too much, this makes people with eating disorders feel very uncomfortable. Part of recovering from an eating disorder is positive self-talk. Hearing someone talk about dieting and burning calories in such a positive way can make a person with an eating disorder consider restricting what they eat or resorting to old disordered habits.

Seemingly harmless comments like, “Wow I should really go on a diet,” or “I eat way too much,” can be difficult for a person with an eating disorder to hear, especially while eating. Meals are something that a person with an eating disorder puts a lot of consideration into, so it is insensitive to bring up eating less during a meal.

Reframe the idea of skinny as beautiful. Many people with eating disorders obsess over other people’s bodies — especially bodies that they perceive as skinnier. If you know someone who is unnaturally skinny, like a celebrity, try to avoid talking about this person as if their skinniness equates to beauty. Find realistic role models to emulate.

Learn how to offer support to someone enduring an eating disorder. Every person may need a unique kind of aid, so understanding the different ways you can support them is important. Do not force them to eat, but instead encourage them to make healthy choices and seek professional help. Telling them that they are already skinny isn’t going to help — instead remind them about the importance food has in keeping us alive and well. Find healthy ways to distract them such as playing a game, making a craft or watching a movie. Avoid activities that include food or exercise.

Lastly, do not comment on someone else’s eating habits. If someone in your life is exhibiting abnormal eating habits, or even if they are eating more than normal, don’t say anything. You have no idea how that comment could affect them so it is better to not to bring it up. If you are concerned about their well-being, submit a CARE report at Quinnipiac University or seek a trusted adult, but do not take it into your own hands to give eating advice.

With all of this in mind, every person struggling with an eating disorder will have different experiences. If they seem uncomfortable with a situation or a conversation, ask how you can be more sensitive.

College is a challenging, and often toxic, environment to be in eating disorder recovery. There are stages, including the possibility of relapse, which means you can help support someone with disordered eating habits just by being mindful of your own actions and comments.

Especially now, during COVID-19, the anxieties of everyday life can amplify the challenges of being in or working toward recovery. Eating is difficult because of the inability to do so while wearing a mask, and everyone is consuming more meals alone. Without the social aspect of eating, those who already have disordered habits may resort to old tendencies in an isolating time.

It’s also important to be aware of your own misconceptions about eating disorders. Remember that eating disorders do not discriminate based on gender. Males are just as likely to experience an eating disorder as females. Furthermore, females are more likely to seek help than males, and health practitioners are more likely to consider an eating disorder diagnosis in females than males.

Data shows that 95% of those with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25. That means that you could have a friend, roommate or classmate struggling and you may not even know it. Your sphere of influence is a lot greater than you realize, so it’s important to use your voice for good. Educate yourself on the dangers of eating disorders, the ways you can support those who are struggling and be aware of the implications of your actions.

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is just seven days, but for those who face an eating disorder, the implications can last a lifetime. Before posting on social media, learn more about the reality of these illnesses so you can be an active support system for someone struggling.