Wednesday, February 29, 2012

more important than pinktober

Happy Eating Disorder Awareness Week! I didn’t realize it was that time again until a breast cancer-related Twitter acquaintance—we had bonded over disgust at a moving truck emblazoned with pink ribbons—mentioned it. (Go unpack that sentence for awhile.)

The annual campaign, spearheaded by the National Eating Disorders Association, seeks to educate the public about anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Their official clinical forms affect a small percentage of the population, but I would argue that no female exits adolescence without a taste (sorry) of eating disordered behavior. The week gets less attention than Pinktober, both because it’s a quarter as long and because statistically fewer people suffer from eating disorders than from breast cancer. It’s also less socially acceptable, somehow, to discuss mental illnesses than it is to discuss reproductive organs even with the deep, Puritanical aversion to women’s bodies that persists in American discourse (the current contraception wars and the vaginal ultrasound bill presented in Virginia, following up on the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s attempt to defund Planned Parenthood are just the most recent crop of examples).

Both boobs and mental illness need to be acceptable public topics, and I’d argue that Eating Disorder Awareness Week is even more vital than Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Most everyone with the misfortune to be in the breast cancer club, as patient or doctor, agrees that the pink vomit should be replaced with targeted fundraising for scientific and clinical research. EVERYONE is aware of breast cancer. We couldn’t be more aware. Spending money on awareness feels insulting to patients undergoing treatments that would have been recognizable to their grandmothers.

Eating disorders, on the other hand, remain misunderstood. There are a couple good writers who have published accessible work about the realities of the disease, Harriet Brown and Amy Liu among them. But without a close connection to someone suffering from an eating disorder, most people still seem to think it’s an extreme diet. Not so. Sufferers would eat if they could. It’s a tricky, insidious condition more akin to alcoholism—a complex interaction of genes and environment, manageable with comprehensive treatment and then continued vigilance. Until this is a discursive given, slather on the awareness. Nobody should die of hunger, be it from lack of access to food or lack of ability to eat it.

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