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Discussions about body positivity and eating disorders on-campus

At the end of February, Mills athletic training offered an Instagram challenge called #LoveYourSelfie as a celebration of their Body Acceptance Week. The challenge encouraged student athletes to share and celebrate positive feelings about self care and body image. The dates of this campaign coincided with National Eating Disorder Awareness week, sponsored by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).

Seeing these two events take place in the same week sparked an interesting conversation about mental health and self care, the difference between body positivity and eating disorder awareness, and the lack of on-campus discussion or visible support for people recovering from or living with an eating disorder.

While body positivity is essential in countering patriarchal, Eurocentric beauty standards, fighting weight stigma and diet culture, it is not a sufficient response or equivalent to eating disorder treatment. If the trainers’ intent was for these weeks of recognition to align, we feel it’s necessary to acknowledge that negative body image and eating disorders are related, but very different experiences. Eating disorders are multifaceted, complex, and anyone can find themselves in the thick of it—simply changing your mindset or scheduling a bit more time for self care isn’t going to cut it. In fact, this is not an issue unique to eating disorders—positivity is often suggested as a solution to other illnesses such as depression and anxiety, and this mindset is harmful. Eating disorders also have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, meaning that timely treatment is absolutely essential.

The Athletics Trainers Instagram challenge was fantastic for encouraging body acceptance—in a culture that is obsessed with weight and diet, every person benefits from spending some time appreciating their own body and building up mental habits for thinking around harmful body perfectionism and focusing on self care. NEDA also recognizes the importance of promoting body positivity in order to prevent eating disorders from developing. Being judgmental of our own appearances seems to be a fairly ubiquitous experience, but experiencing a clinical eating disorder is a less common phenomenon.

The difference between promoting body acceptance and promoting awareness of eating disorders is critical; it might be the practice of an Instagram challenge to help remind us all to treat ourselves and our bodies with unconditional care, but it can take years of intensive work in therapy and with doctors to overcome from the physical and psychological damage done by a clinical eating disorder. Often, those affected spend time in varying levels of treatment in hospitals or rehabilitation centers.

National Eating Disorder Awareness week is sponsored by NEDA each year, typically in the beginning of March, and the aim is to decrease the stigma surrounding discussing eating disorders and breaking down some of the common misconceptions about all types of disordered eating and clinical disorders.

According to their website, NEDA’s theme this year was “come as you are” and was aimed at gaining awareness for “individuals at all stages of body acceptance and eating disorders recovery that their stories are valid. We invite everyone, especially those whose stories have not been widely recognized, to have the opportunity to speak out, share their experiences, and connect with others.”

This is important because even though eating disorders are life-threatening, there is a huge amount of stigma and confusion surrounding their diagnosis and treatment. People who are suffering from an eating disorder, or who may need help, are sometimes not taken seriously, especially when they don’t appear dangerously underweight.

NEDA hopes to encourage the world to recognize the seriousness of eating disorders no matter what someone looks like. While the body positivity movement has encouraged people of all sizes to love themselves and has helped combat thinness as the norm for beauty, the movement does have a large focus on pictures of bodies, which can be triggering and unhelpful to those affected by eating disorders. NEDA week provides a safer space for those to share their experiences without the focus on looks. 

The point of Eating Disorder Awareness week was affirmation that our experiences matter—in all varying forms of disordered eating and full-on eating disorders. This dialogue is important, especially when it is specifically focused on raising awareness of the experience, symptoms, recoveries and stories of people who have struggled. Body positivity is only part of the solution.

Disordered eating is somewhat common and negative body image can lead in certain cases to eating disorders. It’s important to have resources for students on-campus who may be struggling, and may be struggling more than they realize because a certain amount of discomfort surrounding self-image is so ubiquitous. Among the support groups led by CAPS at Mills there are none yet that focus on these issues. While campaigns such as #LoveYourSelfie can help prevent thoughts and behaviors that lead to life-threatening eating disorders, the conversation doesn’t stop there. For those living with eating disorders, timely treatment could be life saving.