Since I started blogging about my daughter’s anorexia, men and women alike have approached me to tell me how phenomenal it is that I am bringing anorexia out of the closet. More women than I can count have stopped me to commend me for my blog and then lean in and quietly whisper that they suffered from an eating disorder when they were younger. I am astounded that so many years later, they still feel like they have something to hide to the point where they feel compelled to whisper, even when no one else is around. This is the stigma of anorexia, and it’s so unfair. Anorexia is a fierce, fire breathing, killer dragon and anyone who slays that dragon should feel the power to shout from the rooftops and not feel the shameful need to whisper about it.
I am sure that there are people who would disapprove of my publicizing what they would consider a private family matter, even though I have the full consent of my daughter. However, I think that when I write about my daughter’s battle with anorexia in a public forum, I am sending her and my other children a message that there is nothing to be ashamed of. The anorexia itself causes enough suffering; stigma just adds insult to injury.
Stigma is a powerful negative force. It makes the bearer of the stigma feel ashamed, disgraced, debased, humiliated, and embarrassed. I don’t want my daughter to feel any of those things. Anorexia isn’t a choice, it’s an illness. My daughter didn’t choose anorexia, anorexia “chose” her. She was somehow predisposed to it. As such, she had no more control over developing the illness than a person has over developing cancer, MS, heart disease, etc.
Part of breaking the stigma of anorexia is clearing up misconceptions that exist. Many anorexics, recovered or not, won’t talk about the illness on a personal level thanks to the ever present stigma. Anorexia is an illness which is often misrepresented in the media, and there are precious few people who are willing to come forward to set the record straight. It’s not a lightweight illness or a vanity based illness as many seem to think from the number of models and celebrities whose anorexia makes the cover of teen magazines. It is far, far deeper than a “diet gone wrong.” Anorexia is not a superficial illness revolving around narcissism, not even close. It is a serious, rapidly developing, take-no-prisoners, vicious illness that claims precious lives. Statistics vary on the mortality rate of anorexia, but I have seen anywhere from 5% to 20% with 10% being the average. Based on the number of parents and professionals that I speak with here in Israel, it’s clear to me that anorexia is a raging plague. However, as a result of the stigma, it is often hidden from view and sometimes left untreated until it reaches a life threatening stage.
As long as people hide anorexia in the closet or sweep it under the rug, there will always be a stigma associated with it. This creates adverse effects on so many levels. Innocent people are made to feel ashamed of being sick, which prevents them from seeking the treatment that they desperately need. Families don’t want to admit to others that their loved one has anorexia because they don’t want to be stigmatized; and as a result of their secrecy, they don’t receive any help or support from others. Hiding an eating disorder takes its toll on a family. Removing the stigma of the illness would relieve already suffering people of so much unnecessary pain.
Eating disorders receive far less research funding than most other mental illnesses, and the public health care system in Israel offers treatment that is inadequate for many. If the stigma of eating disorders was removed to expose their rampancy and ravage, maybe there would be more funding for research and treatment. Simply put, more people would live.
I don’t know why society has decided that eating disorders are taboo. Yes, anorexia is classified as a mental illness. We can pretend that it doesn’t exist in our communities and whisper about it all we want, but it won’t go away; this will only perpetuate the stigma. Anorexia will continue to claim lives of young people who are full of potential. I know that in the Orthodox world, the whole “shidduch situation” plays into the stigma, which I think is wrong on so many levels.
I don’t want to send a message to my child that she is damaged or defective, or that we are embarrassed by her. That is the furthest thing from the truth. My daughter fights her illness every day with great fortitude. Some days she wins the fight and more often than not she loses it, but she’s still here to do battle and I am so proud of her for that.
I have no illusions about breaking the stigma surrounding anorexia on my own; but I do hope that by giving anorexia a human face, I can somehow crack the surface.