Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.
I’ve always been a chubby person.
When I was 6 and loved pasta and playing on the playground, I was a chubby person.
When I was 12 and athletic and going through puberty, I was a chubby person.
And when I was 18 and dying from an eating disorder, I was a chubby person.
I use the word “chubby” quite intentionally, because that’s what I am — I’m not fat, exactly, in the sense that fatness is a sociopolitical experience, but I’m definitely, definitely not thin.
And because I’m not thin, no one knew I was dying from my eating disorder.
See, we have this idea of what a person with an eating disorder looks like. They are pretty and quiet and straight. They are A+ students from middle class white families with blonde streaks in their hair. They are able-bodied and cisgender. They are women. Most importantly, they are thin. Because society tells us you have to be thin to have an eating disorder. Because if you’re not thin, your eating disorder is called something else. Fitness. Hard work. Motivation. Inspiration. Self-Improvement.
When I was struggling in my worst eating disorder relapse at age 20, I was weighed at the doctor’s office on my campus. The nurse looked over my shoulder at the number on the scale and jotted in down. Then she turned to me and said, “That’s a perfect weight for you.”
I hadn’t eaten in days.
I was still chubby.
And it’s not that nurse’s fault that she didn’t know I had an eating disorder. Well, not entirely, at least. We’re given one image of a person with an eating disorder, and that person is capital “T” — Thin.
And there’s nothing wrong with being a thin person, or being a thin person with an eating disorder. But the problem is that it is often the only image we are given, and it’s not even close to being representative of the reality of every person struggling with an eating disorder. Eating disorders affect people across all intersections of society and life — yes, chubby and fat people included.
I’m going to repeat that once more for the people in the back.
Eating disorders can affect chubby and fat people.
But we don’t hear those stories. Instead, we are shown stories like “To The Bone.” The movie is being released by Netflix next month, and if your friends are anything like mine (i.e. wonderful and interested in mental health) then you may have seen the trailer on Facebook.
I’m thrilled that eating disorders in general are getting attention. Eating disorders, in my experience, remain heavily stigmatized – I work as a mental health speaker, and when I go into schools and talk about my experience with an eating disorder, I often get feedback to the tune of, “Well when you said you were going to talk about mental health, we kind of assumed you were going to talk about depression.” Lots of people don’t even realize that eating disorders are mental health issues, never mind the serious, and often life-ruining implications of them.
That being said, the stories we hear about eating disorders almost always focus on:
1. White cisgender women
2. Struggling with anorexia
3. Whose weight loss is an important part of the plot
The “To the Bone” trailer checks all three categories. And I don’t have anything against people telling those stories, but it does feel sometimes like it’s the same eating disorder story we’re always told — the only eating disorder story we’re ever allowed to tell.
It’s hard to judge a film from the trailer, but this isn’t really about “To the Bone,” itself. It’s about the narrative we’re given over and over again about eating disorders: that you have to be extremely thin for your eating disorder to be life-threatening, which is simply not true.
The narrative around thinness and eating disorders even impacts research. Earlier this year, I attended the National Eating Disorder Information Centre’s conference in Toronto, and the repeated message I heard from people who specialize in eating disorder research was that they were pressured to prove their research could be used to prevent obesity. We live in a society that is so afraid of being fat, that to me, the philosophy seems to be, “Well, if we lose a couple of people to eating disorders, that’s a price we’re willing to pay.”
And, unfortunately, that philosophy has real world implications in the way that people with eating disorders receive treatment. If you’re a chubby person seeking treatment for an eating disorder, your experience is always under question. Are you exaggerating your disordered behaviors? Are you really that sick? Do you really need or deserve our help? The message, even if it’s not said aloud, comes through loud and clear: if you were thinner, we would believe you. If you were thinner, we would be concerned. If you were thinner, you would matter more.
I don’t begrudge anyone who loves this movie, who finds it gives them hope or peace or a sense of community. Stories should do that, and anyone who finds those things in “To The Bone,” I’m so glad. You deserve a sense of hope and community and peace.
And for the chubby people with eating disorders: I see you. I believe you. You matter.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
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Screenshot via Netflix YouTube channel.