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To the Tabloid Editor Running Eating Disorder Recovery Cover Stories

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I have been reading your articles about anorexia for a while. You know the ones I mean — they have shocking headlines like “Girl nearly dies after living on just X calories a day.” The first picture is always an emaciated girl or guy. She’ll be dressed in clothes that looks about ready to fall off her. It’s a picture printed to shock the reader and hook them into purchasing a magazine to find out how someone can survive being that thin.

I have read these stories from different places in my life. I read them when I myself was in the throes of anorexia, trying to feel less alone. I read them now, from a place of recovery, wondering when the stigma will disappear. On the surface your articles look like a simple story of eating disorder recovery, a much needed exercise in raising awareness. But every time you focus on weight and calories, I fear you may be telling a more dangerous story.

I wish you would stop showing us before-and-after pictures — displaying his skeletal form just to prove he was really ill, as if the severity of a mental illness is directly linked to the amount a person weighs. Please don’t describe to me her diet and how many calories she ate. I don’t want to know what she allowed herself to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I also don’t need to know what he’s eating now that he’s “better.” Please don’t make this about food, as though this is just a diet gone wrong.

Tell me about her. Tell me who she is. Tell me the things he loved to do before he got sick. Tell me the stresses and factors that brought her to this place, where this need for control came from. Help me understand that anorexia does not discriminate, that it happens to anyone for a vast number of reasons. Show your readers that anorexia is not really about food or weight, that deep down it is not about wanting to look like the most fashionable model or celebrity. Don’t paint these people as selfish and narcissistic. This isn’t a diet or a self-obsession. This is a mental illness.

Tell me what it felt like for him — not what it looked like from the outside, but the agony of living through it. The torture of watching yourself fade away and being replaced by someone you do not recognize. To become a person who will lie in a heartbeat as though it’s second nature. Someone who feels utterly powerless to stop the heartache he is causing his family. Tell me what it was like to no longer be able to feel anything but the elation of not eating and the guilt of eating. Tell me how she lives with the contradiction of being absolutely terrified and completely unwilling to stop what she’s doing.

Maybe you think the shocking photos will scare some people into asking for help. But for others your photos become triggers with darker results.

There are people who are reading your article backwards. They start at the recovered picture and believe themselves to be much “bigger” and “fatter” than the man or woman in the photo. And then their eyes move back to the “before” shots. They see that skeletal figure and see how far they can go. They take note of the weight the girl in the picture was and the calories she was consuming and see this as a recipe to follow or a challenge to take up. They may believe they’ll be able to stop before it gets that bad.

By printing weight you are potentially showing your readers how thin they could get without (immediately) dying. Or they may believe that weight is the exact weight a person would have to reach to be “worthy” of a newspaper article. A reader may believe that whatever weight they are now doesn’t qualify them for help. That, by comparison, they aren’t really sick.

These people I’m talking about are likely already in the grips of the eating disorder, so you could say they are not your problem. Leave them to doctors and stretched eating disorder services. But you see, Mr. or Ms. Editor, you do have a chance to draw them in — not with shocking photos and calorie intake, but with hope.

Instead of telling me what dress size or weight your subject is now that they have recovered, tell me what recovery feels like to her. I want to hear about the first time he enjoyed food again with friends, the freedom that brought. I would love to hear more about the things she is able to do now that she couldn’t do when she was sick. The dreams he is now able to chase. Tell me that life in recovery is worth the battle to get there. Show me what inspires her to keep going on the difficult days. Paint a picture of life after anorexia, not just another diet or meal plan, but a fulfilled and rich life. I need to hear that he can and will be so much more than the person who had an eating disorder.

The truly beautiful thing about recovery is that your life can stop being about food or weight. That wonderful moment when you have gone your first hour, day or week without worrying about food. When you realize you can harness those traits and tendencies that made you ill and use them to succeed in life. Recovery means your life can tell a different story — a story that may have had some dark chapters but can continue on into the light.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate that you are publishing stories about anorexia and raising awareness. You could be helping to start conversations and end the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

But there is power in how you tell a story.

Is it perhaps time we tell our story differently?

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.

Follow this journey on Hope Whispers.

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Originally published: December 13, 2016
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