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We're Glad Celebrities Like Whitney Cummings Are Talking About Eating Disorders, But...

Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Juliette Virzi, The Mighty’s Associate Mental Health Editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway. 

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.

In her new memoir, “I’m Fine… and Other Lies,” comedian Whitney Cummings opened up about her past struggles with an eating disorder. People magazine reported the comedian struggled with body dysmorphia and other eating disorder symptoms including food restricting and binge eating.

About her struggle with body dysmorphia, Cummings wrote, “It was as if I were looking in a funhouse mirror that makes your hips comically large. I literally could not see myself how others did.”

While we’re so glad to see celebrities like Cummings telling their eating disorder stories, many don’t know how to talk about their struggles in a responsible way — and unfortunately, Cummings didn’t stray from the norm.

For example, in her book, Cummings shared specifically what she ate when she was restricting her eating and described what she looked like when she was “alarmingly thin.”

According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), “Research strongly suggests that testimonies which dramatize dangerous thinness can provoke a ‘race to the bottom’ among those struggling with or [are] susceptible to an eating disorder. (i.e. ‘She is thinner than I am and she’s still alive. I should lose more weight.’).”

Not only are these kinds of details unnecessary to share, they can also be harmful. The reality is, these types of comments reinforce the same stereotypical story of eating disorders we’ve always been told. By talking about her eating habits and what she looked like when she was struggling most, the focus is again on the outward presentation of an eating disorder, rather than the psychology that drives it.

When we focus exclusively on the outward presentation of eating disorders and ignore the psychological implications of them, we unintentionally perpetuate the belief that eating disorders are a choice. In a study done on the stigmatization of eating disorders done by the UK’s National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC), it was found that the general public perceives eating disorders to be “self-inflicted” and believe individuals struggling “have only themselves to blame for their illness.”

Of course, Cummings may have delved into the psychological effects in her book, but details like what she ate and what she looked like can distract from any deeper commentary.

Cummings isn’t the only celebrity who’s spoken about eating disorders in a harmful way. Lily Collins, in an interview for the Netflix movie, “To the Bone” shared how she lost weight “safely” for the role of Ellen, a young woman struggling with anorexia.

As Mighty staff member Haley Quinn wrote, “The interview included details of what ‘kinds’ of foods she avoided, and how she lost weight while maintaining ‘enough energy’ to actually fulfill the role. This information is completely inappropriate, and unnecessarily triggering to those in the midst of an eating disorder.”

We need to stop focusing on what eating disorders look like on the outside and start talking about how they affect people on the inside.

Let’s have discussions about why eating disorders aren’t really about vanity. Let’s explore how the desire for control can factor into someone’s struggle. Let’s talk about the fact men and non-white folks struggle with eating disorders, too.

To celebrities — or frankly, anyone — speaking up about struggling with an eating disorder, here are some things to keep in mind when sharing your story. Below are some do’s and don’ts based on NEDA’s “Guidelines for Sharing Your Story Responsibly.”

Do: Share your eating disorder experience.

Sharing your story in a public way can help make people struggling with eating disorders feel less alone. Don’t let any “guidelines” discourage you from sharing what you’ve been through — every story is valuable, and anything you can add to the conversation is welcome.

Don’t: Accidentally write an “instruction manual” for how to have an eating disorder.

According to NEDA, sharing specifics “can turn a well-intentioned story into ‘how-to’ instructions for someone to follow.” Sharing specifics like number of calories, types of food or time spent exercising can give someone a benchmark to compare themselves to, which is dangerous for people struggling with disordered eating.

Do: Talk about getting help.

Openly talking about getting professional help and other kinds of support for any mental illness is so important in encouraging help-seeking behavior in others. NEDA advises people who are sharing their story to “make sure you reinforce that it is courageous and necessary to reach out for support and guidance during the recovery process.”

Don’t: Be inconsistent or unsafe in your messaging.

If you position yourself as an advocate or voice in the eating disorder community, people may begin to look up to you. When celebrities especially send mixed signals about recovery, it has the potential to undo the good that was done by sharing their struggle in the first place.

At the end of the day, we are glad celebrities like Cummings and Collins are bringing awareness to eating disorders. All we ask is for the future, please keep the eating disorder community in mind.

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.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/Alex42west

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