An eating disorder prevention campaign is a natural response to the prevalence of eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating, as well as other related issues such as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) and orthorexia. In addition to being one of the most common mental illnesses among young women, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychological illness. Eating disorder prevention campaigns have grown at a rapid pace over the past several years. But are we doing more harm than good by focusing all our attention on preventing eating disorders? There are many who would say yes. After all, what good will it do to simply prevent people from developing an eating disorder if that same person ends up hating herself because of fat-shaming or body-policing ads? What good will it do to simply prevent people from developing an eating disorder if society continues to perpetuate fatphobia through advertising and does not make spaces accessible for those with dietary restrictions?
The Dangers of Eating Disorder Prevention
The first danger of eating disorder prevention is that it focuses on an individual’s pathology rather than their lived experience. Eating disorders are often framed as a pathological relationship with food rather than a relationship with your body that has been informed by cultural forces. Although eating disorders are mental illnesses, they are also heavily informed by cultural influences, including beauty ideals and the messages we receive about food, bodies, and health. By focusing on eating disorder prevention campaigns as a means of preventing eating disorders, we are centering eating disorders as a problem inherent to certain bodies instead of as something that is informed by our cultural dieting and fat-phobic environment. This can be incredibly dangerous as it can lead to eating disorders being pathologized as a problem of individual people, instead of being problematized as something that is enabled by society.
Shaping Culture Through Advertising
Eating disorder prevention campaigns often include advertisements promoting healthy eating like “Are You Making Yourself Sick?” and “This is What a Food Addict Looks Like.” While there are some positive messages in these advertisements, such as “Strawberries are good for you,” there are subtle messages that can be problematic. For example, the advertisements that fat is bad for you and that “real women” are thin. These advertisements are not only harmful to those who are struggling with disordered eating and body image and are on the brink of developing an eating disorder, but also to those who are healthy yet hate their bodies because of societal pressures to be thin. Thinner is healthier. Thinner is prettier. Fat is ugly. Fat is unhealthy. Fat is a sign of indiscipline. These are the messages that people are receiving when they look at mainstream eating disorder prevention advertisements. These messages are not only harmful to those who are struggling with eating disorders and thin-ideal internalized oppression, but they are also harmful to those who are healthy yet feel shame because they don’t fall within cultural expectations of thinness.
Fat Shaming and Body Policing
Fat shaming is when you shame people for being fat, for having a fat body or for engaging in fat-friendly behaviors, like eating. It’s often directed at people who fall outside cultural ideas of what a “normal” amount of body fat is. So fat shaming is common among people who are considered overweight or obese, but it can also happen to people who are average-sized, who are trying to eat less, or who are on a diet to lose weight. Body policing is when you judge other people’s bodies, usually in an attempt to shame them into changing those bodies, or keeping them from doing certain things because of their bodies. Eating disorder prevention ads are a classic example of body policing.
Cultural Competency as a Priority
The second danger of eating disorder prevention is that it will continue to reinforce and increase cultural competency, which can be harmful to those who are trying to resist cultural dieting and fat phobia. Eating disorder prevention campaigns are increasing the cultural competency around eating disorders, which can be good, but only if it’s put in the context of resistance to dieting and fat phobia. If eating disorder prevention campaigns are not doing that, then they are not doing enough. Eating disorder prevention campaigns need to explicitly challenge the cultural dieting and fat-phobic ideals that lead to the development of disordered eating. Eating disorder prevention campaigns should resist the idea that thinness is health and fatness is not. They should work to end the fat phobia that presents fat people as inherently unhealthy, disgusting and lacking self-control. They should work to end the cultural dieting that presents thinness as the only way to be attractive, worthy, and desirable.
The third danger of eating disorder prevention is that it can reinforce the idea that fat bodies are inherently unhealthy. Eating disorder campaigns often target people who are “overweight” or “obese” while ignoring the fact that many fat people are perfectly healthy and live long lives. Some eating disorder campaigns even suggest that fat people are “killing themselves” by being overweight/obese. This is false and harmful. Eating disorders are often associated with thinness and body image issues, but not with fatness and body image issues. This article makes clear that eating disorder prevention campaigns are important to the field of eating disorder research, but only if they are not done at the expense of the people who are being harmed by fatphobia and body policing.