We Know The Dangers of Eating Disorders—So Why Are We Still Celebrating Weight Loss at Any Cost?

Roxburgh confirms what most of us can assume: that the entertainment industry is particularly ruthless when it comes to rewarding weight loss at any cost. But these attitudes aren’t exclusive to photo shoots and film sets — they’re rampant in schools, at work, at parties, and of course, on social media. “I’ve never been as unhappy as when I was complimented for looking a certain way,” she says. “Someone once told me I ‘finally looked like a movie star’ when I was the saddest and loneliest I had ever been in my entire life. It dawned on me that no one really, truly sees what you’re struggling with. They just see the exterior and that’s the problem.”

These examples of misinformed comments that perpetuate erroneous (and dangerous) beliefs conflating weight with worth are everywhere. Singer Lily Allen was repeatedly told how “amazing” she looked while suffering from bulimia. Lena Dunham said her 2017 weight loss wasn’t “a triumph,” but an attempt to manage her endometriosis. Four years later, she admitted she had also been “in active addiction with undiagnosed illness” at the time and asked her social media followers, “when will we learn to stop equating thinness with health/happiness?” Last May, model Tess Holliday took to social media to beg strangers to stop offering praise for her weight loss. “Yes, I’ve lost weight — I’m healing from an eating disorder & feeding my body regularly for the first time in my entire life,” she wrote. “When you equate weight loss with ‘health’ & place value & worth on someone’s size, you are basically saying that we are more valuable now because we are smaller & perpetuating diet culture… & that’s corny as hell.”

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These are just a few examples in a seemingly endless array of scenarios in which we all make assumptions rooted in the premise that weight loss is the ultimate sign of success. That logic isn’t just flawed and ungrounded in science or common sense; it keeps many of us sick, mentally and physically.

“One of the many conversations for clients dealing with eating disorders is helping them to tune in to society’s disordered messages and conversations around food, bodies, and exercise,” Mass says, reflecting on the Real Housewives scene. “I don’t think there was any ill motive in this moment but it is a prime example of how, as a society, we all possess levels of disordered thinking and disordered behaviors. Assuming someone is thrilled they lost five pounds tells me more about the mindset of the person delivering the ‘compliment’ than the person receiving it. We all have our own histories and stories around food and it is only by noticing these small moments that we begin to hear and understand the bigger stories going on around us- and, ideally, learn to not take them on as our own.”

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I don’t know what the solution is to an issue that is so deeply embedded in our collective consciousness. If even those of us who’ve seen how truly ugly and cruel the extreme manifestation of thin worship can be are still tempted to engage in body-based assumptions and comments, what hope is there to break free from all this? There may not be a simple answer, but as we close out this year’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (NEDAwareness Week), it’s worth taking the theme into consideration: “See the Change, Be the Change.” It’s not enough to know that equating thinness at any cost with “health,” “worth,” “value,” or “success” is problematic; we all have to make concerted efforts to stop bonding over our bodies’ flaws and fighting the instinct to evaluate other people based on their size. We have to start actively opting out of disordered behaviors that we’ve been told are “normal.”

“Arm yourself with phrases like ‘I’m trying to stop body-shaming myself’ and ‘let’s bond over something other than making fun of our bodies,’” Parks says. “Be brave and see how people react when you stop the self deprecating and damaging ‘fat-talk.’ “​We have the power to decrease our fat-phobic cultural hold on all of us — and that is to overtly not participate, and model for others to also stop participating.”

Michelle Konstantinovsky is a San Francisco–based freelance journalist who has written for a number of publications including Vanity Fair, Vogue, Shape, Teen Vogue, and O: The Oprah Magazine. 

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