Do we need better ED role models?
Search for “eating disorders” on Google News, and I guarantee you that over half of the coverage will be about celebrities with EDs. Some of that is our culture’s serious addiction to celebrities that does no one any good. But some of this coverage has to do with celebrities sharing their stories of EDs or other mental health issues. We call it “awareness raising.” Like it or not, when a famous person develops an ED, they become a role model, for better or worse.
The question is whether these types of role models actually help people.
I honestly can’t relate to any of these stories. Maybe it’s that I rarely watch TV (Netflix reruns excepted), and don’t really read fashion magazines, either.* I don’t not feel pressure to be thin, but I knew my looks and my weight were never going to give me a satisfying career. Pop culture is a strange mysterious world to me.
Aside from the fact that the continual association of EDs with fashion and celebrities reinforces the myth that these are vanity issues, I think that we also need a greater diversity of ED role models.
Of course, celebrities aren’t the only people who become ED role models. I struggle a lot with relating to the super-inspirational stories, too. I think it’s great that there are people who love their bodies and never have any ED thoughts. I’m not knocking that. But I personally can’t relate, either. I think my recovery is quite strong despite the fact that I have ED thoughts All. The. Time. They’re not as strong or as intense as they were, and I’m better at redirecting my attention, but, for my own disorder, it doesn’t seem realistic to me to try and ELIMINATE ALL THE THOUGHTS.
My problem isn’t with the existence of these stories and these role models. If they work for you, great. We all narrate our lives differently, and at different points in time. Stories that didn’t resonate with me at one point now seem helpful. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that.
What I object to is two-fold. One, that these stories become sort of instructions for the “right” way to recover. There is no one right way. Two, I have a big problem with the message of “If I can do it, you can too!” I understand the sentiment, but the execution is really problematic. I’m not you. I have different obstacles than you do, and different abilities to overcome them. I read these stories and feel a bit judged. Recovery- ur doing it wrong.
When I was deep in the depths of the ED, these inspirational stories were suggested as potential reading material, as if they could somehow wave their magic wand over my brain and the clusterfuck I’d made of my life and I’d get myself better. Hope is, of course, a crucial component to treatment. But I needed to know how you were supposed to eat when every cell in your body was telling you not to. I needed to know how to stay away from the gym.
I was reminded of these thoughts–had them clarified, in some sense–by an essay in the BBC that appeared this week on this very subject. The author, Mark Brown, wrote
Exceptional figures are important but so too are those with whom we feel real affinity and who can show us practical steps we can take in our own lives.
At a time when experiences of disability are becoming politicised by changes to social security benefits, some feel that inspirational figures drawn from the ranks of celebrity obscure the real challenges faced by disabled people. These challenges include a lack of relationships and money to make sure that life is not just bearable but enriching and enjoyable.
Where the inspirational figure is selected for us, and the gap between their life and ours is too great, the effect is not one of encouragement but of disillusionment – especially if their story is told in terms of personal qualities like bravery or persistence.
Knowing a famous person has the same impairment as you can be reassuring, but only in the vague way that hearing of a successful distant relative is reassuring.
Most of us will never scale Everest, compete for our country at sports or have a showbiz career. This doesn’t mean we’ve failed.
Churchill might tell me something about the art of statecraft, or Fry about the pressures of fame and the joy of words, but someone closer to home, with a life more like mine and challenges more like mine, will tell me far more about a life with mental health difficulty and how best to live it.
I have no problem with people–including celebrities–discussing their eating disorders. I have no problem with people using them as role models in recovery. I do have a problem with the assumption that their experiences are necessarily similar to mine. I don’t need a celebrity. I don’t need someone who has no ED thoughts, ever. I needed someone who had a most imperfect recovery, who somehow cobbled together a way that worked for them. Someone more like me.
What do you think? Do you think that we need better role models for EDs? Share your thoughts in the comments.
*I do now, as a professional journalist, but I have a very different focus on what I’m looking for as opposed to your average reader.