Just say no to the “Just say no” campaign
As a child of the 80s, I remember the “Just Say No” drug campaigns well. I remember being a freshly minted 9-year-old, helping a friend campaign on the elementary school playground to bring DARE (aka, Drug Abuse Resistance Education) to our school. I thought I was doing the right thing, being an upstanding citizen, and protecting my classmates from the evil, evil druggy boogymen that were waiting for us if we didn’t Just Say No to drugs.
I was a born rule follower. The thought of me doing anything illegal (besides, perhaps, speeding a bit) was as unthinkable to me then as it is now. I might rebel a bit if you tell me I’m not capable of doing something–it tends to bring out my stubborn streak, prodding me to do my damndest to prove you wrong–but if you tell me I’m not allowed, I’ll largely comply. Or at least find a semi-ethical way to work around the obstacle. But little fourth grader Carrie didn’t realize that drug use and addiction were far more complicated than just saying no.
I also have been around long enough to know these types of programs don’t work. Sure, the decision to try drugs or alcohol is a choice, but addiction is not. As well, most people who do ultimately become addicted may be more likely to try these substances in the first place. Many of the old school “Just Say No” campaigns are being tweaked somewhat in light of this–although I would argue that abstinence-only sex ed is another type of Just Say No program that really doesn’t appear to be going anywhere despite its total ineffectiveness. But that’s another story.
We’ve known this for years. It’s not new. So why, for the love of everything holy, have some people in the ED world started a “Just Say No” anorexia campaign?!?
The largest modeling agency in Brazil has started an anti-anorexia campaign that is raising eyebrows–and ire. It consists of a ridiculously thin fashion sketch of a woman next to an already thin model Photoshopped to look completely emaciated. The message is “You are not a sketch. Just say no to anorexia.”
Besides rightly being criticized as tacky and tasteless–modeling agencies generally demand extreme thinness, so their criticism of the ideal they help create is laughable–there’s the larger issue that no one is really addressing: can you really “just say no” to anorexia?
I had friends that struggled with eating disorders. I knew how dangerous, awful, and life-sucking they were. Even as I dangerously slashed my calories at the start of my own eating disorder, I thought that I was being careful by eating more than I thought most people with anorexia ate because I didn’t want that. Granted, my knowledge of how much people with AN actually ate was pretty warped, but my point still stands. Even as I was being more powerfully sucked into the anorexia, I never thought AN would really happen to me. I thought I could quit when I wanted. I thought I was too damn smart to let this happen to me.
Perhaps rather poignantly, that’s what my mom said not long after I was diagnosed. “I always thought you were too smart to get anorexia,” she said*. She didn’t mean it in a hurtful way, but the message was clear: I should have known better. I should have pulled myself out. It was nothing I hadn’t said to myself a million times over.
It’s also something I’ve said to myself a million times since: if only I knew how bad an eating disorder really, really was, I never would have tried to eat better and lose weight as some sort of miracle depression cure. I’ve since stopped saying that to myself. Why? I know damn well I would have done it anyway regardless of what information I had. For one, I had the information and the knowledge of what an ED does to your body and mind. For another, I never thought I would be the one unceremoniously hospitalized on her 21st birthday in danger of cardiac arrest. I thought I could just say no.
Here’s the thing: you can’t always just say no.
It’s silly to have an ad that says just say no to cancer or schizophrenia. The Don’t Worry, Be Happy song isn’t an anti-depression rallying cry, and rightly so.
The ads also shift the burden of anorexia to sufferers. Like both my mom and I thought, the problem was that I didn’t just say no to anorexia. The problem is the sufferer, not the illness. The problem certainly isn’t the modeling agencies that promote an overly thin ideal. The media and the models can get off scot-free from any contribution they might have to EDs. Their problem, imply the ads, is that sufferers were too stupid to just say no.
This is not how eating disorders happen, and I fail to see why this is helpful.
*For the record, I feel I should clarify what I think my mom was getting at here. I think she was saying that she thought that since I knew how dangerous EDs were, that it would have prevented me from getting sick. And she was frustrated at seeing how ill I was and yet I couldn’t get better. To someone outside the ED, it was obvious that if starving myself was harming me, I should stop starving, yo. It’s not rocket science. I don’t think either of us had really stopped conceptualizing EDs as a choice.