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.”

Image via: http://www.buzzfeed.com/copyranter/alarming-anorexia-ads-via-brazil

Image via: http://www.buzzfeed.com/copyranter/alarming-anorexia-ads-via-brazil

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.

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25 Responses to “Just say no to the “Just say no” campaign”

  1. THANK YOU. This campaign is so simplistic and feels blaming too. Like you say, it implies that one can just decide not to have an ED, and thus if you do, well…tsk tsk, so sad you made that choice. Bull.

    I admit, in the beginning I did make a choice, to go on a diet and try to lose a few pounds. Yes, that initial step was a conscious choice. But the progression into full-blown severe AN was NOT, and as my weight went down, my choice in the matter also diminished.

    And I really wish people would get that pointing out how gross or unattractive an ED body might be is THE EXACT WRONG THING to say. I mean…yeah, sure, tell someone who already probably has serious dysmorphia and self-loathing issues that they look gross. That’ll help. 🙁

  2. Kelsey Wallour May 3, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    I honestly just snorted when I first saw those anti-ED ads. Like it’s that easy. Didn’t work for drugs, it’s really not going to work with such a multifaceted illness. Multifaceted illnesses require multifaceted treatments.
    Thanks for covering this!

  3. Big problem… Lots of AN sufferers would agree, because they don’t even know they HAVE AN. I fought with my therapist for months before I was finally persuaded I was even sick. I would have whole-heartedly agreed that, OF COURSE, people should NOT starve themselves silly (nods head emphatically while munching on a spinach leaf for lunch- I’m just being healthy, you know- nothing wrong with that- I’m not starving- I’m sitting here eating this leaf).

    How do you say “no” to something you don’t know you have.

    Then, like you said, there’s the problem of not being capable, and of it not being “a choice” but countless choices, as mentioned in your previous post. I definitely get it NOW that I have an ED. I totally get it. But saying “no” is just a word. It means squat to help me get better. For that, I need a ton more than just one two-letter word.

    Really, there is no point to this campaign.

  4. This post made me tear up a little bit. I also have been told I am “too smart” to develop an eating disorder and I always felt like my (for the most part) problem-free childhood should have prevented me from developing an ED. I could not simply say NO and when I saw the Just Say No campaign I was furious and even a little offended. Thanks for “breaking the rules” and speaking up!

  5. Brooke Langman May 3, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    Exactly my thoughts when I saw this! I gave them the benefit of the doubt by thinking maybe they meant “say no to the glorification of anorexia”, but nonetheless find it distasteful.

    • Carrie Arnold May 3, 2013 at 6:41 pm

      A campaign against the glorification of EDs I could get behind, but I really don’t think that was the intention of this. The irony is that it kind of glorifies EDs in a sense, by correlating anorexia with a successful model. Sigh.

      • Hmmm. Can I play devil’s advocate for a sec? I don’t think I, personally, could get behind a campaign against the glorification of EDs. Of course I don’t think EDs should be glorified, but to conflate anorexia – a serious, sometimes deadly mental illness – with our culture’s pointless and harmful fixation on thinness seems to me to be trivializing the disorder. It feels…blaming, somehow. Anorexia is not responsible for these toxic cultural messages, and anorexia is not about vanity or really even about thinness. It is a disease. Attack clothing designers, attack ad agencies, attack “the media” (whatever that means), but don’t attack people who have a mental illness that’s beyond their control.

        • Carrie Arnold May 3, 2013 at 11:27 pm

          No, I do mean targeting advertising and media for glorifying EDs, not the sufferers.

  6. Let’s just say “no” to post-natal depression! Let’s just say “no” to OCD! Let’s just say “no” to bipolar disorder! Let’s just say “no” to panic disorders! Let’s just say “no” to PTSD!

    Now THAT would sure lower medical costs, wouldn’t it! We can just say “no” to all brain disorders!


    • I read “post-nasal depression” and that tells me its time to say no to reading for the night 🙂 cheery note to leave on though! Great thread and wish you all sweet dreams.

  7. This is me giving you a standing ovation!

  8. I agree. It does glorify anorexia. I think this type of ad campaign is likely to have pro-ana effects amongst sufferers and at-risk persons, while at the same time serving to blame the victims and set back progress in true understandings of what AN actually is.

  9. When I saw that ad I was like WTF. One, it is going to contribute to volitional stigma and two, it completely misses the point on causality and ED etiology.

    It is just terrible. ALL AROUND TERRIBLE… So much so that I mentioned my distaste today at ICED during the Genes & Environment panel discussion. It is just ridiculous.

    Ugh, I hate that ad so much.

  10. Good intention? Check.
    Not armed with the proper education? Check.
    Naive as to what an ED is? Check.
    Could find a better “buzz word”? Probably.

    Thinspriation? Self loathing? Unrealistic ideals?

    That’s what the marketers will be looking to do, put a bandaid on it and run it back out for public consumption.

    Carrie, you made the better and larger point. Social campaigns don’t work because they are big, broad strokes that don’t/cant’s address the thing that’s driving the displeasure in social behavior directly. The same can be said for the Campaign for Real Beauty and it’s a shame.

    Good intentions are hard enough to find around here; but good intentions + poor execution is the equivalent of the unsolicited advice bone yard.

    Good article!

  11. Yikes. I need to stop reading the comments to that article. Blood pressure is rising.

  12. Fantastic post…The real horror about this campaign..is that those in the throes of anorexia will look at the “real-life” image and wonder why her knee bones AREN’T the widest part of her leg.

    Veiled “Thinspo” imho.

  13. OOPS…meant to say “THEIR OWN knee-bones”

  14. I love the discussion this has raised by those who know more than than the rest of us about anorexia. I supported my daughter through her recovery and yes said silly things along the way……in the past now.

    As a pure media stunt I think it is trying a little shock tactic here….if they left out the last line regarding anorexia then I think it may have been a little more on the mark……it still makes me feel ill looking at the model though.
    If they just pitched this to those in the industry again more to the point, designers do sketch like that!
    I recently watched a quick debate regarding fashion magazine shoots, the editors complained that they HAD to book slight models as the fashion house sample dresses ONLY came in small sizes…no size 14 , no average or healthy size ranges …ONLY those in size zero.
    I know this is totally off topic as regards ED but for everyone that goes through the living nightmare of a full blown ED, there are the rest of us who never feel happy about our bodies, or adolescents that start to question their bodies because they cannot see REAL comparisons out there in fashion make believe.
    This campaign (take out the anorexia link) needs to be aimed fairly and squarely at those who perpetuate the fashion myths.

  15. Ok, I feel weird and ashamed admitting this, but as it continually provokes a reaction in me, I am going to speak up about it b/c I wonder if anyone else who has struggled with AN can relate…

    I could not initially tell there was anything wrong with the model. I thought the “sketch” was the inappropriate part, w/its ridiculous ankles- that was the only “too skinny” part I noticed- and I thought the picture and words were saying we should not draw ourselves or airbrush ourselves or whatever to look skinnier than we are, b/c THAT would be promoting anorexia. I took it literally. I thought it was about not using art to make people look anorexic.

    Until I read comments in which people spoke directly about the live model’s appearance (specifically, the comment by Donna about her knee bones being the widest part of her leg) I HADN’T EVEN NOTICED she “looked” anorexic. 🙁

    After reading that, I quickly went back to the picture, blew it up big, and studied it to figure out what Donna meant. I had to study the picture intensely for quite a while before my brain began to recognize areas on the model’s body that look unhealthy. I am convinced I probably still don’t see it completely clearly. I have great difficult discerning body sizes.

    But now I feel really, really sad for whoever that poor girl is- being used in a campaign like this. How much she feel? 🙁

  16. *great difficulty, not great difficult 🙂

  17. *DANG!!! How MUST she feel? Not “how much.”

  18. Why don’t these damn comment sections have an “edit” option. Grrrrr.

  19. this stuff was on upworthy too! seriously people, not helpful….

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