Back in 1992, Sir Mix-a-Lot effectively launched the body-positive movement with the eloquent declaration, “So Cosmo says you’re fat? Well, I ain’t down with that.”
Since then, the movement has picked up speed, and recent years have been particularly fruitful for the body-positive agenda. From artists and models like Megan Trainor and Ashley Graham to your friendly neighborhood mommy-blogger, feminists nationwide are subverting society’s standards for female body image and embracing figures of all shapes and sizes. All shapes and sizes above a certain BMI, that is.
Body positive rhetoric has long trailed into problematic territory that does not accurately reflect the goals of the movement. The familiar body-positive mantra “Real women have curves” is one of the most recognizable examples of the movement’s tendency to subvert its own goals by merely swapping one body standard for another. Far too often, the movement falls into a trap of praising “curvy” women in a way that belittles slim ones, rather than fulfilling its goals of celebrating all body types.
While the movement prides itself on promoting acceptance for body types that were traditionally criticized for being unhealthy, these efforts are limited to one side of the spectrum only. The movement praises women who are overweight and obese, regardless of the associated health risks.
Meanwhile, women with eating disorders remain ostracized. Ultimately, eating disorders are no deadlier than obesity, and if one unhealthy lifestyle can be celebrated as an empowering way of life, then it’s time to make room in the body positive movement for other historically criticized lifestyles.
The Great Eating Disorder Panic
Part of the reason eating disorders have not received the respect other unhealthy dietary lifestyles have won in recent years has to do with the ultra-cautionary narrative the media has built around eating disorders in the past few decades.
Back before the 1983 death of singer Karen Carpenter, eating disorders were relatively unheard of in public discourse. A society-wide push to raise awareness about the dangers of eating disorders followed the celebrity tragedy, effectively launching a still-prevalent media fascination with the mental illnesses. Since then, countless films, novels and after-school specials have taken on the noble cause, and no ’90s sitcom or family drama was without a cautionary eating disorder episode.
Decades of this media hyper-surveillance have trained audiences to see eating disorders, and even so-called “warning signs” of eating disorders, as cause for immediate panic. In fact, both the public and the medical community have become so intent on resolving this perceived crisis that there is even an eating disorder diagnosis for those who do not have a diagnosable eating disorder: Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS).
She Don’t Wanna Be Saved, Don’t Save Her
More and more, this media obsession paints women with eating disorders as victims of mental illness in desperate need of external intervention, rather than individuals exerting agency over their own bodies. This relentless fear-mongering is largely responsible for the exclusion of eating disorders and, by extension, the underweight, from the body-positive movement.
Don’t get me wrong, I fully acknowledge the dangers and health risks of eating disorders. I am also aware of the myriad dangers and health risks of being overweight and obese. The body-positive movement praises women who embrace obesity like Naomi Watanabe, the 220-pound model whose willful obesity has been hailed as an empowering message of self-acceptance, while rejecting women who risk health complications on the other end of the BMI scale.
Ultimately, neither eating disorders nor obesity are models for a healthy lifestyle. Why, then, should the body-positive narrative promote one health issue as empowering while rejecting the other as dangerous? This trend denies women with eating disorders the same platform for self-acceptance it offers the obese and overweight, leaving the seemingly progressive movement guilty of reinforcing mental health stigma.
Turned My Mental Illness into a Lifestyle
Of course, the fact that eating disorders are by definition a mental illness in a way that obesity is not is an important distinction. While obesity is a matter of BMI, eating disorders are more than a number. However, as illustrated by the mere existence of EDNOS as a diagnosis, the lines defining eating disorders have at once broadened and blurred greatly in recent years.
In a particularly relevant example, although eating disorders are traditionally associated with behaviors that result or are intended to result in a low body weight, binge-eating—even in the absence of purging—is itself considered an eating disorder. Unsurprisingly, binge-eating and obesity often go hand in hand, further complicating a body-positive narrative that praises the overweight while rejecting eating disorders.
Meanwhile, new and generally accepted health and fitness trends like intermittent fasting incorporate behaviors that would have traditionally been considered “warning signs” for eating disorders. And of course, it never hurts to keep in mind that certain lifestyles were once condemned as mental illness throughout some darker chapters of history.
As the boundaries and definitions of eating disorders change, so should the corresponding rhetoric. Regardless of whether or not an individual views their eating habits as symptomatic of a mental illness, not everyone who engages in disordered eating identifies with the victim narrative promoted in media representations of eating disorders. For many, disordered eating is a—however unhealthy—lifestyle choice, the same way obesity is an undeniably unhealthy yet empowering lifestyle choice for many body-positive women.
In fact, the disordered eating community has long pushed for representation as a legitimate lifestyle. The pro-anorexia (pro-ana) movement has existed since the dawn of online chatrooms. Due once again to the fear-mongering tactics that have dominated media representations of eating disorders, however, the movement largely remains relegated to the dark corners of the internet.
It’s My Body and I’ll Destroy It if I Want To
This exclusion is a glaring paradox in what claims to be a progressive movement devoted to promoting positivity and universal self-acceptance. The movement ultimately encourages women to pursue and celebrate one kind of unhealthy eating while condemning another. This lack of representation for eating disorders in the body-positive narrative paints disordered eaters as victims in need of help, stripping these women of their agency over their own bodies.
To become the feminist triumph Instagram would have you believe it is, body-positive rhetoric needs to stop the overreach that merely attempts to turn the body image tables and instead actually embrace all women of all body types, backgrounds and eating habits. Whether Cosmo says you’re fat, thin or mentally ill, everyone is entitled to make their own choices about their body, and those choices deserve equal respect.