*trigger warning: discussion of eating disorders and behaviors
Various online publications report the journeys of young girls who have successfully recovered from eating disorders, such as Anorexia nervosa. In these articles, young women are praised, celebrated, and congratulated. Some may even declare that the young women featured are inspirations to the little girls out in the world. While recovering from an eating disorder is certainly a massive accomplishment, life-saving, and one worth celebrating, the media doesn’t always structure the narrative positively or helpfully. A handful of articles from these publications can be damaging to young girls and women struggling to overcome their eating disorders. This is because of how the media constructs praise of recovery. The media concentrates on a specific type of young woman, and she only gets praise when she transforms into this type. The fitness trainer.
“Strong is the new beautiful,” or “strong is the new sexy,” is a phrase that has been circulating social media platforms, fitness gyms, celebrity memoirs, and countless amounts of articles for years now. This phrase arises from the notion that a woman’s body is beautiful or sexy when it is strong, muscular, and fit. It attempts to thwart society’s unrealistic body image standards established for women. This phrase dismantles the belief that women must be emaciated in order to be deemed beautiful. So, naturally, there has been an increase in fitness, especially fitness after recovery. For those recovered, fitness has saved their lives.
But here’s the question:wWhat about the readers of these publications?
I read approximately nine publications with similar narratives or variations of the same story. A young woman was diagnosed with an eating disorder in her teenage years; commonly, this eating disorder was Anorexia nervosa. She consumed a maximum of 800 calories a day. She flushed food down the toilet. She hid food in places she hoped her family wouldn’t search; after she realized her family suspected the disorder. The young woman abused laxatives and obsessively weighed herself. The young woman’s weight plummeted to 84 pounds. Eventually, she got admitted into an in-patient medical facility for eating disorders. From there, it was a difficult journey, a back and forth to facilities after relapses. But, thankfully, one stay would finally show a success. The young woman continued to gain weight while outside the facility. Fast forward to the present day, and the once anorexia sufferer is now a successful fitness trainer.
I have to confess, I was proud of each young woman after reading her journey. I battled with Anorexia nervosa for many years, and I understand how frightening it is to gain weight. I also understand how devastated, anxious, and negative one gets when she sees the changes occurring to her body. I understand how easy it could be to regress back to old habits and patterns. Lastly, I understand triggers and relapses. However, although I was proud, I was also disappointed and a little scared; scared for myself, and scared for the young girls out in the world. This disappointment and fear I experienced is because the praise began once the articles reached present day. This is when the damage began, as well.
The media praised the young woman, not for her successful recovery, but for her “incredible transformation” into a fitness trainer. These articles highlight the “taut stomach” of the woman, as well as her “small waist” and “six-pack abdominals.” Essentially, she only received praise for her muscular and fit body. There was no praise for the actual recovery. This is extremely problematic and damaging, as is the media’s hyper fixation on the young woman’s build.
First, and for me personally, receiving praise for my recovery kept me going. It kept me healed, kept me eating, and helped me when I thought I would relapse. I was proud of myself, and hearing that other people were proud of my recovery, meant the absolute world to me. However, if I received praise that fixated on my build or body, I would have relapsed. I would have entered that state of mind where my thoughts told me- where my eating disorder told me, I needed to starve myself and regress to old habits and patterns to continuously receive this type of praise, one that is rooted in physical appearance.
If I felt this way after reading these articles, I’m sure countless others have, too. Young women, little girls, those who are struggling with their eating disorders, those in recovery, those recovered; we would all revert to the past. This is damaging.
The structure of the praise isn’t the only bit that’s damaging for young women and girls. The images utilized are likewise harmful. Throughout the article, I scrolled through pictures and pictures of toned and fit bodies (I would be lying if I didn’t admit that they were slightly triggering for me). I understand the importance of a visual, a before and an after. Still, it was as if the “incredible transformation” pictures were placed on a pedestal: Congratulations on obtaining this body! You are beautiful because of it! This can be quite triggering and damaging for many. When young women and girls observe the transformation pictures, they then believe that they must look identical to fitness trainers. The “taunt stomach,” “small waist,” and “six-pack abdominals,” become a goal and the women who obtain them become an idolization.
Thus, in order for young women and girls to achieve their goal and obtain a body worth idolizing, they participate in harmful behaviors. For some, it is old, toxic behaviors they return to after years of being free. For others, it is the new, harmful behaviors they engage in. Overall, it is an endless cycle of abuse, self-hate, starvation, and over-exercise. It is continuous damage.
I argue that the media must approach the narrative and the structure of these articles differently. The media should praise women for their recovery in its entirety. Recovery is a long, emotional process, and the media should acknowledge the strength these young women possess. The media shouldn’t emphasize “taunt stomach[s],” “small waist[s],” and “six-pack abdominals” as a goal for others to achieve, nor should they structure and fixate their praise on the body or build the women have presently. Lastly, the media shouldn’t include so many triggering and damaging pictures within the articles.
Let’s praise, celebrate, and congratulate all who have recovered properly from eating disorders: congratulations on your recovery. It was a long, emotional journey. I know there were times when you wanted to quit, to revert to old ways, and to give in to the illness that became a close friend. However, you never quit, and you never gave in. This is an incredible accomplishment. I am proud of you. Keep going.