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Why Eating Disorders Aren't Really About Food

There are many common misconceptions and oversimplifications about eating disorders in our society today. Fatphobia, thinness ideals, gender norms, “too much” of this, “not enough” of that create pressure to be in the “right” body. Marginalized communities are often left out of the conversation. And our diet culture, social media, and economy thrive on a society that values appearance and beauty standards in order to increase competition and revenue. However, society’s focus becomes quite a distraction, misrepresentation, and masking of what many people are actually struggling with deep down and therefore many don’t receive the appropriate or adequate treatment and support needed.

Often people turn to the sources of their triggers- dieting, social media, substances, money, in order to help them soothe their discontent with their relationship with food, their weight, and body—only to be left further indebted to and trapped in the cycles of competition, distraction, and masking. Although the symptoms manifest as preoccupations and behaviors related to food (and the pain associated with these is very real!), these symptoms only represent the outer expression of much deeper internal complexities.

How an eating disorder comes about is quite complex and involves biological, psychological, and socio-environmental factors. The 'how' and ‘why’ is usually different for every individual and always makes sense in the context of their experiences, identities, and culture. So, if eating disorders aren’t really about food, then what are they about?

- Trauma: coping with rejection, abandonment, neglect, violence, invalidation, mistreatment, etc. on any level

- Lack of interpersonal nourishment: the safety of turning to food or a behavior rather than another human

- Self-soothing: turning to something external to help something internal; a way to regulate, control, avoid emotions

- Acceptance: working to change the body to be more tolerable to self, others, society

- Managing imperfections: intolerance for certain aspects of humanness that become the fixation (Think of those commercials that use language like “those unwanted hairs” or those diet ‘before and after’ pictures that show what’s a “better body”)

- Desire: attempts at controlling what we allow our mind and body to have; confusion around own wants and needs; shame for having wants and needs

and much more.

Of course therapy is a place to work through these concerns, but we also need to continue to shift the narrative in society about what bodies mean and whose are acceptable.

Please share a comment below about how you are involved in this movement! (For example- buying clothes from size inclusive brands, self-reflection on your biases, having challenging conversations, etc.).

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Kathleen Roche
Kathleen Roche
Apr 03, 2021

The self soothing mechanism made me really think. Especially during the pandemic and what feels like many incontrollable circumstance, it is easy to find outlets to give us the guise of control.

Great article and reminder for me to face my emotions to be mindful of my "why". Thanks!!


Natalie Marotta
Natalie Marotta
Apr 02, 2021

Such an important, thoughtful analysis of such a complex and commonly misconceived challenge that many face. Thank you for this.


Love this article. I think as a society, we definitely need to shift our internal biases and the language we use when talking about bodies and eating disorders. This article is a great resource in starting new and important conversations that can often be hard to talk about — I will be sharing it with my friends and family!


Great read - interesting and informative! In a time of challenging conversations needing to be had, add this to the list!


This is something I will definitely keep

in mind moving forward. I plan to challenge myself to use better language around things like body image, eating disorders, and food. Thanks!

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