MarginalizED Voices: Broadening the Conversation about Eating Disorders

unnamedBy Allison Epstein

If you’ve been following us here at Adios Barbie for a while, or if you were here with us for one special day this February, you know that an important part of our mission is to expand the conversation society currently allows about our bodies and ourselves. Without diverse and accurate representation, we risk falling into what could be called the “single story fiction.” For those of you who haven’t seen the amazing TED Talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, go do. It’s a little over ten minutes. I’ll wait.

Now that you’re back, you know what I mean by the problems of a single story. Ms. Adichie explains that by restricting our views of a culture or group of people to a single, narrow, media-approved representation, we risk misunderstandings and marginalization of the very people we’re (allegedly) talking about. No person is one-sided. No group can be represented by a single story.

And yet, when you think about the mainstream media’s presentation of eating disorders, you might be forgiven for believing there really is only that one single story. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Our protagonist: a young, white. cisgendered. straight, upper-middle-class woman between the ages of 13 and 30 diagnosed with anorexia nervosa (bulimia nervosa on occasion). She enters residential treatment, and after a stay of a few months in a treatment facility exits ready to continue her journey on to recovery and self-love. I can only assume the reason you didn’t stop me is that it’s pretty difficult to interrupt someone writing online. We’ve all read that story before.

This isn’t to say that these stories aren’t important. It’s crucial that we talk about eating disorders and the damaging effects they can have on those who suffer with them. It’s crucial that we get to work breaking down the stigma that eating disorders are “lifestyle choices” or “diets taken too far” or “a fear of being fat.” As a 22-year-old white cis straight middle-class woman in recovery from an eating disorder, I’m not here to say my story, or stories like it, aren’t important.

Here’s the thing, though: they’re not the only ones.

Some statistics that mainstream representations of eating disorder narratives and memoirs rarely take into account:

  • 1 in 10 people with a diagnosed eating disorder are male. This ratio doesn’t account for men who don’t report their disorder or seek treatment thanks to the stigma that EDs are a “women’s problem.”
  • People of all races and ethnicities can – and do – struggle with eating disorders. Although there has been some important pushback against the whitewashing of eating disorder representation in the media, it’s clearly not enough.
  • Eating disorders do not discriminate based on class, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, ability, or any other demographic you could possibly think of. They’re an equal-opportunity issue that needs equal-opportunity coverage and treatment.
  • Not all treatment includes inpatient sessions at a residential facility. Though programs like this are successful and life-changing for some patients, they’re not the only way to get help. With the price tag attached to some residential treatment facilities, they’re not always a possibility, or even what would be most helpful given the specific case.
  • Anorexia nervosa is not the only kind of eating disorder that needs attention and treatment. Limiting narratives to this particular illness neglects crucial stories of those living with bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder (BED), Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS, now updated in the DSM-V to Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder or OSFED), or other disordered eating behaviors all too frequently dismissed as “not serious enough” – as if there’s a certain level of “sick” needed to receive help.

All this representation is missing from our mainstream narratives. But what can we do about it? Well, that’s where you come in. More specifically, that’s where the Marginalized Voices Project comes in, co-sponsored by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and body-image activist Melissa A. Fabello. In a move to recalibrate the representation of eating disorders to better reflect what the world actually looks like, the Marginalized Voices Project states its mission like this:

Our goal is to create a collection of stories that tells the whole truth – by spanning the entire spectrum, highlighting stories from people of marginalized identities and that challenge misconceptions – so that we can present the world with what the reality of most eating disorders look like.

Want more information about the project? You’re in luck: co-sponsor Melissa has a two-minute informational video to talk you through the specifics.


Want to know how you can get involved? Submit your story here! Guidelines for written submissions are as follows:

  1. Submissions should be written in personal narrative, creative non-fiction, or memoir style
  2. Length should be between 1200 and 2500 words
  3. Deadline for submissions is August 15, 2014

We’re proud to support this project, destroy the fiction of a single-story eating disorder experience, and spread the word far and wide about the truth behind EDs. Whether by submitting your story, spreading the word, or listening to diverse voices speak their truths, join us in doing your part.

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