Opinion: Insider’s perspective on fighting eating disorder culture


Photo by Arisha Hirji

Eating disorders are difficult to spot and can be caused or worsened by a variety of triggers. For example, innocent side comments made by parents and friends such as, “You’re eating again?” or “How are you still hungry?” can unintentionally result in negative feelings and disordered eating.

When I was in middle school, I struggled with binge eating and anorexia for three years. I was a dancer and gymnast for years — sports that focused on my body and how it looked, which created negative thoughts about my body from a young age. I wasn’t as skinny as the other girls when I started sixth grade, and I fell into a cycle of disordered eating. Unfortunately, I was not the only girl struggling with disordered eating in my middle school, which led to learning about eating disorder culture and how it works. 


Eating disorder culture is a vicious environment and often worsens individual eating disorders as it causes more feelings of anxiety and depression to constantly be compared to others in the environment. 


During my seventh grade year, my middle school put in a salad bar that was supposed to be a healthy alternative and quickly turned into a build-your-own eating disorder. Students would get in line with their friends and get a small bowl of spinach as their meal for the day because that’s what their friends did. I constantly saw students judge their friends for what they were eating if it wasn’t a salad. If you got a baked potato at the salad bar, you weren’t seen as healthy, and therefore you weren’t seen as skinny or hot. 


When I entered high school, I began and succeeded in recovering as I had to eat more consistent meals to function in the two high-intensity extracurriculars I participated in. However, I still struggle occasionally with making sure I eat enough food, especially when I am triggered by something I see or hear at school and feel like bingeing or not eating. 


From someone who has struggled with disordered eating for years, here are four ways to combat eating disorder culture and help those struggling. 


Think about your words before you say them


Imagine you have an eating disorder and struggle with eating enough food, and you finally work up the courage to go downstairs to eat a sandwich — a food you have not had in a while because it is a “fear food” (ie. food that causes fearful feelings in those with eating disorders). As you are preparing your sandwich for the first time in weeks, your mom walks in and asks, “You’re eating again?” 


It’s not a harmful statement, and your mom did not mean any harm, since you technically ate dinner with your parents even though you did not eat anything. However, to someone with an eating disorder, commenting on the food they eat in any way can cause negative feelings despite the intent. The best way to avoid these situations is to simply not comment on food and ask a different question, such as asking how their day was. 


Avoid turning eating disorder culture into trauma bonding


I constantly see videos on TikTok where people talk about how they replace all of their meals with coffee, and they pass it off as being quirky or joking about their trauma. Many use humor as a coping mechanism, including myself, but there is a fine line between joking about personal trauma and posting harmful behaviors for millions to see and potentially emulate.


Part of eating disorder culture is the aspect of competing — specifically in those with anorexia. It becomes a competition to see how long someone can go without food, so if someone with anorexia sees someone on TikTok talking about how they forgot to eat for two days or replaced coffee for meals, they will copy that behavior. 


While social media can cause triggers for disordered eating, triggers can just as easily happen in everyday life by our friends and family unintentionally. To avoid this problem, watch what you post and say in relation to disordered eating, and think about if the post would create an overall positive or negative feeling in your audience before you post it. 


Listen to your friends struggling and offer help


It took me years to speak about how I struggled with disordered eating. I was terrified that people would think I was a freak or making it up for attention, so I never said anything until someone close to me told me about their eating disorder. I eventually began telling people through a blog I started as a sophomore, and it resulted in a surprisingly large number of people telling me about their experiences as well. 


The way eating disorders have been treated over the years has changed from taboo to normalized, and although talking about eating disorders and normalizing having conversations about how to help, having an eating disorder is not something to take lightly or make fun of. If a friend speaks up about how they have been struggling, you need to listen to them, validate their feelings and ask what you can do to help. 


Provide accessible options for recovery


Most people never ask for help and rarely begin recovery, which leads to a harmful, unending cycle of disordered eating. The only typically provided option for eating disorder recovery is going into a facility, which most teens and young adults don’t have the ability or funds to use. 


We need to fix the way society views eating disorders and provide realistic options for recovery. Struggling with disordered eating is a problem that needs to be taken seriously, especially for teenagers and young adults, and addressed rather than brushed aside as unimportant. To combat eating disorder culture and help those struggling in silence, schools and colleges should provide accessible resources and assistance so those in need have an option for recovery. 


Eating disorders are a serious mental and physical health crisis, and they need to be treated as such. If someone tells you about their eating disorder or you suspect someone might need help, keep these four tips in mind to help combat eating disorder culture and support those who may be struggling.