Each year, the final week in February is designated as Eating Disorder Awareness Week as promoted by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA.) NEDA is a wonderful non-profit which provides tremendous support, education, and services to those suffering, their loved ones, and those who wish to learn and be involved. In fact, my first involvement in the eating disorder field was as a volunteer on the NEDA helpline.
The theme for this year’s week of awareness is “I Had No Idea.” There is a general misconception that an eating disorder is somehow visible, that it involves an emaciated individual who clearly “looks sick” and therefore must be sick. This could not be further from the truth. Most individuals who suffer from an eating disorder suffer from Bulimia or Binge Eating Disorder and do not look malnourished. In many cases, an individual will experience one disorder and then develop another.
When I and my family first began telling my relatives and friends that I was suffering from an eating disorder their exact words were, “I had no idea…” While many people close to me knew that something was wrong—I had retreated, avoided social situations, etc. —family friends were shocked and confused at our announcement.
The Jewish community is incredibly close-knit. This has been our way for many years, and when there is news, it travels from one person to the next. This has been an asset to our community as we are able to help one another very quickly and very generously. News of tragedy allows for great support and involvement; we band together as one entity. And yet this can, at times, feel suffocating. I remember not wanting anyone to know of my battle because I thought if anyone knew, everyone would know, and I did not want to be the topic of conversation. Today I receive wonderful, positive support and feedback from the close-knit community and I “put myself out there” purposely—because my belief in the support and awareness I may provide is stronger than my worry about anyone speaking badly of me.
I can still recall the taste of fear I had about anyone finding out my secret. I felt ashamed. Looking back, I know that I had nothing about which to be ashamed. An eating disorder is an illness, not a choice. Still, I kept it my secret until I was able to put it some steps behind me. People often ask whether or not they should tell the public, or even their friends, about their eating disorders. This is a personal decision and one that I cannot make for others. But I understand the concern regarding people not understanding the truth about eating disorders and wondering whether sufferers will be met with rude remarks or ignorant statements.
“I had no idea” can reflect shock at the knowledge that an individual is suffering, or it can represent the lack of awareness and knowledge. This theme should no longer apply to our community with regard to the latter; there should no longer be ignorance and misconceptions.
Eating disorders are not easily recognizable. This is true, especially when one does not have to be drastically underweight or overweight to have an eating disorder. Rather, we must all come together to understand the true nature of eating disorders: how they strike, how they can tear someone apart, and how they act as an unhealthy coping mechanism. But, most importantly, we must work together to foster a sense of support for those who may be suffering. I would not have been fearful of others’ reactions had I known that the community would have met me with warm words and embraces rather than “just get over it” or “it’s a phase.”
There are many ways to take part in NEDA Awareness Week. You can easily look at NEDA’s website to locate events in the area, contribute to the cause in honor of the week, or take part in the Purple Project (search: Purple Project, Stand Up). But you can also “donate” to the cause in other ways: learn more, speak sensitively, and foster a welcoming, shaming-free community.
By Temimah Zucker