What Being Institutionalized Taught Me About America's Preventable Epidemic


National Eating Disorder Awareness Week commenced on Monday and I noticed an influx of "suggested posts" on my Facebook newsfeed. One recommended I try Slimfast and another encouraged I slim down for Spring Break or read the story about a woman who lost 20 pounds of belly fat by enjoying extract from a "miracle fruit."

Facebook can identify trends based on frequent posts, so it's no wonder that I was getting a lot of suggested posts focused on body image. Ironically, it's not because I'm posting selfies with Slimfast cans. An anorexia survivor, I'm targeted for diet products because of posts criticizing America's failure to take eating disorders seriously.

It's safe to assume most Americans didn't know it was National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. After all, so much of the "conversation" about eating disorders is flippant, inaccurate or just plain wrong. Eating disorders are not fads, nor are they special, once-a-year diets that help you achieve that perfect beach bod.

No, eating disorders are medically recognized illnesses that impact 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States at any given time. Puzzling to scientists and prevalent across the United States, research in this area is still shockingly underfunded. 

How badly are we failing Americans with eating disorders? To put it in perspective, the National Institute of Health awarded $450 million dollars in research funding to Alzheimer's disease in 2011, which affects 5.1 million Americans. This translates to $88 per person. Research towards eating disorders only received $28 million, or $0.93 per person, despite being almost six times as prevalent. 

Let that statistic sink in for a minute.

This shocking lack of funding, paired with a culture that disproportionately inundates young girls and women with products promoting physical perfection, has created a perfect and preventable storm. I should know; it nearly cost me my life.

When I was 12, I suffered from severe anorexia. Because my 70-pound body was so dehydrated, I had a seizure during a routine blood draw and was hospitalized for several weeks. Eventually, I was involuntarily institutionalized. The hospital told me the state had nowhere else to send me. 

As I was forced onto a stretcher for the ambulance ride to the mental institution, one of the male EMTs turned to me.

"Why did you do it?" he asked.

"I wanted to be a model," I responded through sobs.

He shook his head in sympathy.

"Figures. We see a lot of that. Girls wanting to be ballerinas, too."

My stay at the mental hospital was a study in powerlessness and loneliness. Whereas prior to being institutionalized I had felt like a prisoner of my own mind, now I actually was a prisoner, charged and convicted of buying into the unrealistic body expectations society pressed upon me, and so many other young people.

Image Credit: Flikr

The National Eating Disorder Association states that "[n]arrow definitions of beauty that include only women and men of specific body weights and shapes" can contribute to eating disorders and the messages of "thinness" are thematic in our culture's marketing and media campaigns. 

While it's long overdue that image-focused industries are held accountable for their irresponsible messaging, especially when girls as young as 6 years old are becoming concerned about their weight, they aren't the only ones to blame. When we don't fund research that can help eradicate public health crises, we send a message that those impacted are not worth saving. To ignore the affliction and our role in it is to ignore the affected bodies.

If our structures can relinquish their role as aggravators and assume one that's more focused on helping eradicate eating disorders, we'll be one step closer to freeing people from a lot of loneliness, shame and fear.