Lauren Chan has been in the fashion industry long enough to have a strong opinion about how it contributes to disordered eating. The 29-year old is a former plus-size model and editor at Glamour magazine and says that fashion, entertainment and the media perpetuate the myth of an idealized body type that for most people, is unattainable. “We see 5,000 ads a day, all featuring the same kind of image,” she says. “The message we receive is clear, but if you look around at the people in your life, very few look like that.”
The fall out, says Chan, is that people end up with low self-esteem, life threatening eating disorders, and a widespread, unhealthy diet culture. “It’s hard to find women who are unscathed from this,” she says.
In response to a fashion industry that doesn’t design much for larger sizes, Chan has created Henning, luxury garments for women size 12 and up. “I’ve been the one in a meeting or an interview where I’m covering up a split in my pants,” she says. “Only about 17 percent of the clothing available is for plus-sized women.”
While being more inclusive to all body types is one piece of the puzzle in helping to eliminate the desire for a certain look, there’s much work to be done. February 24 to March 1 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and the theme is “Come as You Are.”
Eating disorders don’t discriminate
Just as the entertainment and fashion industries idealize a certain look, when it comes to eating disorders, most people think of that same thin, white woman as victim. The truth is, the impact goes well beyond that demographic. Eating disorders don’t pick and choose.
A few stats, provided by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA): Black teenagers are 50 percent more likely than white teenagers to exhibit bulimic behaviors, such as binging and purging; lifetime prevalence estimates for bulimia and binge eating disorder among Latinas is 1.9 percent and 2.0 percent, respectively; Asian, Black, Hispanic and Caucasian youth all reported attempting to lose weight at similar rates.
Males, too, fall victim to eating disorders, at higher rates than most people realize. Depending on the source, statistics estimate that males represent between 10 and 25 percent of all eating disorder cases.
Ryan Sheldon, a 32-year old plus-size model living in Los Angeles, spent years seeking a diagnosis and treatment for his binge eating disorder. “I always hated my body, even as a kid,” he says. “I tried my first diet at age 12.”
By the time he entered college, Sheldon was in a regular routine of binging, restricting and exercising, leaving him with an average-sized weight. “Most people wouldn’t have any idea that I had disordered eating,” he says.
When he sought treatment, Sheldon was prescribed diet pills, which did nothing to help. “The issue wasn’t appetite,” he says. “I then asked for a sleeping pill prescription so that I could sleep all day and not eat.”
The result was a drastic, unhealthy weight loss in just the span of a month. “My eating disorder just blew up,” Sheldon says. “I felt unworthy and unlovable.”
More education and policy change is needed
Chevese Turner, chief policy and strategy officer at NEDA, says that the organization is putting more focus on marginalized communities. “We’re asking those outside the stereotype to share their stories in order to educate the public,” she says. “The truth is that low-weight anorexia represents the smallest percentage of eating disorders. It gets all the attention, however, because it’s so dangerous.”
Binge eating disorder, on the other hand, is the most prevalent, affecting some 15 million people over their lifetime, split evenly among men and women. “Two thirds of the population is higher weight,” says Turner. “By far, middle- to high-weight men and women are the most likely to have an eating disorder.”