Why Food Media Won’t Talk About Eating Disorders

TW: eating disorder behaviors, facts, and trauma

Headline after headline, a few editors in chiefs later, and the onboarding of a few token people of color, and food media has overcome its battle against exclusivity! Right?

If only it was that easy. With conversations of inclusivity mounting in food media spaces over the past year or so, I see steps being made in the right direction towards inclusive food reporting. However, I have seen few to no articles discussing food and eating disorders in my favorite food publications. As I scroll through article after article discussing how food can contribute to a ‘healthy lifestyle’ (i.e. Healthy-ish by Bon Appetit) or how our mental health is inextricably connected to the food we put into our body, I see zero representation of the rise in eating disorders and disordered eating patterns from the past 20 years. But between 2013–2018 alone, eating disorders increased 7.8%, and we are only now seeing articles providing baseline information of the illness.

It makes sense that this is just now happening. After years of food media being pro-diet culture, COVID-19 has sparked a mental health dialogue that is finally coming to terms with the health culture that has made so many struggle. But with how widespread disordered eating is, there is not even close to enough media coverage on the impact it has on people every day. This makes people blind to the warning signs and invalidates the significance of the wide range of eating disorders that exist. It is time for honest, intimate reporting on the reality of living with an eating disorder.

Eating disorders expand beyond much more than just food- this is a known fact. For 9% of the world population, food presents daily challenges that reveal valuable insights about the intersection of food, emotion, culture, and mental health. These experiences are worthy of mainstream food media. But mainstream food media may not be ready to talk about the prevalent reality of disordered relationships with food.

Mainstream Food Media covering Health and Wellness

So, why are eating disorders so common yet so underrepresented? Here’s why:

1. Eating Disorders are normalized

Eating disorders are everywhere. From your mainstream health and wellness magazine to your closest social circles, eating disorders and their associated behaviors are masked under the categories of dieting, ‘eating clean’, and ‘forgetting’ to eat breakfast. There are also an array of disordered eating behaviors that can lead to the sneaky, slippery slope that is an ED. Whether it's orthorexic, (highly restrictive and ‘health’ conscious food limitations), food avoidance, food hoarding, or binging, there are seemingly a million and one ways that someone can unknowingly fall into an eating disorder.

And, why is that? Because eating disorders are normalized. I would even argue that eating disorders are central to Western food culture. Many early health food advocates, such as Helen Gurley Brown, published formative health food columns that were informed by their own eating disorders. Brown, the former editor in cheif of Cosmopolitan, subjected herself to extreme starvation while writing her “Single Girl’s Cookbook” that included recipes for a ‘Skinny Hot Buttered Rum’ and a series of dieting stories which were painted as essential for the sexual liberation of the single female in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Many columnists like Helen wrote recipes that reinforced the patriarchal, heteronormative, and extremely dangerous articles that set the stage for the normalization of diet culture. But as we know now, ‘diet culture’ is just a cleaned-up version of the normalized eating disorder culture that has plagued Western society for generations.

Commentary on Helen Gurdey Brown in What She Ate by Laura Shapiro

And, this is not just an American issue. Western culture has colonized its food standards across global food communities, making eating disorders a globalized issue. This shows up in our local food media headlines as ‘7 ways to cleanse your body for Spring’ (making the assumption that the reader’s current food habits are dirty or wrong) or ‘Try THIS ancient grain to reduce bloating!’ which just fetishizes indigenous food cultures- but that’s a conversation that warrants its own article. However diet culture shows up in your local food media, chances are, those headlines are pressuring someone out there to engage in disordered eating behaviors.

2. Eating Disorders are Taboo

Yes, I know this seems like a contradiction to my previous point, but the nature of eating disorders is contradictory. They are both discretely normalized and overtly taboo, making them one of the most challenging mental illnesses to treat.

No one talks about eating disorders outside of the ED community. At least, this is what I’ve seen in my experience in recovering from an eating disorder. When I look at my favorite food media outlets, I see zero representation of eating disorder experiences which just tells me either 1) there is a lack of representation on staff who are able to speak on these issues or 2) eating disorders are not ‘supposed’ to be talked about in mainstream food media. Whatever the case may be, the stigmatization of eating disorders makes it extremely isolating for those looking for the motivation to recover. And with food media excluding these conversations, they are just perpetuating the already held idea that eating disorders are wrong and anyone who is suffering should just keep quiet.

If food media is only here to serve as entertainment, rather than communicate food realities, then we have a much larger problem at hand. Food media should be the place where food realities are openly discussed, not hidden from sight. And as we can see with backlash against the exclusivity of food media, there’s a chance that eating disorder discourse could finally get its platform. But with how far food media has to go in terms of creating truly inclusive content, eating disorders and deconstructing their stigma is probably last on the list of priorities to cover by veteran food writers.

3. Mental health discourse is exclusive

In recent years, there has been a surge in articles and op-eds regarding food and mental health. So, it would make sense that eating disorders should be a part of the conversation, right? Well sadly, this is not the case because mental health discourse itself is extremely exclusive.

Conversations on mental health tend to follow what is on-trend for that particular season. Some months it may be depression, others it may be intergenerational trauma, whatever the conversation is, eating disorders are never included. A part of this has to do with the stigma placed on eating disorders, but it is also because people don’t yet understand the ways that eating disorders are directly tied to all conversations on mental health. Mental health is intersectional and eating disorders feed off the pre-existing mental health conditions that people are already talking about. From PTSD to anxiety, EDs are a result of a ‘complex interaction of biological, psychological, and environmental factors.’ This means eating disorders are central to conversations on both physical and mental health and social justice. But they continue to be excluded which just tells me that we, as mental health advocates and food media consumers, are choosing to only discuss what everyone else is already talking about. If we want to move forward and create an inclusive dialogue through food media, it's time to start getting honest about eating disorders.

4. Eating disorders and recovery is not sexy or trendy enough

Food media, sadly, gravitates towards what is on-trend. Even if the purpose of reporting is to uncover the hard truth, food media seems to be the exception to this rule. Food media has been crafted as an exclusive space that is meant to give us the “Best Recipe for a Night In at Home,” rather than tell us how food insecurity can be a pre-existing condition for an eating disorder. People don’t want to see the ugly sides of food because food media has been portrayed as a space for escapism from ‘real’ issues. But food issues are real issues. Food is inextricably connected to everything we do. We eat every four hours, integrate food into our most intimate moments, and use food as a tool for connecting with family, friends, and strangers. So, why do we still choose the road of toxic positivity when it comes to our discussions around food?

It’s not just the job of the UN or FAO to keep us up to date on the consequences of unjust food systems. We need localized and inclusive reporting on food experiences. If we continue to exclude the not-so-fun realities of food, it will continue to isolate and abandon the food issues that impact the daily lives of millions of people around the world. And, this doesn’t just go for eating disorders. This means it's time to start uncovering the realities of food insecurity, agricultural labor conditions, and the plethora of issues food media knows about, but is refusing to do honest, comprehensive reporting on.

5. Eating disorder discourse caters to the rich and white

The conventional stereotype of an eating disorder is a white, heterosexual woman suffering from anorexia. The perpetuation of this stereotype is not only dangerous but is inherently tied to histories of colonialism and white supremacy.

Common Google search results for Eating Disorder Recovery

To see eating disorders as an affluent, white problem denies recovery for the millions of people suffering from conditions that are neither a product of western culture nor affluence. Eating disorders can stem from intergenerational trauma carried from famine, poverty, and racism. Eating disorders affect all people of color, body types, and sexual orientations. In fact, eating disorders disproportionately affect BIPOC communities because they are less likely to receive treatment compared to white people and face more social pressure to assimilate to the western health and beauty standards that perpetuate EDs. But food media won’t talk about these realities because they are still hidden from sight. The white, heteronormative stereotype around eating disorders is making it impossible for food media to create an inclusive representation for those seeking recovery.

ED Representation in Food Media. Source: The New York Times.

It Is Time to Say Goodbye to Health and Wellness Columns and Hello to Comprehensive Food Writing

News flash: all food is healthy food. Food may have nutritional variety, but regardless, all food is used to give our bodies the energy it needs and no one food is ‘better’ than another. The existence of health food content compartmentalizes food into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ categories. And while it is key for all humans to have a balance of nutrients, ‘diet’, ‘health’, ‘wellness’, or ‘whatever you want to call it’ culture, is going to be the last thing that teaches us balance in our relationships with food.

Health food articles also depend on a highly privileged market and tokenize indigenous ingredients to reel in profit. They position themselves as pro-diet culture and anti-everything else. These articles are doing nothing more than distracting us from the stories that matter. The stories of people surviving in food desserts or being separated from their home country’s food culture are narratives that already exist. Diet culture is a manufactured narrative that has taken priority over every other food experience. Food media may be owned by large conglomerates whose goal is to drive profitable content, but that does not mean they aren’t responsible for doing honest reporting on the diverse realities of our relationships with food.

And to get back to the point of eating disorders, if you ask anyone suffering from an ED “What has been the most helpful in recovery,” I would bet that they would talk about the power of hearing the stories of others. Eating disorders are an extremely isolating experience which stems from all the points made above. But the times at my eating disorder treatment center when I was able to hear the stories of others, was when I felt the most heard and the least alone. And isn't that all anyone is asking for? When we talk about inclusivity, we aren’t talking about being understood, we want a platform. It doesn’t matter if its an eating disorder or someone’s food culture, everyone wants to be heard so no one feels alone or that their existence isn’t accepted.

Food is one of the most powerful tools to bridge barriers and communicate experiences. It’s time for food media to tap into this power and be vocal about it. Food is political, its messy, its problematic, and none of these realties are what food media should shy away from. Writers should be diving head first into the messy, hard to touch stories because that is the content that drives and expresses the complexity of our relationships with food. Inclusivity is not simply bringing visibility to the ingredients and dishes westerners don’t know about. Inclusivity is covering the stories that explain all the ways that food impacts the human experience.

gettin emotional about food