Every year, the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) holds an awareness campaign to increase public knowledge about the prevalence, risks, and resources associated with different types of eating disorders (EDs). This year, between February 24th and March 1st, the organization is partnering with a series of other healthcare organizations and community partners to offer resources to the entire community around mental and physical health. 

Like other mental health campaigns, there is a fine line between romanticizing illness and attempting to raise awareness around critical issues. Because eating disorders are so often intertwined with body image and confidence, they often employ a very "soft" persona that detracts from what they really are: medical conditions that put people through (often) years of suffering, pain, and for some, death. 

As someone who has personally gone through mental health issues since early adolescence, I often struggle to sit still during these "awareness" campaigns. I watch neuro-typical girls walk around campus with their "WE HATE DIET CULTURE" pins, or holding tabling events in the student center with candies to attract passer-bys to "learn" more about their cause. Although I have no doubt these programs are good-intentioned and come from a good, philanthropic place, I doubt they are actually effective in dispelling the myths around eating disorders and promote a general concern for the welfare of people that are at risk of developing one. 

Speaking on personal experience, here are some of the things you need to keep in mind going into National Eating Disorder Awareness Week in order to validate and support the experiences of the ED community: 

Recognize that anorexia and bulimia are not the only two eating disorders out there. 

It's a common misconception that people who have an eating disorder either have a) anorexia or b) bulimia. These two forms of eating disorders are often popularized by media because they present very specific symptoms and are very common among diagnoses. However, there are many other eating disorders that often manifest with symptoms that aren't as romantic as someone skipping dinner or being afraid of stepping on a scale. In reality, many of the eating disorders that don't receive attention are the ones that have the most disgusting or socially-abnormal symptoms. These include Rumination Disorder EDs (in which people will regurgitate food, re-chew it, and either swallow or spit it out), Pica (consumption of foods that aren't considered "foods" such as chalk, ice, dirt, cornstarch, and alike), and binge eating disorders (in which people will consume so much food and compensate by over-exercising, purging, and/or laxative abuse). 

Recognize that all body shapes and identities can suffer from eating disorders.

Although college-aged females are particularly vulnerable to developing eating disorders, they can impact any member of the population including queer folx, all ethnicities, and those who are either able-bodied or disabled. Additionally, EDs can attach on to any body shape. Just because you might consider someone to be larger bodied does not make their experience less valid, nor does it give you permission to assume that they have a "healthy" relationship with food based on their body size. The same can be said for individuals who appear to be "skinny" or individuals who exercise on a regular basis. 

Recognize that eating disorders are medically classified, which means they are indeed, illnesses.   

People who have eating disorders face medical consequences as a result of their illness. It's not just about skipping meals, nor is it about feeling guilty that you ate a piece of candy. Taking away the illness component of eating disorder only serves to invalidate the experiences of the community and sweep treatment under the rug. 

Recognize that a good portion of those with an eating disorder are not going to pop out of the woodwork during NEDA Week and profess their illness. 

 It took years before I was able to feel comfortable with telling my parents that I could barely make a week without puking the remnants of my meals into a toilet. Being transparent about having an eating disorder takes immense courage and self-actualization. Not everyone who has an ED feels comfortable being open about it, but their experiences are still very much real. As an ally, the best thing you can do is to be supportive and be understanding, regardless if people are ready to open up to you or not. 

Do not use your engagement with National Eating Disorder Awareness Week as a way to gain Instagram followers or engage in a socially-altruistic media campaign. 

The last thing we want, speaking on behalf of the ED community, is for folx to use the pain inflicted by these illnesses as a form of personal gain. Consider the implications of posting pictures of you with your sorority sisters holding a NEDA sticker. In other words, consider what role your image has on the community. Is it bringing awareness to an important, and often highly swept-under-the-rug issue? Is it encouraging a general concern for the welfare of others? What purpose is it serving in regards to NEDA's mission?

Be prepared to have your assumptions about eating disorders challenged. 

There is no way to learn everything about eating disorders, nor come in with a perfect understanding about what the impacts are on mental health. The purpose of the National Eating Disorder Awareness Week is to learn more about EDs and increase the presence of allies in the community. The best thing you can do is to enter with an open mind and consider what you can do to better support those around you. 

You can read more about my experience with bulimia here.