I’m the first to point out that jokes about eating disorders are the farthest thing from funny — so it’s surprising that I once used to think making these jokes helped my recovery.
At the time, I wasn’t sure why I was doing it. In hindsight, my discomfort around my recovery was thick. I was still so scared, so ashamed, so embarrassed. I wanted to erase anorexia from my life and by joking about “those five years where I decided not to eat” or my awesome sense of willpower — because, let’s face it, it’s easier to pretend that something isn’t life-threatening when you can make it into a punchline.
In a way, I almost felt like I needed to joke about it. Laughing about those demons was my way of pretending that I was fully recovered and happy (when, really, my ongoing recovery scared the crap out of me, made me feel totally alone and disassociated and secretly, I really really missed being sick).
I could pretend that not eating was just a teenage phase, like that time I cut my own hair into a side fringe because all the cool kids were doing it or when I wanted to wear basketball shorts and skate shoes in primary school, even though “athletic” would’ve been the least likely adjective applied to me.
I wanted people to feel comfortable around me again. I didn’t want to face the scrutiny of best friends’ mothers telling me how thin I was or schoolmates screwing up their nose behind my back every time I said I wasn’t hungry at lunchtime. I wanted to be sick again — but wanted everyone else to think I was healthy. I wanted to make people laugh and convince them that I was doing well, all the while leaving me able to think about that little voice in my head that told me I deserved to punish myself under the guise of “a joke.”
I wondered where I even got the idea to use joking as a defense mechanism. but when you really think about it, it’s clear. Just look at the way eating disorders are portrayed in movies, on television and even in the memes that we create and share with our friends:
Or in 2015 on The View, when host Joy Behar exclaimed after returning from a commercial break, “We were just discussing whether it’s better to be anorexic or bulimic backstage.”
Michelle Collins cast her vote for bulimia, because “[With bulimia] you get to enjoy the meal,” then pointing to two women in the audience, counting them as on her side. “She’s nodding. We have two bulimics here. They agree,” Collins laughed.
And let’s not forget celebrity culture, with “curvy role model” figures such as Kat Dennings, who told Philadelphia magazine in 2008, “I tried being anorexic for four hours, and then I was like, I need some bagels.” Or, more recently, pop starlet Meghan Trainor in 2014 told Entertainment Tonight, “I wasn’t strong enough to have an eating disorder … I tried to go anorexic for a good three hours. I ate ice and celery, but that’s not even anorexic. And I quit. I was like, ‘Ma, can you make me a sandwich? Like, immediately.’”
Curvy who elevate themselves as icons by tearing down thinner bodies and making fun of starvation is nothing commendable, cute or relatable. In fact, it’s awful and disgusting behavior. And in 2010 when I started noticing these jokes in movies, on television and coming from the mouths of supposed “role models” to young girls, it dawned on me: I was contributing to the problem by perpetuating jokes (no matter how small) that ultimately harmed my recovery, however much I tried to tell myself that they were helping.
That lightbulb moment snapped me back to reality: I was trying to make sure that other people liked me, instead of continuing to work on the fact that I needed to like myself.
I was creating part of the stigma that had hurt me so badly every time someone else made a joke at my expense or belittled the severity of mental illnesses.
And as I shared with NEDIC as part of Eating Disorders Awareness Week in January 2016, eating disorders are not a choice. And, sadly, this still needs to be said. They’re not a diet. They’re not a conscious decision. No one wakes up and says, “Hey, I think I’ll ruin my life today!” Insinuating that a sufferer can simply stop is incredibly insulting.
Sufferers hear your comments and jokes and quips about weight, and they internalize them all. Sufferers feel trapped and conflicted because outsiders tell them that they need to “just talk to someone about what they’re going through,” but then those same outsiders make jokes about weight or the affected person’s disease. Sufferers often feel like there’s no judgement-free safe space for them to express just how much they’re struggling.
Thankfully, amidst the slew of jokes about starvation and secret vomiting in the coatroom as a desperate attempt to seem cool and edgy, there are celebrities attempting to counter this culture:
“Having an eating disorder doesn’t show ‘strength.’ Strength is when are able to overcome your demons after being sick and tired for so long. There’s a wide misconception that anorexia and/or bulimia is a choice and you often hear people say things like, ‘why doesn’t she just start eating?’ Or even, ‘just stop throwing up.’ It’s the ignorance and lack of education on mental illnesses that continues to but mental health care on the back burner to Congress even though this is an epidemic that is sweeping our nation and causing more and more tragedy every day. Starving is not a ‘diet’ and throwing up isn’t something that only extremely thin men or women do. Eating disorders do not discriminate … Neither does any other mental illness. These are deadly diseases that are taking lives daily. So please, let’s be cautious of the words we use when discussing EDs and other mental illnesses.”
—From Demi Lovato’s Twitter account. Lovato has been incredibly public about her battles with eating disorders, addiction and self-harm.
The “anti-politically correct” folks in the crowd will be quick to point us to the fact that we can’t all walk on eggshells and surely we need to get to a stage of recovery where portions of our illness can be joked about. This begs me to ask: is it ever okay to make a joke about an eating disorder?
On the one hand, I can see a potential benefit to laughter as a coping mechanism during recovery (which, by the way, is no walk in the park. Far from it). And it’s an invaluable skill in life to be able to laugh at ourselves occasionally. But personally, I think there’s a big difference between poking fun at that time you made a speech with spinach in your teeth and gleefully adding a punchline to that time the hidden illness in your brain — which still likely lives there — nearly claimed your life and changed the dynamic of your life and the lives of those around you forever.
Ultimately, whether or not someone chooses to discuss their eating disorder in a light-hearted way in recovery is an incredibly personal choice. I don’t think it’s possible to create a blanket rule — particularly when there’s so much variance in eating disorders and individuals can have vastly different tolerance levels to joking. What negatively effects one person might roll off another’s back.
But I’d like to think that there’s one thing that we can all agree on: when a joke goes beyond playful banter and starts to contribute negatively to an existing culture of shame and stigma, which ultimately stops people from seeking professional help (which, in turn, costs lives), then we need to examine why we make the jokes that we do and whether there’s a better way to process those emotions.
Because for every person who isn’t offended by the joke, there’s another person suffering who is badly affected by it.
There’s another person who chooses to keep silent about their fight. There’s another person whose belief that they’re entirely alone in their struggle is reinforced. And another who doesn’t take their own battle seriously, so they allow it to continue to fester.
Whether we’re comedians, actors, singers, mothers, teachers or regular women, we need to be aware that our words have power.
And even if we’ve recovered from the very eating disorder that we’re discussing, that doesn’t give us the right to invalidate the suffering of those who are still fighting an incredibly difficult war that claims far too many casualties.
If not making the joke can mean lessening someone’s struggle, then why would we not respect that?
[content warning: discussion of eating disorders]