Topic Tuesday: Our Words

Language Barriers (By: Natalie Papini)

“But if thougNatalie Papiniht corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

-George Orwell

George Orwell affirmed what I believe to be a pressing issue when it comes to how the general public interprets information regarding eating disorders. The power of words and language used in the dialogue pertaining to eating disorders has a larger impact than we may realize. In a recent interview with Entertainment Tonight, pop music star Meghan Trainor verified that she never had an eating disorder by stating:

“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…”

While this may seem like a flip statement, it undeniably implies that having an eating disorder is somehow a sign of strength and self-discipline. It also suggests that having an eating disorder is a choice, neither of which is true. This kind of dialect is both insensitive to those with eating disorders and potentially instrumental to those who are highly susceptible to eating disorders.

Our language can not only impacts how the general public thinks about eating disorders (and mental health in general), but can also work to perpetuate inadequate funding for eating disorder research. For instance, data from 2011 shows that research dollars spent on Alzheimer’s disease an average of $88 per affected individual, $81 per individual suffering from Schizophrenia, and $44 per each person with Autism, but a mere $0.93 per individual affected with an eating disorder (National Eating Disorder Association, 2011).  Not only is the funding allocation disproportionate, it is exacerbated by the fact that eating disorders are nearly six times more prevalent than Alzheimer’s disease, and nearly ten times more prevalent than Autism and Schizophrenia, respectively (NEDA, 2011). It is also worth noting that the prevalence rate of eating disorders is a conservative estimate given the secretive nature of these disorders, with the actual number of people suffering from an eating disorder being larger.  Furthermore, insurance does not adequately cover eating disorder treatment, as illustrated through 96.7% of 109 eating disorder specialists reporting that they believe patients with anorexia nervosa are put in life-threatening situations because health insurance companies refuse to cover the cost of treatment (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 2014).

With National Eating Disorder Awareness month approaching, I urge everyone to reconsider the language used involving discussions of eating disorders. Let’s make a conscious effort to be more aware and mindful of the implications of our language, and make informed and thoughtful decisions in our discussions.  I encourage those who currently have an eating disorder as well as those who have had an eating disorder to initiate a discussion that is backed by scientific evidence and that dispels various misguided ideas that eating disorders are a choice, that individuals with an eating disorder are always underweight or normal weight, and that having an eating disorder is somehow a sign of personal strength. When language is used haphazardly in discussions involving mental health and eating disorders, it can create a multitude of problems. Perhaps a change in the way we choose to discuss eating disorders and mental health will cultivate better education amongst such topics and indirectly influence policy and funding allocation.

About the Author
Natalie is a Clinical Health Psychology graduate student at Northern Arizona University with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Trevecca Nazarene University. She enjoys spending time with friends and family, following the Chicago Cubs/Bears/Blackhawks, traveling, coffee, reading, running, hiking, and live music.