What happens when eating disorders go viral

BY ZACH STAFFORD

This year, Chicago had its largest pride parade to date—with over 1 million people attending. The parade stretched through almost three neighborhoods going north to south, all of which have a high density of LGBT residents, especially the Boystown neighborhood where the parade covers the most ground.

This year, I only attended the parade for a little while and didn’t stay too long because I don’t do crowds very well—Chicago’s Pride feels increasingly overwhelming as the years pass.  

But the day after the parade I was forwarded a link to Instagram from a colleague. When I clicked the link, I immediately saw it was a photo from the parade, and as I inspected the image, I noticed that there were children pictured with rainbow signs in their hand. And when I realized what the signs said, I could feel my blood pressure rise.

“We will suck your fat!” was etched onto the rainbow signs being held on display to the crowd, and these weren’t the only anti-fat messages on display being celebrated. Others included “Say NO to man boobs!” and—my personal non-favorite—“Don’t love your love handles.”

Some people commenting on this incident have defended the clinic by focusing on the fact that their job is to literally suck fat out of people. This fact actually makes me angrier knowing they chose Pride to promote their services, essentially capitalizing off both stereotypes and real issues connected with LGBT bodies.

Over the years, I have grown used to hearing and seeing negative messages about body image, as this continues to be a huge issue in our community. But for some reason seeing these messages so viscerally in a pride parade—not just in the usual covert fashion of just putting “hot” bodies all over floats—but actually spelling out in so many words that fat is bad was really disheartening, among many other emotions.

Operating director of the liposuction clinic, who made the float, Jeanne Shocky told The Huffington Post in an interview that “the signs were not meant to be hurtful in any shape of [sic] form.” Shocky said, “They were meant to be fun. When you do something like this, you want to be seen and want people to read it. So maybe it was a little cheesy, but we really wanted people to see it.”

Her comments show us that the clinic’s intention wasn’t meant to be negative, but to quote Pablo Picasso, “What one does is what counts. Not what one has the intentions of doing.” And what counts here is that no matter how you spin it signs like these just reinforce messages that many of us are literally dying from hearing.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate compared to any other mental illness and affect more than 30 million just in the United States alone. Gay and bisexual men only make up around 5 percent of the general population in the United States, but make up over 42 percent of all men with an eating disorder.

To help contextualize these numbers for Chicago Pride, let’s say 50 percent of the 1 million attendees were male, bringing us to 500,000. And from that number, let’s say that 50 percent of those men were gay or bisexual, which is probably low.

According to the International Journal of Eating Disorders, 15 percent of gay and bisexual men have experienced disordered eating in their lifetime. So taking this into consideration, at the Chicago Pride Parade, around 37,500 gay and bisexual men watching the parade had battled disordered eating or are currently dealing with it.

This number only gets exorbitantly larger if we factor in the attendees who were straight men and women and trans folks, all of whom experience disordered eating at varying levels. 

This is a lot of people. This is a lot of people who were told not to love themselves at a parade whose foundation is celebrating love.

Over the past few years, we have seen larger conversations slowly building around disordered eating due to an explosion of people using digital spaces to not find help for their eating disorder—but rather quite the opposite. And with this explosion, we have seen at the same time a 24 percent rise in hospitalization in the U.S for eating disorders according to the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality.

If you were to go on Instagram and look at hashtags like #thinspo, #ana, #mia or #thinspiration, you would find yourself within a digital world filled with emaciated bodies, extreme anti-fat memes, and pictures of people documenting their battles with food. These pro-eating disorder (or pro-ana) spaces have gotten so big that Instagram and Tumblr now have content advisory messages when you search any hashtag related to pro-ana posts. Tumblr even offers the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) as a resource within some of their advisory messages.

At the time of writing this piece, just the hashtag #ana had almost 5 million posts. And sadly, when reading through the thousands of posts, I realized that the signs I saw via Instagram of that clinic’s float I mentioned above would fit perfectly in spaces like #ana, #mia, and #thinspiration. 

We live in an era where all of us are photographers and bloggers and anything else there is an app for. With all of these titles comes a newfound privilege and responsibility that we as a society have never grappled with before. And with this privilege and responsibility, we are quickly learning how even the most well-intentioned signs, placed in the wrong moment on the wrong day, can quickly put a clinic that meant well under unexpected scrutiny.

And that is the underlying message in all of this: That we, now, must always be thoughtful and careful in what messages we put out in the world. With over 1 million people paying witness to signs like these, and millions other like them in their everyday lives, we now, more than ever, need to be more thoughtful with the type of messages we put out into the world.

Because we never know truly know who is reading them, we never know who is posting them online and we never know who is then giving them to millions more to read. It’s a domino effect of the worst kind.

Photo via designmark/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)