Willson: Mental illness is not a fashion statement

Lauren Willson

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.

“Anorexia: like Bulimia, except with self control.”

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Shockingly, Amazon recently came under fire for plastering this exact message across a sweatshirt. 

This product reduces mental illness to no more than a stereotype, and this is a huge problem. By circulating such merchandise, misconceptions of psychological disorders are also circulated. This downplays the severity of these conditions and perpetuates poor understanding of how they develop and operate.

To combat these problems, more must be done than merely denouncing the manufacturers of offensive products. There are two main ways to do this.

First, myths and stereotypes about eating disorders (and mental illnesses in general) must be rectified by spreading accurate information and educating the misinformed.

Second, purchase of products—clothing or otherwise—that support recovery and mental health is an additional method of resistance.

Although available for purchase since 2015, the Amazon sweatshirt recently gained viral attention, with many outraged over its apparent disregard for the serious nature of eating disorders. Shoppers demanded the product be removed. As of the date of this article’s publication, the sweatshirt is still listed on the site, albeit as “Currently unavailable.”

This is by no means the only product that makes light of eating disorders. Several years ago,Urban Outfitters received backlash for selling a tee that read “Eat less.” In 2014, an online t-shirt company was rebuked for selling garments with phrases like “Beautifully Bulimic” and “Gracefully Gaunt.”

Although these simple two-word slogans would have you believe otherwise, the biggest reason many are misinformed about mental illness is because of their astounding complexity. Even the most renowned experts in psychology, neuroscience, psychiatry, and associated fields cannot definitively explain how they work or how to cure them.

I have personally struggled with anorexia nervosa since I was nine, but am now in recovery. After ten years of living with this disease, I can assure you that it is most certainly not a matter of self-control. Eating disorders are life-threatening illnesses that destroy one’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

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If anorexia was merely a matter of self-control, I would have gladly ceded that “discipline” and recovered fully after my first hospitalization.

I did not voluntarily spend a combined total of two-plus years in treatment centers and hospitals. I did not intentionally starve myself to the point of having a seizure, or developing osteopenia. I did not feel powerful when I was rushed to the ER, having swallowed six extra doses of prescription sleeping pills because I ate ice cream.

And I was definitely not exercising “self-control” when I found myself at Death’s door yet again last December, weighing 78 pounds.

People need to understand that eating disorders are powerful demons of the mind that manifest themselves in a thousand different despicable ways.

They cannot be boiled down to self-control, for they are in fact born out of its very opposite. Many sufferers develop their disorders because their lives are out of control in some way, whether it be an abusive relationship, a stressful transition, or the death of a loved one. Sometimes, eating disorders emerge for no apparent reason at all, much like panic attacks or states of depression.

But in all cases, eating disorders are the result of interactions between biological, psychological, and sociocultural influences.

Education is the first step to stopping gross generalizations and misconceptions about eating disorders, which have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) is an excellent first resource for enlightening yourself and others.

The second step to stopping stereotypes is raising awareness in a positive, inspirational way. This can be done by purchasing products like bracelets and t-shirts that advocate recovery and mental health. Another method is participating in an awareness walk, many of which are held throughout the year in cities across the U.S.

Whether it is playing an active role in raising awareness, advocating mental health to peers, or simply educating yourself, please make an effort to stop the spread of misinformation about eating disorders and mental illness. Doing so will help develop better informed members of society who can form a support system for those suffering.

Only by taking the time to learn what someone is going through can we learn how to help them heal.