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June 1, 2010 / missmarymax

Anorexic Does Not Equal Emaciated.

Note to Anyone Paying Attention: 
“Anorexic” is not a synonym for “emaciated.”

On the (long) list of Things That Severely Annoy Me, you might not expect the misuse of the term “anorexic” to rank very high.  After all, I’m fairly mild about — although generally opposed to — the use of “gay” as a deregotory term, despite all the work I do in LGBT activism.  Having listened to multiple arguments about the “fluidity of language” and the “bigger fish for frying,” I don’t subject my friends to a total soapbox EVERY SINGLE TIME they slip up and forget that “gay” — like “geek” — should be used only in the most positive contexts.  But I don’t grant them quite the same leniency when it comes to the misuse of the word “anorexic.”  Care to guess why? 

For starters, there is no alternative meaning for “anorexic.”  People will claim — rightfully or not — that the phrase “that’s so gay” refers to something entirely different than homosexuality, and thus — that the use of “gay” to mean “bad” does not reflect (or create) homophobic ideology.  It is, proponents insist, an entirely different use of the term, that has unfortunately grown popular in the mainstream vernacular.  Whether that’s truth or denial, the same cannot be said for the use of the word “anorexic” to mean “emaciated.”  Emaciation, as a generally accepted symptom/ signifier of anorexia, does not differ significantly enough from the original meaning of the term to qualify as an alternative definition.  It does, however, significantly and dangerously BLUR that definition.

Understand: The notion that emaciation is a primary signifer of anorexia in particular (and eating disorders in general) reflects several deeply embedded misconceptions about eating disorders.  Not only does it contribute to the “skinny-bashing” we’ve been hearing so much about lately — (awesome, the way we rush to the defense of naturally thin girls, while refusing to recognize that anyone could “naturally” be anything else) — it also ignores the large number of women and men whose eating disorders are not nearly so visible to the outside eye.  As someone who met a good 30 or 50 recovering women and men during her days in residential, let me break it down for you: There’s no such thing as looking eating-disordered.  I saw women and men, with all combinations of eating disorder symptomology, above, below, and at their “recommended” weights.  Not only can a person be overly thin and not have an eating disorder, s/he can also (most definitely) have an eating disorder and not be overly thin.  What’s more, a distorted body image is a fundamental component of the eating disorder diagnosis.  I’ve yet to meet a person who has been diagnosed with an eating disorder and considers themselves thin.  (Hell, I don’t meet many people WITHOUT eating disorders who identify as thin.)  When we reinforce the belief that “having an eating disorder” means “being thin,” we make it that much more difficult for anyone who has an eating disorder, or is developing one, to recognize they have a problem.  Which … is a problem itself. 

Furthemore, it’s a problem that reflects major issues the medical community has had (and continues to have) effectively identifying and treating eating disorders.  Medicine in general, and the diagnostic criteria in particular, are increasingly being criticized for their focus on the physical outcomes of eating disorder behavior, in place of the practices that create those (in many cases irreperable) outcomes.  In other words, this stereotype doesn’t just come into play in everyday society; it has serious consequences in terms of diagnosis and treatment.  So, when you misuse the term “anorexic,” you aren’t just playing with matches.  You are playing with straight- up nitroglycerin.  

And — just in case you are one of the ever-increasing number of people who needs this reminder — you are talking about a DISEASE.  An ILLNESS, with the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.  The stigma around mental illnesses in general, and eating disorders — (which are commonly misconstrued as Superficial White Girl Diets) — in particular, sometimes makes it difficult to realize the full significance of what the flippant use of a word like “anorexic” actually means.  So, I’m offering up an analogy:

Imagine a world where “bald is beautiful” had been so successfully embedded in our collective psyche that 99% of images in fashion magazines are of bald models.  Got that?  With no regard for the actual ratio of baldies to non-baldies, or the spectrum that exists between hairless and a head of voluptuous locks, the media has fully embraced the bald image and is representing nothing else.  More and more, you find yourself saying, “I’m so sick of all these cancer-having* models!” 

There are multiple reasons this doesn’t make sense.  For starters, we recognize — as a society — that cancer is a serious illness and that those who are struggling against it deserve our support.  (The same is not often said for eating disorders.)  Secondly, most of us know that cancer — itself — does not result in the loss of one’s hair.  In actuality, it’s various cancer treatments that cause hair loss, a distinction that means two things:  Not all bald people have cancer, and (perhaps more importantly) not all people with cancer are bald.  (Recognizing this keeps us from conflating the disease with a visual cue we commonly recognize as a “sign.”  Eh-hem.  Starting to see the parallel here?)  Finally — and most to the point, for those lucky kids who DON’T have this disease — cancer (and anorexia) are not what’s frustrating about these ads.  The person enraged to see one more of these hypothetical Bald Ads, just like the person enraged to see yet another image of an emaciated woman, is angry over the media’s unwillingness to represent a more diverse range of bodies.  They are angry to constantly be receiving images that they aren’t good enough, or that they would be better if more of their ribs were showing.  They are angry at how difficult (if not impossible) it is to open a magazine or click on the television and see someone who LOOKS LIKE THEM.  These problems are not caused by anorexia, bulimia, or any other eating disorder.  They are not caused by individual people who have eating disorders — even those individuals who are most constantly photographed and filmed.  Even models.  They are caused by advertisers, publishers, corporate executives, and the rest of the media.  They are supported — not by the pathological behavior of women and men who are sick — but by all of us who continue to buy products sold by companies that teach us to hate ourselves.  When we support companies that tell us we are not good/ worthy/ sexy/ beautiful/ strong/ etc until we are thin, we fail to support each other and ourselves.  When we mis-identify anorexia, bulimia, EDNOS, or the people with these illnesses as the problem — we let the real culprits escape unaffected. 

As a closet optimist, I take issue with this.  Changing what we hate about our society REQUIRES us to correctly name it.  If you hate those magazine images, by all means, say so.  Say so to the people in charge, and say so with the money you spend.  But don’t hate on the bodies that system is exploiting.  And don’t hate on the people you (mistakenly) think must have those bodies.  Trust me.  They’ve got the self-hatred covered.

In summation: Using the term “anorexic” to mean “emaciated” isn’t gay, retarded, or lame.  But it is bad form.  So, knock it off, already, and go kickstart a revolution.


*It’s worth noting that there isn’t even a form of the word “cancer” that applies to people who have it, no cancer-based equivalent of “anorexic.”  People are said to HAVE cancer, solely.  Conversely, “anorexic” and “bulimic” become descriptions of a PERSON.  If that sounds a bit insane to you, I’m glad.  Because it is.



Leave a Comment
  1. Betherann / Sep 23 2010 2:39 am

    Thanks for sharing this. My anorexia did not become obvious until the late (and most dangerous) stages of my grappling with ED. I was anorexic for more than a full year until I began to look emaciated. Now, I wish someone had told me that behavior is just as indicative of illness as what the body looks (or doesn’t look) like.

    • missmarymax / Sep 24 2010 2:48 am

      Aigh. I’m so sorry to hear that about your experience. I think that’s so true for many of us. Personally, it even contributed to my anxiety about treatment; how could I go get treatment (with a bunch of girls who would of course “look” like they had an eating disorder) when I did not? When I was so clearly not as sick as they were? (Blah, blah, blah.) It was only after I went into residential that I discovered a) how much more diverse the “look” of this disease is and b) that EVERY SINGLE PERSON had felt that same fear. The more we can break down this myth (and change the diagnostic criteria that support it), the more we can help people feel comfortable seeking the treatment they dearly need and have every right to receive. I hope you’ve found the resources you need as well.

  2. lalootarr / Oct 10 2010 6:55 pm

    AMEN. I seriously cannot agree with this enough. After suffering from anorexia for close to two years, I find it personally offensive when people mix up “anorexic” and “emaciated.”

    I have plenty of extremely thin friends who eat balanced diets and exercise regularly and yet remain very thin.

    I myself, however, was never “emaciated” like the “stereotypical anorexic.” Yes, I was 25 pounds underweight and extremely unhealthy, but I didn’t look like a literal walking skeleton upon first glance. I just looked skinny.

    I think the whole mix-up can go both ways. An anorexic does NOT have to be emaciated, and an emaciated person is not always anorexic.

    I really like your blog. You’re so straightforward, and, in my opinion, so right.

    • missmarymax / Oct 10 2010 7:49 pm

      Thank you so much — for the comment and the praise. This is exactly what I’m trying to get at: this notion is damaging on both sides (for the non-emaciated anorexic person and the emaciated person without anorexia, alike). Your personal experience is still more testimony to why I wish people would quit conflating the two. Thank you for sharing it.


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