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Trauma, Social Justice, and Eating Disorders

By Kira Rakova--Recently, an article focusing on a young woman’s experiences with disordered eating has been making its rounds on the internet. 

This piece connects anorexia nervosa to sexual violence and can be read here (trigger warning for sexual violence, trauma, and description of disordered eating).

For those with a greater understanding of eating disorders the connection between the two is nothing new, but this article is important for the general population’s awareness. In a society where individuals affected by disordered eating are often shamed for not being able to “just stop”, this story recognizes the deeper causes of disordered eating.

It highlights the importance of therapy and support when it comes to mental health issues and recognizes the importance of giving a voice to those living with these issues.  Most importantly perhaps, this article has the potential of opening up dialogue with the public and not only prioritizing the prevention, treatment, and support for eating disorders, but for sexual violence as well.

In my opinion, underneath the surface, this article also connects to two key points that need to be recognized and explored in greater depth.

1.The link between trauma and mental health runs deeper than most recognize.

Speaking strictly about the trauma resulting from sexual or physical violence (including rape, intimate partner violence, child abuse, etc), it is not uncommon for this trauma to influence mental health. For example, survivors of rape have a 50 to 95% chance of developing PTSD. And almost 50% of survivors of intimate partner violence develop depression. Over half of Individuals diagnosed with eating disorders also have a history of sexual abuse.

At the same time, those who already live with psychological disorders are at greater risk for sexual violence. Certain studies state that women living with “severe mental illnesses” are up to five times more likely to be raped. In such cases, the cycle of mental health issues only intensifies; over half of the individuals living with psychological disorders who are survivors of sexual violence attempt suicide. Considering that survivors of gender-based (and in particular sexual violence) are at much greater risk to experience it again, the importance of recognizing the link between gender-based violence and mental health cannot be denied.

However, it is important to also recognize that this link to trauma is not only limited to gender-based violence.  We must also recognize the link between the trauma caused by social injustices and mental health (including eating disorders).  All forms of gender-based violence (including racism, (trans) misogyny, homophobia, and other forms of structural oppressions) have a very real impact on the lives of individuals.

Many groups and individuals have come to recognize that eating disorders in queer communities, communities of color, etc, are deeply linked to the trauma of being marginalized and discriminated against. Such an understanding of trauma and mental health, helps reveal why, for example, trans-individuals are at higher risk of developing an eating disorder.

2. Many individuals have difficulty making the connection between their trauma and their disordered eating.

One interesting part of the aforementioned article is the response of Elena to her mother’s question of whether or not she has anorexia nervosa. “’No, Mom. That’s stupid,’ she said”. That is, she was able (or perhaps willing) to identify herself as having experienced sexual violence but not as having an eating disorder.  On the flip side, many individuals who recognize that they have disordered eating have difficulty in recognizing that they have experienced trauma.

I believe this is important, because it reveals a gap in the conversation. More often than not, the conversation about eating disorders is reduced to the influence of media. While the relationship of media and beauty standards to disordered eating is important to recognize, this reductionist view erases mental health. By reducing disordered eating to a conversation about beauty standards, we erase the role trauma and psychological disorders have in the cause and effect of eating disorders. Plus, when eating disorders are not recognized as mental health issues, it justifies the harmful perception of them being a choice.

On a large scale, recognizing the link between mental health, trauma, and disordered eating is important because it can help lead to healing. Furthermore, at its core it reminds us that societal structures and individual actions have direct and real impact on the mental health of individuals. Trauma, gender-based violence, and eating disorders are all social justice issues.

About this blogger: Kira is a senior studying at Macaulay Honors College at the City College of New York, majoring in International Studies and Media Communication Art, with a minor in Anthropology.  Her research interests include: gender justice, mental health justice, and community organizing.  Apart from school work, Kira is also a part of various community based advocacy organizations at City College of New York, including the Gender Resource Center Campaign and the Student Mental Health Initiative. In the future, Kira hopes to pursue a graduate degree in Anthropology. In particular, she hopes to explore how development organizations include and exclude mental health, in a culturally sensitive and intersectional manner.

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