Episode 40: Body Image and Binge Eating: Interview with Brynn Johnson

A “Life-Long Disease” (at 18?)

Yet another example of how the mainstream media portrays eating disorders:

A news story broke today about 18-year-old Disney star, Demi Lovato, who admitted she suffers from an eating disorder. She recently spent nearly 3 months in a rehab treatment facility; and in her interview, she said she believes her eating disorder is a “life-long disease.” Reading this statement made me sad, both for Lovato – who believes she can never fully get over this – and all of her young fans who may be going through a similar crisis.

I also wonder how she came to believe that eating disorders are life-long diseases. I truly hope that’s not something she learned in her treatment facility; but sadly, it is a common theme in some conventional therapies. Telling an 18-year-old she is suffering from a life-long disease is a conversation that treatment providers should reserve for those diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, lupus, or other illnesses with no cure. Even so, hope for a cure should never be abandoned, especially at such a young age.

Furthermore, in this specific interview, Lovato is primarily referring to a preoccupation with food and her body as the part of the “disease.” Hereis part of Lovato’s quote:

Yes, there have been times when I definitely have been tempted to get rid of my dinner. But I will deal with it for the rest of my life because it’s a life-long disease. I don’t think there’s going to be a day when I don’t think about food or my body, but I’m living with it, and I wish I could tell young girls to find their safe place and stay with it.”

First of all, it’s great that she doesn’t give into the temptation to get rid of her dinner; and if she can continue to resist those urges, they will go away in time. I find it disheartening that although she seems to have overcome the destructive behaviors for the most part, she still labels herself diseased. Even if she does think about her body and food more than others, even for the rest of her life, when has this become a “disease”?

If she wants to continue placing a high value on appearance; that is called choice, and one day she may decide to choose differently. If she feels compulsively driven to think about food and her body, possibly because of her upbringing, her career, or any number of biological or psychological factors; that is a problem that can be overcome. People can and do recoverfully from eating disorders, and any associated body image problems; and I think it’s very important for young girls to know this.

Dr. Oz, Food Addiction Segment

My last blog talked about how the pop culture media portrays eating disorders, and this blog will be about what the experts in the media say. What sparked this post was yesterday’s segment on Dr. Oz about food addictions (watch the Dr. OZ food addiction segment here). The link will take you to part 3 of this segment because it’s what I’ll talk about most in this post, but part 1 and 2 are also posted there. The segment started rather well in my opinion, explaining that food can be as addictive as drugs, suggesting that it has roots in the brain, and giving a glimpse into the life of 3 women who binge eat.

Then, in part 3, it moved into the suggested solution to the problem, given by a psychologist and former binge eater. She suggested deciphering the emotions behind the binges/overeating episodes, uncovering what triggers the binges/overeating episodes, and learning to cope with feelings in healthy non-eating ways. She used the acronym of FLAB to discuss what she believes drives episodes of binge eating/overeating.F- FrustrationL – LonelinessA – AngerB – Boredom Dr. Oz has a FLAB card on his website, for food addicts to print out and keep in their purse or wallet.

His website states, “The next time you’re on the edge, reach for this card. It will remind you of the emotions that can trigger your addiction and help you to deal with them in a healthy way.” If you have been following my blog or have read my book Brain over Binge, you know that I don’t think the ideas above are helpful to many, many binge eaters. I’m not going to belabor the reasons why I don’t think they are helpful, because that is not the purpose of this post. This post is only offered to point out what the experts in the mainstream media suggest binge eating is all about (emotions) and what they believe to be the solution (coping with those emotions). These ideas are very pervasive and influential, but sadly, not very effective.

Candace Cameron – media portrayal of EDs

Actress Candace Cameron recently revealed her past struggle with bulimia in her new book (click here to read CNN article). I have yet to read her book, and I don’t claim to know anything about her story of bulimia and recovery except for what can be gleaned from brief quotes that were repeated in all the articles that broke this story. These quotes are very telling – both about Cameron’s experience and the way the media portrays eating disorders.  

     “[Bulimia] is a very dangerous cycle that can just start to consume your life and really take over,” Cameron said. “It wasn’t about me trying to lose weight. It was all about emotions.”

     In Brain over Binge, I talk about how the view of eating disorders as symptoms of emotional problems or as ways to cope with emotions is widespread in society. This story of Cameron is just one example of how the media perpetuates this idea. If viewing her bulimia as a symptom of emotional problems or as a coping mechanism helped Cameron recover, then great. That view of bulimia does help some people.  But, I believe it can harm more people than it helps.

     Imagine a young bulimic who is just getting caught up in (to use Cameron’s own words) the “very dangerous cycle” of bulimia, but has no idea why she feels so compelled to binge and purge. Seeing an article about a beautiful 34-year-old star who says her bulimia was “all about emotions” could be very influential to that young bulimic. She may start trying to decipher if her bulimia is, in fact, all about emotions too; and she may take the first step on a long journey of self-discovery to try to figure out and solve the emotional issues that supposedly drive her bulimia. This journey could end up like Cameron’s, with her becoming a happy, fulfilled, successful person who has “physical and spiritual fitness” as Cameron’s book subtitle says (In other words, she could become an example of what I termed the “butterfly tale of recovery” in my book). Or her journey could go on indefinitely, with endless self-searching and learning how to get in touch with her emotions while she continues to feed the habit of bulimia and strengthens all the neural pathways that maintain it.

  The “emotional” view of bulimia simply isn’t practical or effective for many; but the media doesn’t offer any alternative perspectives. I hope to do my part in changing that.