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Beyond Central Casting: The Problem with Eating Disorder “Types”

Posted Apr 23 2011 10:08pm


Earlier this week, in response to Casey ’s awesome Green Recovery story, Bitt and Courtney asked me for my opinion on this article by Kevin Gianni . Gianni is a very popular voice on natural health and plant based diet.

Gianni’s article is entitled “Which Kind of Disordered Eater are You?” His premise is that “It seems like the health world attracts (particularly the raw food world) a fair share of people who hide their issues behind the guise of “healthy eating.” Gianni goes on to outline what he thinks the 8 types of disordered eaters who frequent the raw/vegan worlds are: the professional dieter, the dogmatist, the addiction switcher, the anorexic raw foodist, the toxic ostrich, the serial detoxer, the healthy binge-er, and the quick-fixer. I don’t think I have to explain each and every one of these stock type labels: the titles say it all. But if you’re interested, check the article out, so that my response makes sense.

I’ll admit it: I read much of this article with a chuckle. Gianni has a knack for bringing stock types to life. When I started reading about the “toxic ostrich,” for instance, I had to crack a smile:

The Toxic Ostrich is always worried about toxins. Toxins in the body, toxins in the air, toxins in their clothes, or toxins in Antarctica…The truth is, there is very little we can do about many of the environmental toxins that we are exposed to on a regular basis. We have to do our best and push on with things we can control like our exercise, nutrition and emotional health.

It’s a good point. Yes, it’s fair to be concerned about toxicity in the environment and our food. But if we’re all to retain our sanity, we simply have to stop fretting over each and every chemical or unwanted substance we’re exposed to, and have faith that healthy living offers us sufficient protection to enjoy our lives. The serenity prayer comes to mind: we have to accept the things we cannot change, and have the courage to change the things we can.

I also smiled at Gianni’s takedown of the serial detoxer:

The Serial Detoxer is always detoxing, many times to the point of deficiency. If the Serial Detoxer is not detoxing, they think that any blemish, burp, hiccup or fart is caused by a toxin in the body that needs to be detoxed out though a fast, a diet, a supplement regimen or chelation…the Serial Detoxer is always on a juice fast, a mono-meal diet or a water fast to cleanse from toxins that have accumulated in their body from the organic lettuce they picked out of their garden.

The reason why the Serial Detoxer is a danger to themselves is because they couldn’t fathom that any signs the body gives them like fatigue, acne, rashes, or hospitalization could be caused by their disordered eating and nutrient deficiencies.

This chronic juice faster is generally a control freak and has had a history of disordered eating and food addiction in the past.

I don’t think I have to tell you guys that my skin tends to crawl when I hear yet another young woman tell me about the “cleanse” she’s doing, or when I watch as readers confuse symptoms of malnourishment and fatigue (brought on by the rigorous and restrictive regimens that these cleanses demand) with “detox.” These habits can be addictive for men and women with disordered histories. I also think that Gianni is right to point out that attributing any itch, scratch, or stomach grumble to “toxicity” (that might be purged through “cleansing”) is a dangerous game. Human bodies, no matter how healthy, offer us occasional complaints, and it’s important to distinguish those everyday annoyances from deeper health conditions that do actually necessitate lifestyle changes.

As you can see, I find that many of Gianni’s observations are truthful. What I don’t like about the piece is its tone, which strikes me as frequently glib and lacking in compassion.


In fairness, Gianni’s writing style tends to be provocative—his readers probably expect that provocation when they read–so there’s nothing out of the ordinary about this particular blog post. And I believe Gianni’s fundamental mission is to help people improve their own health, so I’m grateful to him for his candor in carrying that mission out. But when it comes to disordered eating, the terrain is delicate and complex. As someone who writes about EDs weekly, I’ve realized that they demand sensitive, nuanced, and respectful language. Anything less, unfortunately, isn’t enough.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made as a blogger is to discuss EDs too broadly in the past, assuming that the patterns of one ED were the same as the patterns of another. While I think it can be helpful to discuss common risk factors for EDs, and to analyze some of their shared patterns, we also have to realize that EDs take all shapes and sizes. Not all anorexics are “type A” perfectionists, not all bulimics have a family history of substance abuse, and not all ED sufferers are middle class white women (the body of literature on EDs in minority groups and in men is rapidly growing, and it’s really interesting stuff).

Does that mean it’s wrong to talk about the traits that many ED sufferers have in common? No, of course not. That’s probably a healthy conversation. But I think that we have to resist too many generalizations, and it seems to me that Gianni’s article is awash in them.

It’s also full of a lot of grating pop psychology:

The Professional Dieter likely found the raw food diet or other health food diet by a Google search for “diets I haven’t tried yet.”

Luckily, the raw food diet or others (paleo, vegan, etc.) are many worlds healthier than most of the others that they’ve tried before.

The negative side is that after they lose 5-10 pounds and then gain it back after a vacation to Disneyland, they move on to the next New York Times Bestselling diet book.

Of all these personalities, the Professional Dieter is the one who is most likely addicted to food and most likely spends more time taking care of others than taking care of themselves.

This is why they can never focus long enough on one diet to actually make progress.

This description is not only littered with stereotyping (and let’s be honest, it’s clearly aimed at middle class mothers), but also heavily condescending. And unfortunately, the assumptions don’t always stand up to scrutiny: in my line of work, I see countless chronic dieters, and they most certainly do not always spend more time caring for others than for themselves. Many are young professionals with no family or social obligations whatsoever.

And it continues:

This chronic juice faster is generally a control freak and has had a history of disordered eating and food addiction in the past.

The Serial Detoxer can be cured by professional help or anyone who can help them feel loved and supported no matter what they look or feel like.

Really? Are all chronic juice fasters control freaks? Certainly not in my experience. Nor, in my experience, are all of them easily cured by the gift of love. While many who suffer from eating disorders have been deprived of love and acceptance in the past, many others have received it amply; the stereotype of the under-loved child who develops disordered eating is not without validity, but it doesn’t hold true for everyone. What some ED sufferers need is not to feel loved by others, but rather to develop hobbies, passions, and pursuits in life that encourage a sense of self-love that comes from within. Or perhaps a combination of the two!

I also raised eyebrows here:

Generally, the Quick-Fixer is a trusting and caring individual who is willing to try anything except those things that will really work for their issue.

The disorder or addiction here is to instant gratification and aversion to real work.

It’s hard to convince the Quick-Fixer that it will take more than a drop of essential oil to heal their open wound.

Any time you go to someone’s house and see more than three dusty health gadgets littering their family room, you know you’re in the presence of a Quick-Fixer.

What makes these examples so progressively vexing is that they each begin with at a truthful premise: there are, of course, many people who enter the natural health world hoping for quick fixes from supplements, gadgets, and superfoods. But I think it’s absurd to psychoanalyze these individuals based solely on their propensity to seek out rapid solutions to big problems: I mean, don’t we all occasionally let ourselves drink a bit of health Kool-Aid? I certainly have, and so has Kevin Gianni. Having worked with many self-identified quick fixers, I can also assure you that they are not universally “trusting”; many are perspicacious (or even skeptical) individuals who are nevertheless tempted to suspend disbelief for a particular vitamin or hyped up raw food claim. The cause of the quick fix impulse is often desperation over chronic ill health or weight gain, and not, as Gianni suggests, a general tendency to be gullible.

And then there’s my favorite: the “anorexic raw foodist.”

The Anorexic Raw Foodist is a past (and present) anorexic who’s found it very convenient to hide their eating disorder under the guise of raw food.

Raw food is the perfect disguise because The Anorexic Raw Foodist can eat just enough food so that people who don’t know them aren’t overtly suspicious and they can still be really (sometimes fatally) skinny.

Fortunately, for the Anorexic Raw Foodist, those who care can see right through the smoke and mirrors – it’s really not that hard.

What makes this passage so lacking in insight is its accusatory hue: yes, there are many anorexics who find ways to perpetuate their disorders through raw foodism. But few of the ones I’ve met were conscious of their behaviors. They did not “find it convenient” to do anything, and they did not intentionally erect a funhouse of smoke and mirrors. Instead, they were falling prey to old tendencies, and raw food happened to be the enabler. Gianni’s passage, while not altogether lacking in truth, misses the point: anorexic raw eaters aren’t always using raw foodism to deceive the world. Just as often they’ve unwittingly deceived themselves by refusing to recognize old demons. It takes time, encouragement, and gentle honesty for them to recognize the pattern.

Finally, I disagreed with the once again sweeping claim that “dogmatists” (black and white thinkers) can or should “lighten up” when they realize that they “don’t die if they eat some cooked (or animal) foods.” Some people who are prone to extremism may avoid animal foods for that reason, and find it personally beneficial to start eating them again. But few vegans I know—even the ones who admit to “all or nothing” tendencies—would feel any the lighter for eating animal foods again. Even if they proved to themselves that they wouldn’t die from that decision, they would still feel complicit in the deaths of other living beings. And no one wins in that scenario.

I’m not impervious to the occasional wisdom of stereotypes, and in fairness, Gianni remarks upon his own tendency to speak in broad strokes. He says, “These are only 8 of many different types of health personalities that can be involved with disordered eating or food addiction. My hope with creating this list was to make things fun by serious at the same time.” If one is to enjoy this article, one has to take Gianni at his word that he’s trying to infuse the usually somber dialog over EDs with a sense of cheekiness, humor, and, indeed, “fun.” Perhaps, given how sad ED talk can be, Gianni is doing us all a service by providing a touch of levity. And there’s definitely no harm in pointing out the ways in which some unhealthy eating patterns can become intertwined with raw foodism, veganism, or an interest in natural health; indeed, I think we should have that conversation more often!

The problem is that the self-diagnosis of EDs just doesn’t leave a lot of room for Gianni’s “fun.” This isn’t a sex quiz in Cosmo we’re talking about, or an online survey to see what your theoretical pirate name would be. Eating disorders are a serious business, and coming to terms with them is uncomfortable enough without feeling as though one is being cast into stock types. (Indeed, many men and women with eating disorders confess to not seeking out help, or not coming to terms with the issue, because they feared they’d be a “cliché”).

So I tip my hat to Gianni for drawing attention to many of the unhealthy eating patterns that abound in the raw and natural health worlds, but I have a hard time applauding him for what seems like a reductive set of categorizations. Even though Gianni is the first to admit that he’s only described some ED habits, the ones he does address are spoken of with too little nuance.

Perhaps Gianni’s own experience with disordered eating (he admits to dogmatist tendencies) has given him a sense of license when it comes to making a joke or two. But even then, one has to tread carefully, I’ve certainly made my own fair share of ED-related jokes, but those jokes were shared privately, and they were limited absolutely to my own history. I’d never presume enough to generalize about disordered eating patterns that I didn’t experience firsthand. A little humor is never a bad thing, but when it comes to EDs, compassion and respect reign supreme.

OK, lovely CR readers. Time to speak up: what do you think of Gianni’s article ? Did you find it, as I did, a little glib? Or are you giving him kudos for candor and humor? I’m dying to know!

(Happy Saturday night, by the way. Nothing like some heated blog dialog to spice up your weekend.)


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