Warning: this article contains open discussions about mental health, drug addiction, and eating disorders in a frank manner. If you are wanting to be offended, keep reading. Hopefully, you'll gain some realistic perspective.
I want to nip this in the bud from the get-go. I can already feel the blood beginning to boil in a lot of people from that title alone, let alone some of the content that’s going to be contained herein. The title is not a jab at plus-sized body-positivity (BP) model/guru-to-many Tess Holliday. When I was younger, I struggled for a good decade with yo-yo diets, at my highest I was at 300 pounds. Because I have issues with my digestive system (Crohn’s disease), I was able to get to a healthy weight and maintain it for years. It took me a good year to lose the 130 pounds, but I hit my goal. So, I know how difficult it can be. Putting aside breaking habits and patterns with food that have been a big part of where the weight gain can come from, I wanted to look at the mental health aspects of weight management.
Written By: Anton Sawyer
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As mentioned, the physical is incredibly tough as it is, but if you add an unhealthy mental relationship with food, it adds a mountain of challenges. This is where my issues with Tess Holliday and her recent proclamation that she was diagnosed with Anorexia come from. Before I open that can of worms, there’s some context I need to address. Sure, I see nothing but damage coming from her statement, but as someone who has been bullied in years past, that is not at all what I'm trying to do here. With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, I am hoping to be a guide towards helping overall.
In the realm of mental health issues, there’s a spectrum. A good example is when two people suffer from the same condition and one of them being impacted much worse with disastrous consequences requiring them to have life-long assistance, yet the other person is incredibly self-sufficient. In most cases, the latter are those who are never perceived as anything but ordinary. I fall into the latter category when it comes to depression and drug addiction. As an alumnus of a few different rehab facilities, I have been diagnosed as “high functioning.” What this means is that though I have crippling amounts of self-loathing and have been on week-long benders when in an active cycle (AC) of addiction, nobody could really tell on an outward level.
From having an active meth habit for the first year of my first “real” job to drinking a bottle of booze every day for years in the job following, I always had employment and never got fired. In my raging alcoholic days, I started with the traditional mixed drinks, but it escalated quickly. Within a year I was drinking a fifth (750 ml) of alcohol every single day—a habit that I would keep up for seven years straight. In the middle of this binge, I had to escalate the proofs I would drink due to increased tolerance. At this point, I was drinking Wild Turkey Rare Breed bourbon, bottle-proof. This means it would be between 112-114 proof (or over 50% pure alcohol). The disease I mentioned above, Crohn’s, is actually what saved my life. At the end of my drinking days, I was at 325 ml of Everclear being mixed with Tilt (a 3.25% wine cooler with energy in it). I’m surprised my heart didn’t explode and that I still have a liver. And yes, during this time my theme song was George Thorogood’s “I Drink Alone.”
Yet, I never called out of work sick just to spend all day in a depressive state or drink. I paid my bills, and unless I spoke about my drinking or drug-taking, nobody could even tell. The best example is in the 2000s when I was doing customer service for a nationwide satellite TV provider. Not only did I stay employed for 10 years, but I also was in a management department for the final six. This department dealt with especially cranky people who asked to speak to a manager. For the final three years of my tenure, I was the head quality analyst and monitored all the agents taking escalated calls. So when you have the mental image of someone staring at a wall, paralyzed from sorrow—which does happen and I don’t want to minimize the hell they are in—I am the complete opposite. As twisted as this sounds, one of the reasons I think I flourished in customer service phone work was because I hated myself so much, that if a customer was yelling and calling me names, I would think “yep, already ahead of you there. I know I’m worthless, so let’s just get to your problem.” With all of this perspective, I know that any and all mental health issues can manifest themselves drastically differently from one person to the next. But when Tess Holliday came out in May 2021 on Twitter and proclaimed she had been diagnosed with Anorexia, I had to take a step back from my initial, emotional reaction (anger/frustration), and do more research before I put any words to paper.
Analytically, Holliday doesn’t meet the criteria. Per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) published in 2013 by the American Psychiatric Association, five criteria MUST be met in order to diagnose someone with Anorexia Nervosa. There are two that Holliday does not meet. “Restriction of food intake leading to weight loss or a failure to gain weight resulting in a ‘significantly low body weight’ of what would be expected for someone's age, sex, and height.” And, “fear of becoming fat or gaining weight.” The last one could be met with a pass, simply because of how often she comments and speaks about her weight. But with Anorexia the fear is pathological. They will literally do whatever is needed to not gain a pound. Now, I don’t doubt for a second that there was perhaps some misguided doctor that did indeed diagnose her with this horrible affliction. Doctors can, and often do, make mistakes. Like when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s and was in a lot of pain. I’m sure my doctor was just trying to help when he prescribed me 120 Lortab 10 mg pills (opiates) with 12 refills. This is why you can always get a second opinion. I’m putting this fact aside though because of how murky it is. Yet even outside of the potential misdiagnosis, there are much more mental and emotional side-effects to this revelation of hers simmering underneath.
As I’ve written before, weight loss in the body-positivity community can be met with swift retaliation (you can read that here). It’s as if a group of starving hyenas has a member of the pack who has been injured, and they are all about to leap on one of their own. The idea of BP is that the person is supposed to be happy in their own skin, no matter what size they are. Big, small, short, or tall, be proud of what you have. The reality of this often is quite different. Members of the BP community are being banned from various social media groups once they start to lose weight, some being shamed and outright verbally attacked for weight loss. This even happens if the person losing weight is doing so because of a medical need. It’s sad when people would rather see others suffer as opposed to doing something that will extend their life. The inherent hypocrisies to this attitude are something to keep in the back of your mind; you’re not starting on a level playing field. You now have millions of people who, because of what they want to see and hear, are thrown into a tizzy because she has just broken the ideologies of what Anorexia is, with no clear methodology as to how this procession of events is going to actually help anyone. Since the release of her tweet, she’s admitted there has been a lot of backlash, and rightfully so.
I understand what it’s like to ask for help and not receive it because you don’t fit what has been traditionally associated with whatever mental health issue you may have. But I also understand that the root of a lot of that error in judgment is because of exactly what Holliday is doing. By not fitting what the “ideology” of a problem has always been associated with, it becomes very difficult for those who may not exhibit typical symptoms to get the help they need. Being someone going into a doctor’s office with crippling depression, I know the look of disbelief you get when you tell them how functional you are. There may be people who can identify with Holliday—feeling like they have all the mental health attributes of someone suffering from Anorexia but have a large BMI. But by her telling them that there’s the possibility they have an eating disorder that cannot be quantified by scientific standards, could very well open the gates to a myriad of other mental and emotional side-effects by those who are easily swayed. People who full-on believe her are going to follow along and potentially not get the proper treatment they need.
She has a platform, a voice that touches millions worldwide, and knowing full well the headlines and attention this would grab, she went with it. Her arguments of being “misunderstood,” or being the victim of hatred and cruelty is something that has been a mainstay of her career. This makes the backlash she’s been getting not only par for the course but also expected. Knowing this, I cannot imagine why she would do something so harmful to so many people who love her. I don’t think this is an issue of her trying to gain attention—God, I hope not—but that she wants to help. Whether she was diagnosed professionally or not, she does not meet the standards. I am hoping that these facts can permeate the BP community. I cannot fathom the fallout this could have in a world where emotions run high and can completely override common sense.
If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, or any other mental health issue, we have multiple links in our resources to help.
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