Content warning: this article discusses eating disorders.
Over the past year, Adele’s dramatic weight loss has sparked headlines. As more photos of the singer have emerged, media outlets have labeled her transformation “pretty d-mn amazing” and praised her “impossibly tiny” waist. The majority of the media — and my peers — have also made connections between Adele’s weight loss and her supposed dedication to health. A source revealed that her transformation wasn’t a result of focusing on thinness, but instead stemmed from a shift towards trying to be the “healthiest mom possible.”
The headlines haven’t all been positive — some have also spoken out about the danger of focusing on physical appearance. However, the widespread emphasis on Adele’s supposed improved health highlights that, while awareness of some eating disorders — particularly those that result in weight loss and/or starvation — has increased in recent years, severe weight loss continues to be praised when undertaken by individuals in larger bodies while it is seen as unhealthy for those who become visibly underweight.
Most of the discussions of Adele’s weight loss — whether concerned or celebratory — focus on the fact that she’s lost weight. But her weight loss has been attributed to multiple methods, all of which are varying degrees of restrictive: some say that she follows an absurdly low-calorie diet and a strict workout regimen, others claim that she tries to only eat “real foods” and others claim that she practices intermittent fasting — a disturbing dieting trend that has been linked to impaired sleep patterns, digestion and hormone balance as well as to the development of disordered eating habits and full-blown eating disorders. While it’s unsurprising that her weight loss has garnered attention, it’s still shocking that the rigid behaviors and eating patterns she’s been linked to have not sparked widespread concern, or even been identified as disordered.
There’s no way for me to know if Adele has an eating disorder, and I’m not trying to diagnose her. However, it’s important to realize that being underweight and having an eating disorder are not the only criteria necessary to have destructive relationships with food and exercise. The behaviors Adele has been linked to alone should be flagged as concerning.
But I probably shouldn’t be surprised that they have not been. In 2018, the International Food Information Council Foundation found that more than one in three Americans are following a specific diet, and diets that involve fasting, restricting calories, specific ingredients or entire food groups are becoming increasingly common. With 45 million Americans going on diets each year and fasting diets steadily gaining popularity, dieting and skipping meals are seen as normal.
I’m also familiar with the praise that dieting often attracts. When I started obsessing over exercise and my eating habits, I was widely celebrated for being committed to my health. People told me that they admired my refusal to let anything prevent me from exercising, and friends remarked on my willpower when I refused to eat certain foods. But my rigidity and restriction — restriction that eerily mirrored the methods Adele has been linked to — raised concern when I became dangerously underweight. I was eventually diagnosed with anorexia and sent to a residential treatment center.
Why is it that my restrictive behaviors were eventually seen for what they were — extremely unhealthy — while Adele’s continue to be praised?
The ugly truth is that disordered eating patterns are often only deemed harmful for people who are thin or underweight. A glaring example of this is NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” a reality TV show where contestants undertake extreme diets and punishing gym routines in order to lose the most weight and win a cash prize. While the show was briefly taken off-air due to criticism and has since been rebranded as a health and wellness competition, the premise and content are largely the same: contestants have to lose more weight than their peers each week in order to stay in the running and are forced to exercise until they vomit, encouraged to restrict calories and subject to verbal abuse.
This encouragement of disordered habits in people who are not clearly underweight extends beyond the show. People who inhabit larger bodies are often praised for starving themselves by health professionals. A recent study found that it takes thin women with anorexia approximately three years to receive treatment, but larger women with anorexia wait an average of 13.5 years for their eating disorders to be recognized and addressed.
The warning signs for eating disorders include preoccupation with weight, as well as concern with and/or restriction of food groups, such as carbohydrates, sugars, fat and gluten. If these behaviors sound like most, if not all diets, it’s because that’s what they are.
Of course, eating disorders are incredibly complex and not everyone who diets will develop an eating disorder. It’s also important to note that there is a distinct difference between engaging in disordered eating patterns and having an eating disorder: eating disorders are distinguished by obsessive thoughts and a high degree of impaired functionality, while disordered eating is less extreme.
But that doesn’t mean that disordered eating isn’t harmful. In fact, attempting to control food in any way — whether said control is branded as an explicit diet, a lifestyle change or just a focus on improving health — has been consistently linked to a host of emotional and physical issues including food fixation and increased anxiety. Eating disorders and disordered eating exist on a spectrum — disordered eating occupies the gray area between the freedom of intuitive eating and the extremes of eating disorders. Most eating disorder professionals agree that disordered eating patterns include labeling food as good/bad and healthy/unhealthy, dieting, setting strict meal times and linking exercise to food, among other things.
If we actually want to focus on health, then it’s crucial that we call disordered eating out for what it is and recognize that anyone who has a toxic relationship with food and exercise deserves help and healing, regardless of one’s weight or diagnosis. Doing otherwise will only promote behaviors that ultimately wreak havoc on health and happiness and contribute to the dangerous idea that eating disorders and disordered eating centered around weight loss are only harmful when they affect people who are underweight. We can — we should — do better.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appears in the Monday, Mar. 9, 2020, print edition. Email Helen Wajda at [email protected]