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Social Justice Synonyms #15: “Anorexic” and “Bulimic”

Welcome to the fifteenth segment of Social Justice Synonyms, a column at The Talon that discusses harmful and oppressive language embedded in our culture and offers ways for it to be unlearned.

This week’s words are anorexic and bulimic, which are medical terms used to describe potentially life-threatening eating disorders. Similar to the words “OCD” and “bipolar,” these terms have been misappropriated as ableist terms.

Anorexia is defined by the non-profit Mayo Clinic as an “eating disorder characterized by an abnormally low body weight, intense fear of gaining weight, and a distorted perception of body weight.” A person living with anorexia is referred to as an anorectic. Mayo Clinic defines bulimia as an eating disorder characterized by episodes of binging on large amounts of food followed by purging to rid oneself of the calories. Purging can refer to vomiting, or to activities such as excessive exercise and fasting, although these behaviours often overlap. In addition to experiencing binge/purge episodes involving large amounts of food, many bulimics may also purge after having consumed small amounts of food. Anorexia and bulimia are also both closely connected with depression and anxiety disorders, most specifically OCD. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reported that two thirds of persons with eating disorders will have an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.

It is important to note that many people displaying symptoms of anorexia and/or bulimia do not fit the exact diagnostic requirements, and are instead living with an eating disorder referred to as an Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (ED-NOS). A large number of those living with eating disorders fall under this category, and many display characteristics of both anorexia and bulimia where they alternate between periods of starvation and binge/purge episodes. According to the DSM-IV, Binge Eating Disorder is included as an ED-NOS category. This category also encompasses persons displaying anorexic behaviours who do not meet the diagnostic weight requirement. This is very important to note, as the misconception that someone has to be thin to have an eating disorder is very damaging and can prevent many people living with eating disorders from seeking and receiving help. Another extremely damaging misconception associated with eating disorders is that they are only developed by upper-class white women. This is completely untrue; according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, an estimated 10-15% of persons living with eating disorders are male, and although there are no exact statistics regarding the prevalence of eating disorders in persons of colour, they exist in large numbers but are much less likely to be diagnosed or to seek treatment due to society’s underlying belief that only white women struggle with these disorders.

The first way in which these words are misused is to describe someone who is thin or has a small appetite. For example, you might hear someone describing themselves as “so anorexic” for having skipped lunch, or describing a celebrity as “bulimic or something” for having lost weight.

These words can also be used to refer to a strict diet, where someone doesn’t eat for a week to “fit into their prom dress” or “look good for a party.” This misconception of eating disorders as something that a person has control over and willingly chooses to live with is especially common among celebrities, who might tell a reporter that they “don’t have what it takes” to be anorexic, in order to distance themselves from eating disorder rumours or assert themselves as “different” from the Hollywood norm. America Ferrera, the star of Ugly Betty, once told W Magazine “honestly, even if I wanted to be anorexic, I just don’t have what it takes. After four hours of being anorexic, I’d be like, ‘It’s been four whole hours! Feed me!’” On a similar note, Meighan Trainor, who sings “All About That Bass,” told Entertainment Tonight that she “wasn’t strong enough to have an eating disorder…I tried to go anorexic for a good three hours. I ate ice and celery, but that’s not even anorexic. And I quit. I was like, ‘Ma, can you make me a sandwich? Like, immediately.” In addition to these two actresses completely misunderstanding the definition of anorexia, their statements are also extremely dangerous as they contribute to the glorification of thinness and small appetites by suggesting they are something to aspire to. In Marya Hornbacher’s eating disorder memoir, Wasted, she describes that:

The bragging was the worst. I hear this in schools all over the country, in cafés and restaurants, in bars, on the Internet, for Pete’s sake, on buses, on sidewalks: Women yammering about how little they eat. Oh, I’m starving, I haven’t eaten all day, I think I’ll have a great big piece of lettuce, I’m not hungry, I don’t like to eat in the morning (in the afternoon, in the evening, on Tuesdays, when my nails aren’t painted, when my shin hurts, when it’s raining, when it’s sunny, on national holidays, after or before 2 A.M.). I heard it in the hospital, that terrible ironic whine from the chapped lips of women starving to death, But I’m not hun-greeee. To hear women tell it, we’re never hungry. We live on little Ms. Pac-Man power pellets. Food makes us queasy, food makes us itchy, food is too messy, all I really like to eat is celery. To hear women tell it we’re ethereal beings who eat with the greatest distaste, scraping scraps of food between our teeth with our upper lips curled.

For your edification, it’s bullshit.

A person living with an eating disorder is not on a diet, unstable, going through a phase, or too full to eat lunch. A person living with anorexia, bulimia, or ED-NOS, is living with a mental disorder that makes them feel worthless and like they do not deserve to take up space in the world. These feelings manifest themselves into a negative body image and cause those living with these illnesses to starve themselves, binge and purge, or engage in various other unhealthy weight loss techniques. These techniques are coping mechanisms used to allow the person to isolate themselves from the outside world and feel as though they are in control of their lives. It allows them to feel that they have power over their problems, and that everything will be better once they reach their goal weight. As Marya Hornbacher puts it: “The anoretic operates under the astounding illusion that she can escape the flesh, and, by association, the realm of emotions.”

Colloquial misappropriations likening these disorders to weight loss strategies or bad habits, as well as associating them with celebrities and tabloid stories, serves to belittle these disorders and shame those living with them. This can cause persons living with an eating disorder to feel afraid to speak out for fear of being misunderstood, or for fear that they will be shamed and referred to as “crazy.” In order to offer support to those living with eating disorders and allow them to feel comfortable speaking out, it is important to stop using words like anorexic and bulimic unless we are referring to the disorder. Below are alternatives that can be used in everyday speech.

Use / Context Alternatives
“My friend is totally anorexic” “My friend is thin”
However, this change in use needs to be coupled with a change in the above-mentioned assumption that only thin folks have eating disorders.
“I could never be anorexic” “I am lucky that I do not have a mental illness forcing me to feel worthless and starve myself as a coping mechanism”
“She was acting so anorexic today” “She didn’t have much of an appetite today”
“I might become anorexic next week” “I might start an unhealthy diet next week”


Riel is a fourth-year econ student who loves writing and social justice.