Earlier this month, the week of Feb. 23 to March 1, was National Eating Disorders Awareness week, a time when universities—notorious hotbeds for the development of eating disorders—hold numerous events to educate the public on these issues. Although the goals of this event are noble, I can’t help but dread the approach of NEDA week. Every year, college communities across the country use the occasion to adopt a cringe-worthy campaign: Operation Beautiful.
You’ve probably seen what I’m talking about: sticky notes posted around campus – especially in women’s bathrooms – with messages like “You’re beautiful,” “Beauty doesn’t come in a size,” or “It’s society that is distorted – not your body!” I only found one such sticky note on campus last week – the classic “You’re beautiful!” note stuck on the bathroom mirror. In previous years, though, such notes were almost impossible to avoid.
The goal of Operation Beautiful is to encourage volunteers to post these kinds of messages in public spaces. According to the campaign’s website, the aim is to transform “the way you see yourself, one post-it note at a time.” Operation Beautiful and NEDA week are not affiliated, but people have consistently chosen to pair these two together. I can only imagine that this is because they assume eating disorders are caused by a negative body image and that promoting body positivity will remedy these problems.
If you’ve ever run into one of these notes, you’ve probably noticed that you didn’t suddenly get the warm fuzzies for how you look. These notes are about as effective at making you feel beautiful as the smiley face decals on exit doors that tell you to “Have a nice day!” are at improving your mood. At best, these notes are an empty gesture. But it’s a lot worse if you have an eating disorder.
Imagine you actually suffer from anorexia, bulimia, an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) or a binge eating disorder and it is NEDA week. Imagine how demoralizing it would be to have this widespread campaign trivialize the disorder that is ruining your life as a simple case of you needing to feel better about your body. It’s exactly as if there were a “Depression Awareness” week during which people post notes that say “Cheer up!” with a smiley face. The fact that someone could think that such a thing would work leaves you feeling even more misunderstood and isolated.
Eating disorders are not simply the product of unreasonable cultural standards of beauty intertwined with personal vanity. They have varied and sometimes incomprehensible symptoms. Some sufferers have skewed perceptions of their body size. Others perceive their underweight bodies accurately, think they would look better if they were heavier, and yet still continue to chronically undereat. Research is only now beginning to understand the possible neurological, psychological, metabolic, cultural and genetic components.
Of this much we can be sure: Operation Beautiful cannot remedy these disorders. We should be concerned about how these notes adversely affect their intended audience. It is sad to think that the only people that feel good from these messages are those that believe they are a public service. But if we had a better grasp of the complexity of these disorders, we would look for a more nuanced way to address them during NEDA week.