While many provinces in Canada recognize eating disorders with an official week in early February, Ontario doesn’t have an Eating Disorders Awareness Week. That could change thanks to a private member’s bill, Bill 61, introduced by NDP MPP Jill Andrew (Toronto-St. Paul’s) at Queen’s Park on December 6.
According to Statistics Canada, nearly a million Canadians meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder. However, these numbers largely omit the diverse experiences affecting Indigenous, Black and racialized women and girls, queer and trans folks, men, people with disabilities and fat people.
Andrew believes Canadians need to re-examine how we think of eating disorders and body image issues, and she believes that Eating Disorders Awareness Week can help break the stigma.
“When we raise awareness, we expand the definition of eating problems and expand the definition of who can have eating problems, who can have body weight, shape, size preoccupations – for me, it’s really about education,” Andrew says.
The bill was previously championed by NDP MPP Teresa Armstrong in 2016, when it was sent to a standing committee but never passed. Andrew is confident that by putting party-partisanship aside and focusing on the lives of people actually affected by eating disorders, the bill will be successful this time around.
For far too long, the misconception that you must fit a specific body shape in order to have an eating disorder has dominated pop culture, the media and social media. According to several studies, magazine articles, television shows and advertisements have created a social context that has contributed to body dissatisfaction and disordered eating in girls and women.
Men, too often, are left out of the mainstream conversation on body image issues however, according to data collected by the National Eating Disorders Association, one in three men are likely to develop eating disorders.
In 2012, Instagram began making certain terms unsearchable on the site, including those viewed to be promoting eating disorders however, pro-anorexia social media accounts still exist. Owners of these accounts have found ways to trick Instagram’s algorithm by making slight tweaks to hashtags, like #thinspooooo and #thygap) and by changing their usernames. These types of social media accounts continue to perpetuate misconceptions, which is why Bill 61 is necessary.
Unhealthy mainstream attitudes toward food and weight are often taught and reinforced at a young age, which is why Andrew says that education must start in high school. According to a 2002 survey, 28 per cent of girls in grade nine and 29 per cent of those in grade 10 engaged in weight-loss behaviours. But the reality is that eating disorders commonly happen alongside depression, anxiety, substance use and a history of trauma, and therefore need to be treated as a mental illness.
Andrew hopes that with Bill 61, the provincial government is able to help raise awareness and increase resources and support for folks suffering from eating disorders.