This past weekend, my roommate and I went to the mall. When we separated briefly to get drinks a little after lunch, I found myself trapped behind four tiny teen girls. They may have been tweens; I have a teenage sibling, and these girls were much smaller than her. They were so small I think I might have been able to abscond with them in my pockets if I'd really wanted to. As they decided what they wanted, the apparent ringleader leaned over to one of the others and said, "Well, we're not eating for the rest of the day, are we? So should I get some food?"
I have no idea what these girls were spending their day doing. It's entirely possible they wouldn't be eating for the rest of the day by necessity: maybe one of them had an important medical test the next day, and her friend was fasting in solidarity. Maybe they're young political activists doing a half-day hunger strike to bring awareness to Omar Khadr's ongoing detention (something I myself did when I was around their age; that guy has been locked up for entirely too long). Maybe they just knew they were going to be too busy to eat. That happens.
But it's also distressingly likely that they were starving themselves, which all too many young girls and women—and some boys and men—do. A 2002 study cited on the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) website found that just under 30 percent of grade nine and ten girls "engaged in weight-loss behaviours." Another study, from 2008, found that 40 percent of grade ten girls thought they were too fat. These appear to be among the most recent studies done in Canada on the prevalence of eating disorders.
Laurin Liu, 24, one of the many young NDP candidates elected to Parliament during the 2011 "Orange Crush," wants to bring national attention to the problem of eating disorders, and one of her focuses is the lack of research into the issue.
"I wanted to use my voice and my position of power in this really male-dominated political space to talk about issues that particularly affect women," Liu told VICE, "and eating disorders are one of those issues—although they affect men as well, 80 percent of those suffering from eating disorders are women."
The "Be Real" campaign that she's started is, right now, essentially a website with a petition you can sign if you also want more funding and attention focused on eating disorders in Canada. But Liu wants to use this to create the social and political will to do more, including implementing a national strategy on eating disorders and having a serious conversation about body diversity in the media.
As it happens, some regions in the country have already begun the work Liu is talking about. Quebec, from whence Liu hails, has a "Charter for a healthy and diverse body image" and a comprehensive approach to eating disorders.
Aside from the best-known iterations of disordered eating—anorexia and bulimia—there is an entire range of unhealthy eating habits, and they're often tied to a person's self-image and mental health. That's part of why Liu wants the federal government to both allocate funding for research into eating disorders, and discuss the role of media portrayals of body diversity.
Right now, we're a far cry from where Liu, along with many organizations that work with eating disorders, would like us to be: she says the federal government has cut spending for research and women's health in recent years, and she was disappointed by the recommendations the Conservative-majority's Standing Committee on the Status of Women issued after a hearing on the issue.
Liu says the committee "put out a very watered-down report, with very watered-down considerations, more kind of suggest and propose and encourage recommendations, you know what I mean? Recommendations that don't actually hold the government to account."
The first three recommendations from the committee's report are a good example of that:
The Committee recommends that the Government of Canada consider supporting research on the impact of media messaging and marketing directed toward children and the impact and consequences of society's current, narrow definition of beauty.
The Committee recommends that the Government of Canada encourage academic institutions to promote media literacy for young children to help them to view media content critically and question the messages therein.
The Committee recommends that the Government of Canada collaborate with the provinces and territories to consider adjusting medical criteria for defining normal weights beyond quantitative measures such as Body Mass Index.
Encouragements and suggestions aren't enough without political willpower, as Liu well knows. She said she wants to introduce a bill to Parliament on the creation of a national strategy. It's hard to say what kind of effect a national strategy on eating disorders would have on the kids in malls across Canada deciding how much they want to allow themselves to eat, but if Liu manages to make it happen, it can only be a good thing.
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