Stigma in eating disorders is a serious social justice issue

Stigma in eating disorders is a serious social justice issue

By Anna Scelzo, iaedp International Chapter Chair of Italy

When we look up the meaning of the word stigma we read: “A mark of disgrace associated with particular circumstance, quality, or person” (Oxford Dictionary). And also: “A mark or spot on the skin.” Whatever we can find around the concept of stigma however, it is important to consider what it does, rather than what it means intellectually. As matter of fact stigma is related with feelings, images and thoughts that are strictly connected to hate, prejudice, shame, guilt, humiliation, discrimination … and pain.

Stigma is the death of an opportunity, the one that allows people to share experiences, to deepen the knowledge of the human being in its whole and entire nature, in strength and vulnerability, in potential and limits, in hope and despair. And this happens not just for the people who are victimized by stigma, but also for those who contribute to its growth.

We are talking about stigma that surrounds people who suffer from an eating disorder, those women, men, boys and girls who have developed symptoms of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorders. People who are trapped in the conflicting relationship with food and that struggle to see their own body as suitable for the required social standards.

We know that people who suffer from an ED are very sensitive and have not chosen to develop such symptoms, they have not chosen to restrict or binge in order to be different or special or “crazy.” Those symptoms are in a way a language by which feelings of fear, low self-esteem, shame and guilt can be expressed. A place where to be when no other place feels safe.

When we understand more deeply what an eating disorder is, a whole world of meanings can open up. Meanings that are not found in dictionary or books, but by talking with each other, by listening the story behind a fearful gaze and a bone-skinned body. Often I listen while my patients describe the experience of going to the beach and hearing someone at their back, whispering: “Do you want to see what an anorectic looks like?”

Here in Italy, where I live and work as psychotherapist, we are only now starting to talk more openly about eating disorders and still many people feel that this is something that does not relate to them. Even politics does not seem to be really interested, maybe because there is not much money to make out of it.

An eating disorder is not the kind of illness that requires a pharmaceutical therapy, therefore is not appealing for big pharmaceutical companies. They say that the number of people suffering from eating disorders does not justify the opening of specialized day centers or wards. Yet people are dying from eating disorders. People do not have a life because of an eating disorder.

Giulia Tavilla and other girls are the victims of a system that is underestimating the consequences of an eating disorder. Giulia was 17 when she died from bulimia and she and her family were at that time in on a waiting list for treatment. Her father Stefano Tavilla has had the courage to speak up and fight for all the other people who suffer from an eating disorder and has given strength to an activism that we recognize under the symbol of the Lilac Ribbon.

This is why it is important to talk about eating disorders, to raise awareness about it, to give correct information and above all to communicate people at all levels that recovery is possible no matter how old the person is.

About Anna

Dr. Anna Scelzo is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist. She has been working in the field of eating disorders for 15 years and is a lecturer both in Italy and abroad. She coordinates a day-practice at a local hospital for the treatment of ED and has a private practice in Chiavari and in Genoa. She is founder of the Shasta Association which is especially dedicated to the prevention of eating disorders and body image issues through work in schools. She is member of BPS as well as the SISDCA, the Italian Society dedicated to the study and treatment of ED. Since 2009, Anna has been a member of iaedp and now Chair of the International Chapter in Italy. She is author of the book The drawing of the Souls. The use of Mandala for the treatment of eating disorders (Zephyro, Italy).

  Take part in World Eating Disorders Action Day
World Eating Disorders Action Day on June 2, 2018 is a grassroots movement designed for and by people affected by an eating disorder, their families, and the medical and health professionals who support them. Uniting activists across the globe, the aim is to expand global awareness of eating disorders as genetically linked, treatable illnesses that can affect anyone. The Third Annual #WorldEatingDisordersDay will take place on June 2, 2018 with a focus on breaking stigma about Eating Disorders.  #WeDoAct2BreakStigma.

Join the virtual campaign on social media and host a local event to share information and advocate for policy change to ensure access to evidence based treatment for all affected.

Diana has experienced eating disorders and recovery firsthand, with herself and her daughter. She co-founded The Diary Healer website with June Alexander and has written several blog posts based on her personal experiences in the hope that sharing her stories will give others a sense of community and connection, and give herself some perspective and healing along the way. If you would like to contact Diana, she can be reached at

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