I don’t like diagnostic labels. Sure, the medical establishment tries to convince us that labels are important. They tell us that if we have a label (“overweight”, “obese”, “anorexic”, “bulimic”, “cognitively impaired”, etc.)  it will be easier to gain access to needed support and treatment. With the way our health insurance industry works, they’re probably right; no one gets treatment for anything (and expects to have their insurance company pay out) without a diagnostic label. At the university where I work, a student needs to provide proof (a diagnostic label from a medical professional) that s/he has a disability in order to access the accommodations available to her/him. Of course I can see how that’s a necessary way to prevent other students from misusing resources.

But labels can be harmful — leading to bullying, teasing, and stigmatization. Or, at the very least, labels can stick to us and even grow into us so that we become one with them. I am thinking of a student I once counseled who was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and was told by family and friends whenever he felt anything negative that he was “just depressed”. He continued (10 years later) to think of himself as “depressed”. After two months of spinning our wheels in therapy and making no real progress, I finally realized that he wasn’t going to make progress until he recognized that his depression was not who he was; it was an illness that had descended upon him at some point and it was something he could learn to gain some control over rather than have it control, and even define, him. We worked together to “externalize” his depression and he made great strides the rest of the semester.

So, what happens when we label ourselves as “anorexic”, “bulimic”, or “eating disordered”? How long does it take before the label becomes one of our sole identities? If you have been labeled something by the medical or psychological community, I encourage you to take what information and help that you can from that label but not embrace it as the sum total of who you are. I don’t think I would be where I am today had I not recognized (with the help of some wonderful people) that I am not forever doomed to be “eating disordered”. There are many elements to my identity. Having once struggled with disordered eating is just one of the challenges I have faced.

Peace, joy, and health.



3 thoughts on “Labels

  1. Leslie Neshama says:

    Megan – this is a great post, and thought-provoking. Thanks! Particularly interesting to me is the thought of “externalizing” one’s illness. Jenni Schaefer does this, I think, when she writes in “Leaving ED”. The tricky part is, I think, that many of us feel empty, and the eating disorder, in its tortuous, complex, tricky ways, seem to fill us…..Perhaps you can write about Emptiness and Eating Disorders? To me, this subject rings true.
    Blessings, Megan. And to All, We Look Forward.
    PS Years ago, when I suffered anorexia, I wanted to “weigh nothing”, I wanted to be Nothing, I was No Thing……….Through therapy, today I KNOW that I Am, and I celebrate that.

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