NEDA’s actions have shown a commitment to silencing and ostracizing marginalized perspectives in the eating disorder community and within their own organization, revealing an underbelly of fatphobia and racism.
By Gloria Oladipo
CW: disordered eating/eating disorders
When it comes to eating disorder education, the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) is one of the most prominent advocacy groups, known for their work in making eating disorder education more accessible. However, like most corporatized nonprofits, their recent actions reveal an underbelly of fatphobia and racism, calling into question their ability to represent all groups in eating disorder advocacy.
Most recently, this past September, NEDA fired Chevese Turner, their former Chief Policy and Strategy Officer, with no clear reason for or transparency about the decision. Turner, the founder of the Binge Eating Disorder Association which later combined with NEDA, was one of a few fat staff members and an avid champion for a weight inclusive, progressive approach to eating disorder advocacy.
Following Turner’s termination, Joslyn Smith—the former Director of Public Policy and Community Relations and another fat employee—publicly resigned from the organization via her Facebook status, specifically citing Turner’s termination as a shift away from the “organization’s recent commitments to center the most marginalized people with eating disorders.” In the same statement, she went on to say that NEDA does not have “the infrastructure in place or the authentic commitment of leadership to do the work it claims to intend to do.”
Within NEDA, the most marginalized groups include people of color, fat people, low-income people, and other communities that rarely access eating disorder diagnosis and treatment. Centering these groups versus thin, white anorexics who disproportionately receive attention and funding not only makes treatment more accessible, but also betters treatment for everyone by improving the standard of treatment. A group that claims to, via their mission statement, “[support] individuals and families affected by eating disorders” cannot do so if it only caters to the most privileged. That’s why firing Turner, a vocal advocate for the marginalized, not only seems antithetical to NEDA’s mission, but also appears to be a purposeful step away from equity and inclusion within the organization.
“It was very confusing because nobody saw it coming and everybody was really excited about the work we were doing together, especially under the guidance of Chevese,” Smith tells Wear Your Voice, on the subject of Turner’s termination.
As a result, many activists within the eating disorder recovery community have been criticising NEDA, calling for more transparency into Turner’s dismissal and a greater prioritization of marginalized groups in their advocacy.
On the impact of her termination, Turner says, “A lot of people are really scared to speak up now. I think my separation from NEDA has raised a lot of questions that I can’t speak to. The inability to be transparent has caused a lot of fear in our community amongst people who are activists.”
Turner and Smith have both specifically advocated for more attention to be given to non-thin, non-white eating disorder experiences. Their detachment from NEDA is another example of the leadership’s shallow commitment to justice-centered advocacy and their inability to support more diverse staff and clients.
NEDA has previously failed in making their staff and board more inclusive and representative of what the larger eating disorder community looks like. Composed of mainly white staff, NEDA does not represent the oppressed groups they claim to advocate for. Not only does their leadership similarly lack inclusivity, but according to Smith, there is a staunch commitment to donors (primarily white and wealthy) versus those who are working towards recovery from eating disorders; many donors are reportedly less enthused about a progressive eating disorder agenda compared to a traditional one focused on the thin-presenting anorexia primarily associated with white girls and women.
“It’s going to be hard for NEDA to figure out how to offer services that truly benefit the most vulnerable if their biggest concern is keeping their core group of donors,” Smith says.
NEDA’s deprioritization of marginalized communities is unfortunate, but not surprising. Other advocacy groups, large and small, are guilty of sidelining the needs of oppressed communities within eating disorder advocacy. While many BIPOC struggle with eating disorders, these disorders are still conceptualized as a singular type of illness that mainly affects thin, white women. This stereotyping leads to a lack of attention towards non-white people with eating disorders, and this is particularly clear when it comes to which types of eating disorders get more attention. Attempts to understand other eating disorders such as bulimia and binge eating, diseases that are known to affect communities of color in great numbers, are sidelined while more time, research, and money are dedicated to fighting and bringing awareness to anorexia.
“Thin, white anorexics are actually the minority. It doesn’t mean they don’t deserve care and treatment, but they are the minority [and yet] they are getting the most research, the most care,” Turner tells Wear Your Voice.
The erasure of progressive advocacy by NEDA elites is even more frustrating when juxtaposed with the organization’s more cosmetic forms of inclusivity. Around the same time as Turner’s firing, NEDA promoted and continued their second annual “Weight Stigma Awareness Week”, an event dedicated to raising awareness about the consequences of fatphobia. Turner had been heavily involved with the planning of this event prior to her departure from the organization, but without Turner’s presence, several Weight Stigma Awareness Week events failed to include fat people who could speak about their experiences dealing with fatphobia. During a congressional briefing on preventing disorder eating and weight stigma in schools, there was a notable lack of fat people; commenters were quick to point out the dissonance between a conversation on weight stigma featuring no people who had actually experienced weight stigma.
Similarly, National Eating Disorder Awareness week at NEDA, hosted in late February, tends to underwhelmingly feature the perspectives of marginalized identities dealing with eating disorders. However, during their 2019 “Come As You Are” campaign, NEDA only recognized underrepresented experiences as small, “unique” perspectives on how eating disorders manifest versus how these perspectives represent the majority of what eating disorders look like in the United States.
Overall, NEDA’s actions have shown a commitment to silencing and ostracizing marginalized perspectives in the eating disorder community and within their own organization. Despite responses from board members that NEDA will do better to adopt a more progressive, accessible advocacy, current actions have shown the very opposite as NEDA, on the leadership level, appears to be making a staunch commitment to an exclusive form of eating disorder advocacy that keeps donors happy. One centered on thinness and whiteness.
Turner and Smith agree that the only way forward with eating disorder advocacy that benefits everyone is to start with and center the most vulnerable groups. Through a continual process of self-learning among staff, making the board and the organization more inclusive (bringing in marginalized perspectives, transparency around NEDA decision-making, and other steps), and a reorientation in mission to a justice-centered form of eating disorder advocacy, NEDA can begin to make a commitment to advocacy and care for all.
Smith offers, “If what we really care about is reducing the number of people with eating disorders and reducing the mortality rate, we have to improve access to care and resources across the board by focusing on people who have the fewest resources now.”
Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman who is a senior at Cornell University and a permanent resident of Chicago, IL. She enjoys reading and writing on all things race, gender, mental health, and more. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Instagram at @glorels, or on Twitter at @gaoladipo.
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