Can trying to dissuade young women from becoming anorexic actually backfire and cause more anorexia? Kelsey Osgood, who is promoting her new book on the culture of anorexia, argues in Time that it can. Most versions of the anorexia story, with lavish details of scary weight loss, an ever-shrinking social life, and routine hospitalization, are meant to show young people how bad it can get if you go down that road. Unfortunately what many in the audience hear when they read about obsessive calorie counting and concave chests is inspiration. "I believe that so many young women want to be anorexic because our society has communicated not the horrible consequences of eating disorders," she writes, "but what might seem to be the benefits of them, namely, that they make you skinny and special."
Of course, it's not like we should shut up about the problem of eating disorders. Osgood suggests rethinking "the vocabulary we use and the tone we invoke when we discuss anorexia" and being aware of messages that we may think are discouraging but are read by anorexics as motivating, such as images of starved women and details on how they got that way. For instance, it may seem like common sense to support the Italian ads discouraging anorexia by showing off the emaciated body of a model who died at 28 of the disease, but armed with Osgood's perspective, it's easy to see how that ad might read as aspirational to someone prone to disordered eating. (This is why we aren't illustrating this blog post with an image of a scary skinny woman, FYI.)
Osgood's essay raises for me the larger problem with the assumption that scolding young people is an effective way to discourage negative behavior. We may think we're saying, "If you make these choices, scary things will happen to you," but what younger audiences often hear is, "These choices are daring and rebellious—even romantic." Need proof? Kids brought up in sex-negative religions have sex on average at younger ages than kids who get more sex-positive messages. One possible reason is that teaching that sex is the forbidden fruit tempts teenagers to get swept up in the moment, whereas sex-positive kids have a more nuanced understanding that allows them to plan their sexual debut carefully. Anti-drug education programs often end up leading kids to believe that all the cool kids use drugs. Research shows that anti-bullying programs, because they detail bullying behavior, often end up teaching kids how to be better bullies. Fat-shaming causes people to eat more, possibly because of stress, and gain weight.
None of this is to say that we should throw our hands in the air and give up trying to help young people make better choices. It does, however, suggest that adults need to worry less about "sending a message" and worry more about crafting persuasive arguments that meet young people where they're at. "Just say no" may give the message-sender a jolt of self-righteous pleasure, but, in many cases, what young audiences hear is, "Try this out. It's so exciting." We have to ask ourselves when we're trying to steer young people toward healthy decisions: Do we want to be righteous or do we want to be effective? So very often, we cannot be both.