on the stigmas of mental illness and how they effect youth

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author elena in the ICU, 2006


The main issue that Elena Dunkle pinpoints in her memoir Elena Vanishing is the dangerous romanticization of mental illness in teenage culture. Every day, in peer interactions and in media targeted to them, teenage girls are subjected to this bordering-on-promotion of mental illness, especially eating disorders. In popular media, the anorexic girl has become just another trope. She is fragile, careful, reduced to the simplest of stereotypes. The depth of her illness isn't even grazed; a scene here with her on a scale, a scene there of her scraping food into the trash. Anorexia suddenly becomes a personality trait instead of a serious disorder. On social media, self-proclaimed "pro-ana" accounts unashamedly encourage eating disorders. Sporting pictures with taglines like 'eat less' and 'work out 'till you pass out', these accounts can rack up thousands of teenage followers, logging on and seeing the promotion of anorexia every day. Likewise, "depressed girl" accounts exist, encouraging self-hatred and even suicidal ideation. Accounts like these are incredibly dangerous, as their peer-level support and romanticization of mental illnesses can easily influence young people in their thinking and decisions. Dunkle fights this head-on by writing her graphic and visceral memoir. She bares every ugly detail, yanking away the illusions of anorexia being as simple as "just not eating" by telling her brutal story of hospitalization and recovery. She sets fire to the "damaged but beautiful" girl from the TV and replaces her with herself; sickly, full of self hatred, obsessed, unlikeable and rude. This stark contrast of the raw, ugly truth of anorexia against the well-promoted fragile and pretty girl is what makes Elena Vanishing so purposeful and important; Dunkle shatters every illusion of the romanticizing of mental illness by telling her own horrific story.

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timeline of elena's battle with anorexia


Elena Dunkle suffered from an eating disorder which she describes in her memoir Elena Vanishing. Dunkle was not always been “classified’ as having an eating disorder, especially in the beginning of the book. Though she was starving herself to achieve a “perfect” image and her mental health was dropping, the doctors claimed her weight was too high to actually be called an anorexic. They judged her health based on what they could see, without correct testing or understanding. Daily Mail, published an article about a recovering anorexic, Lauren Housten. The article is based around pictures of her before she started recovery, in the hospital recovering, after she is released from the hospital. In every photo she looks like an average teenage girl. Sure she looks a little bit skinnier than most girls but the smile on her face makes everyone believe she is fine. But Housten is not fine. She is struggling with her self image. The smile on her face is fake. Just like Dunkle she is stereotyped as having to be all bones to be called an anorexic. Housten describes her illness perfectly, “Eating disorders are mental illnesses that have physical side effects. Too many sufferers feel ashamed to get help because the media has projected the misconception that you must be skeletal in order to be suffering.” Every eating disorder may vary from person to person but what can be found in common between them all is the misconception that you must be skinny to have an eating disorder, when really is all based off the mind.
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elena shortly before entering therapy


Another important aspect to Dunkle's story is the visibility (or lack thereof) of mental illness. Throughout much of her hospitalization, Dunkle is in denial that she has an eating disorder. She claims that she "can't really be anorexic" based on the definition she has absorbed from those around her. She hails "real anorexics" as near-gods, constantly giving them her admiration and praise while simultaneously tearing herself down for supposedly not exhibiting as much self-control as them. She also fervently denies the roots of her mental illness; her sexual assault as a teenager. On that topic, too, she dismisses the validity of her struggle using the untrue stigmas she has heard from peers. The misinformation she had on the topics of mental illness due to lack of visibility was very harmful to her, causing her prolonged denial and thus, continuation of her disorder. Had Dunkle (and those around her influencing her) been more knowledgeable about mental illness, she could not only have avoided this misguided denial, but also may have been able to evade her disorder completely. Elena Vanishing makes a completely convincing case for increasing awareness and general knowledge of mental illness by showing how harmful misinformed opinions and stigmas can be

One Word - Episode 33: Fat (Eating Disorders)

Elena Vanishing Key Quotes

"There's fat, and there's thing, there's no in-between. You're one, or you're the other. But where does fat become thin? And where does thing become fat? In two pounds? Six pounds? Twelve pounds?" pg. 8

"We anorexics, we cause ourselves pain every day. We toughen ourselves to withstand any hardship. We can deal with the physical torture, the anguish, and the emptiness, but the thing that kills everyone of us is having to see what the others suffer." pg. 250

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