Tech Culture Perpetuates Eating Disorders

There is not one single thing that makes it a good place for people with eating disorders to exist or recover.

by Justine Arreche on February 25th, 2016

Content notice: personal story and discussion of experiences/effects of bulimia, alcohol abuse, eating disorders, depression; documents sexist harassment and microaggressions around women’s appearances and bodies.  

There have been a lot of conversations about mental health in the tech industry in the past year, and all-in-all we’ve gotten better about having those discussions. We’ve heard topics from the struggles of depression, to the challenges of anxiety, to dealing with burnout. Finally, we are giving people a platform to consider problems we’re all likely to face in a career that has high expectations and seemingly little time to take care of ourselves and our minds.

But in all of these articles and conference talks, I’ve not heard a single person address eating disorders. How is this possible when about 30 million people in the United States alone, not just women, will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their life? If you think eating disorders are less common in tech, I will argue they’re even more common than you could imagine. You’re just not paying attention.

I’ve struggled with bulimia for almost 10 years of my life. My biggest relapse was while I was at the height of my speaking career at Ruby and other tech-related conferences. It was incredibly easy to hide it and even more-so: nobody was asking the right questions to see that something was up. I could work from home and facilitate a life of hiding, drinking and lying. My opportunities to leave my house and travel were mostly to talk and attend various conferences around the world, built on the same broken formula and awkward experiences.

An out-of-focus figure, standing by the window gazing outside.

Photo CC-BY Georgi C.

Tech culture is toxic and the effect it has on people with mental disorders can be tenfold. There is not one single thing about the current state of culture in tech that makes it a good place for people, particularly women, with eating disorders to exist or recover. Let me paint you a picture of social and team building activities ran and mostly participated in by men, shoving their faces full of pizza, burgers and bacon, drinking for hours on end all under the premise of a technical conference or company drink-up. But you’re a good sport, right? You’re the kind of person that wants to blend in, make friends and have a good time. So you’re picking at whatever poor excuse for a vegan meal they’ve provided you with and enjoying your red wine to relax from a chaotic day of shaking hands and defending your role in tech as a woman. This is when the seemingly harmless “compliments” start flying in from privileged white men, drinking on their company’s dime.

“It’s good you’re so beautiful, that way your company will want to keep you around. That’s probably why they hired you in the first place.”

“I was surprised to see you were a speaker, usually the women who speak look like those ugly, internet, feminist-trolls.”

In addition to these “fake compliments,” women are constantly attacked with remarks like, “You’re fat, you’re opinion doesn’t matter” or “You’re ugly, it’s no wonder you spend all your time on the Internet.” These declarations are constant and unyielding, whether insinuated in person or overtly posted to Reddit or Twitter. Women have to suffer this environment while also being unendingly criticized for their work performance. The incredible sexism in tech ensures constant scrutiny: from what is appropriate for a woman to wear to work to what she eats or how she talks. But for someone with a mental disorder that has already taken hold of their ability to see reality, these comments just add fuel to their fire. Their internal fire that tells them, ‘you are nothing if you’re not a pretty-face’. That’s when the thoughts start streaming through minds.

‘Perhaps I was just hired because I was pretty.’

‘Maybe I wasn’t accepted to speak at this conference because I’m ugly? I don’t have anything valid or interesting to say anyways.’

It’s a little-known fact that often, much of what develops an eating disorder is a desire to control something in your life. While the tech world is constantly pushing women to work harder, contribute more, speak more, we’re trying to have control over a world that is seemingly crumbling apart while being told it’s our job to fix it. We spend the majority of our days doing our actual jobs and in our spare time fighting fires for justice and equality. For a lot of us, it’s a completely out-of-control situation which can trigger existing or develop new eating disorders. Some people find a way to channel this anxiety into workout routines and side projects, while there are a great many others who don’t go down a healthy path. There is an eating disorder for every personality type, from Binge Eating Disorder to Anorexia. And, if people aren’t paying attention, they won’t even know anything is wrong with them. They’ll successfully be able to hide it seemingly forever. People with eating disorders are more likely to have their disorder exposed from a side effect rather than the disorder itself. Maybe it was the dentist who has been poking at the back molars and noticed the erosion from stomach acid, or maybe it was a significant other concerned about increased alcohol consumption and irritability.

A shadowy figure, distorted, as if pictured through glass.

Photo CC-BY Derrick Tyson.

Many people who suffer from eating disorders will also develop depression, in fact the numbers are about 50% in the United States. In addition to that, about the same percentage of people will engage in substance abuse. For the length of my longest relapse, most people had absolutely no idea how ill, depressed and drunk I was. Because of the fact that I’m a woman, and in this society it’s not uncommon for women to skip meals or watch what they eat obsessively, nobody questioned that they hadn’t seen me eat much of anything in months. And in tech, we like to drink and party. What better way to conceal my alcohol abuse than with an employer that kept a dual-keg in the office and attending conferences where the majority of the networking would be done at a bar with shots?

Conferences and companies say they’re working to ensure safe and inclusive events, but it’s really not enough. Inclusiveness should strive to help all forms of people, from people with disabilities to people with mental disorders. This should absolutely include eating disorders. Often times conferences are so busy catering to the “bacon-worshiping developer” stereotype, they don’t stop to think about being accessible to people who require a healthy eating atmosphere. While my veganism has nothing to do with my eating disorder, conferences definitely trigger my ED when they don’t even try to cater to something I can eat. Removing options for people with a general sensitivity to eating can trigger conditions and make for a miserable experience. I can’t say I’ve been to a single conference in the last three years that had adequate options for a healthy meal. Throwing a few tomatoes on top of a pile of iceberg lettuce then shipping everyone off to a drink up is a recipe for disaster.

The same can also be said for team dinners and retreats. If your company comprises of only 20 people, statistically at least 2 of them will have or have had an eating disorder. It’s your responsibility to care about your employees and fellow co-workers and provide them with an environment that is accommodating, non-triggering, welcoming and safe.

With people suffering all over the world from various forms of eating disorders, and considering the fact that EDs have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, we need acknowledge that ED is a crucial part of the mental health picture in tech. Only 1 in 10 people with an eating disorder will receive treatment due to the fact that in theory, outwardly many people suffering can still do their jobs and live their day to day lives without seeming interference from the disease. While many women in our industry are suffering or have suffered from an eating disorder, it’s important not to jump to conclusions. Instead, you should be thinking about the inevitability that someone in your workplace or community has experienced an eating disorder, and how we can better support and accommodate them in our workplaces, events, communities and culture.

What Can Companies Do to Help?

Just like any other health benefit, mental health should be a concern and a priority in your company. Managing directors and owners should familiarize themselves with the medical benefits they offer. If you’re not currently offering benefits and accommodations for mental health, you should be. Even if it’s as simple as hiring a part-time therapist, free of charge to employees, paid for by the company, that’s an excellent resource that a few companies are already beginning to employ. When having internal discussions about mental health, make sure you’re including women. There are so many types of mental health disorders that affect women more prevalently than men, and it’s imperative to have female voices to raise their concerns. Most importantly, all health and mental health benefit information should be completely transparent and available to everyone in the company. It has to be easy for people to seek help, or those struggling are not likely to do so.

What Can You, As An Individual, Do to Promote Women’s Health?

Hazy sun at dawn.

Photo CC-BY jenny downing.

We can’t expect managers and company owners to do all the ground work for us. We need everyone in this industry to realize the importance of women’s mental health. Challenge yourself to think differently about the behavior you see or you yourself exhibit. When you see or hear people commenting on women’s appearances, what they eat, how they dress, negative or otherwise, speak up! Especially if you’re another man. The social construct that we are allowed to judge women in this way needs to end now. It’s a perpetrator of eating and other mental health disorders that women will struggle with for the rest of their lives. We need to understand the severity of these conditions and where they come from. This isn’t just a tech problem, this is a societal problem. Enact change now so that another woman doesn’t spend the rest of her life struggling with a life-threatening disease.

What Can the Tech Industry Do to Ensure a Safe Environment for People with Eating Disorders?

Time and time again we hear people pleading for a change in the way we socialize with each other in and out of the workplace. These people have gone mostly unheard and the topic is brushed off because we assume they just don’t like to drink or go to bars. This is completely inaccurate, and it’s not just about alcohol. Triggering events for people with eating disorders come from many different kinds of social encounters. Whether it’s the limited buffet at a conference, no clear CoC for after-hour conference events, or your local meet-up happy hour, there are uncomfortable situations that I’ve dealt with repeatedly. As members of our community, I challenge to you start bringing up eating disorders as a topic for inclusivity in all areas.

Stop including the unhealthy event formulas of tech that are so non-inclusive. Make sure you’re offering filling and healthy meals at your company picnic. Begin having events at your conference where alcohol isn’t paid for or served. If people really want to drink, they can leave to go to a bar. The money you’ll save on the bar tab can go towards better food options for the buffet. Finally, make sure you’ve extended your CoC to include after-hours activities, even if they’re off venue grounds. As long as those people are still attending your conference, you’re still responsible for their well-being. Make sure your attendees know their comments and behavior still need to match the conditions of the CoC at all hours during their attendance.

Mental health should also be a topic of conversation in tech events themselves. I am part of an initiative called Prompt that sends speakers to events solely to talk about and bring light to mental health topics in general. I urge you to get into touch with Prompt and invite someone to speak at your next event. If we continue these conversations, we can make a positive impact.

Whether you’re someone who’s suffering or just another individual working in the the community, this boils down to one goal we need to share in this industry: think less about the technology itself and more about the people building it. We cannot continue to assume everything is normal and everyone is happy. We know this isn’t true because we know this industry is broken. For people with eating disorders and the subsequent problems that accompany them, we need to promise to look out for each other. We can’t build anything amazing if we can’t even take care of each other.

This article was originally printed in Model View Culture Quarterly Three, 2015. Subscribe to our 2016 Quarterly editions here.