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Women's Outreach and Resource Collective | A collaborative community for advocates of gender equity and social justice

Eating Disorders and the iPhone

By: Hannah Robbins

Somewhere between a watch that can also function as a credit card, phone, and pedometer; the U2 album you didn’t know that you never needed; and the monolithic white box casting shadows over the De Anza College campus, we met the iPhone 6 and 6+. Sitting in a doctor’s office during Apple’s promotional webcast, I kept up with the news on Twitter, stalking product reviewers and tech magazine correspondents as they guffawed over the new iPhone’s size and waxed poetic when Apple revealed the shocking screen resolution. My appointment began, however, before I learned about the new iPhone’s commitment to my health –  more specifically, Apple’s commitment to the ways I choose to store and express my health data.

In case you missed it too, Apple reportedly partnered with health organizations including Mount Sinai Hospital, Cleveland Clinic, and Johns Hopkins to produce Health, the app that will aggregate information from Apple’s related developer service HealthKit.  Announced in June, Health officially launched with the introduction of iOS 8 and the new iPhone. HealthKit will take and store the information (which it can also give to third-party apps, given your permission), while Health will let bits of information talk to each other in order to paint a picture of the user’s physical health.

If I hop on a scale every morning after I get back from a two-mile run, I can store that data through HealthKit. Then, HealthKit can share that information with, say, UP, an app that would allow me to see that my best friend ran this morning, too. As I have more and more health apps enabled in the system, the possibilities are basically endless.  Regardless of the number of health apps (and believe me, there are oodles) that I choose to download, however, I’ll always have the Health app.

Health, like the built-in Passbook or Stocks, cannot be removed from my device. Unlike Passbook or Stocks, however, Health carries some serious implications for individuals struggling with or in recovery from eating disorders, especially those who fight calorie restriction.

Health App Interface

Health App Interface

While Health does have some very helpful tracking features (if you’ve known me for ten minutes, you know that I’m all about tracking heart rates), there is no way to silence the part of the app that allows the user to track and store her or his calorie intake throughout the day. For many users, this wouldn’t be a problem; for individuals in recovery from an eating disorder, often a lifelong process, this makes the Health app, and the iPhone itself, a potential trigger.

Current estimates reflect that eating disorders affect roughly 11 million people in the United States, nearly the combined populations of Georgia and New Hampshire. An estimated 85-90 percent of individuals struggling with eating disorders are women.

For those lucky enough to have never dealt the self-hate and constant anxiety of an eating disorder or fortunate enough to have never watched a loved one eye her food with distrust and terror, there are a few very important things to know when we talk about HealthKit and calorie restriction.

1.     Eating disorders aren’t about calories. They’re about control.

Eating disorders are highly reported amongst individuals who are having difficulty coping with excessive stress, trauma, or change in their day-to-day lives.  In fact, people struggling with anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder that might lead one to restrict calories or stop eating altogether, frequently exhibit a fear of growing up, the need to please people, perfectionism, the need for control or attention, high family expectations, or familydiscord. These qualities have nothing to do with fear of a hamburger but rather the lack of control that consuming that hamburger might represent.  Food is often the first line of defense for an individual who feels like his or her life isn’t quite theirs.

2.     Eating disorders aren’t about choices. They’re about compulsive behaviors.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that two-thirds of individuals with eating disorders have an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, and that 42% of those individuals had grappled with an anxiety disorder in childhood – prior to the onset of their eating disorder . Obsessive-compulsive disorder is the most common anxiety disorder associated with eating disorders, as many compulsive behaviors tend to manifest aroundthe ritual of eating. An eating disorder is far more complicated than a simple choice—it’s hardly a choice at all. Compulsive behaviors aren’t just the itches that can’t be scratched, they’re the itches that grow worse with scratching. Eating disorders are cyclical patterns of compulsions to either restrict or overeat and are often as involuntary as any other personality trait or bodily process.

3.     Eating disorders aren’t about isolated battles. They’re about wars.

Eating disorders are daily realities for millions of people. We are constantly in proximity to food, advertisements for food, and media featuring food products. An eating disorder doesn’t just “crop up” as a specific set of feelings; it’s a system of attitudes and behaviors that endure over time. To recover from an eating disorder is a lifelong process of retraining and conditioning the mind to understand that food and eating can be restorative and positive experiences. Recovery is every day, all the time.

Imagine this: you’re a freshman in college. Your roommate is a stranger you met on the DawgHouse, you can’t figure out the Russell Hall bus, you hate your Chemistry Lab, and there’s an adorable boy in your English 1102 class that you don’t know how to talk to. You have tests every week, you have classes every day, and your friends from high school all decided to rush a sorority. If you’re predisposed to anxiety or if you’ve struggled with an eating disorder before, you are highly likely to begin again- and where to begin but an application that you can’t uninstall on a phone that you are always carrying around?

I’m not anti-Apple, and I don’t think anyone necessarily should be. But when I look at the men and women on my campus, I wonder how many of them know what it’s like to fear breakfast. I wonder how many of them are in the lifelong recovery process that so many have to face alone and in silence. And I wonder how many of them, afflicted with the compulsive tendencies that hallmark eating disorders, are tempted beyond their wills. If an eating disorder is a compulsion that we cannot silence, then how can we accept a potentially hazardous app feature that we also cannot silence?

Apple, I don’t need a mandatory Stocks app. I don’t want a mandatory Passbook. I don’t need a mandatory Reminders function that I don’t even know how to use properly. And I sure don’t need a feature that is potentially destructive for anyone.

Eating DisordersHealth AppiPhone

worcuga • October 9, 2014

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