There are a lot of myths and stereotypes surrounding eating disorders and its sufferers. These sometimes innocent misunderstandings can play down what is a serious problem, and can discourage sufferers to come forward and seek help because they’re ashamed and don’t “fit” these stereotypes.
People with eating disorders just want attention / are vain.
This is an offensive and derogatory stereotype. Eating disorders are complex psychiatric and physical disorders, and oftentimes sufferers have added mental illnesses on top of that, such as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, or borderline personality disorder. It’s also common for sufferers to engage in other self-destructive behaviors, like substance abuse, self harm, and sexual promiscuity.
There are a lot of variables and triggers involved when a person develops an eating disorder; it’s not just about “dieting” or “looking pretty.” It’s a disease, not a lifestyle or phase or whatever else you want to label it as. Not recognizing it as such diminishes the severity of the issue and really demean those who are suffering.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, with up to 30% of its sufferers dying as a result of complications. They aren’t a joke; eating disorders can kill.
You can tell a person has an eating disorder because they’re emaciated.
While it’s true that low weight is a sign of anorexia, an anorexic can be just five to fifteen pounds underweight and still be at risk because of her behaviors. Additionally, bulimics are usually at an average or slightly above average weight, and compulsive over eaters are typically overweight. However, you cannot tell if a person has an eating disorder just by appearance alone – there is a lot more to it than that.
This is a particularly dangerous misconception because it can lead a sufferer to believe she isn’t “sick enough,” and encourage the disease further. People can be suffering from an eating disorder no matter what size or shape they are; just because their bones aren’t showing doesn’t mean they aren’t engaging in dangerous behaviors.
(Conversely, just because someone is thin doesn’t mean they have an eating disorder!)
Eating disorders are about food.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people tell me “Just eat something,” as if my eating disorder was a light I could switch on and off. The compulsions to engage in behaviors and give in to the “eating disorder voice” are strong and unyielding, so much so that it often requires professional intervention in the form of treatment or hospitalization.
Eating disorders don’t go away simply by resuming healthy eating. Instead, they require re-feeding, nutrition education, learning healthy coping mechanisms, and intensive therapy. It’s a physical and emotional process as the patient is simultaneously dealing with health complications in addition to processing their emotions and behaviors.
Eating disorders only affect white teenage girls.
When I was in treatment, there were patients from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and ages – most of the patients were in their thirties through their sixties, and this was just during the window of a couple of months. It’s not just women who suffer, though: at least 10% of eating disorder sufferers are men.
Eating disorders don’t discriminate against gender, age, race, sexuality, socioeconomic background – anything. By perpetuating the idea that only “white teen girls” have ED is so damaging and debilitating, because it breeds more shame from suffers that don’t fit this ridiculous stereotype. The more shame they feel, the less likely they are to come forward and get the help that they need and deserve.
We need to put an end to these awful misconceptions and instead be supportive and understanding of those who are suffering, and encourage them to get help. You could be saving their life.
*If you or someone you know is currently suffering from an eating disorder, you are not alone. NEDA has a toll-free, confidential help line +1-800-931-2237 (Monday-Friday, 9:00 am- 5:00 pm EST); getting help now could save your life. Recovery is worthwhile, and so are you.