Over the years, the National Eating Disorders Association has worked to spotlight eating disorders and put life-saving resources into the hands of those who need them. But even with so much information available, there are still a few major myths and misconceptions surrounding eating disorders and those affected by them. Perhaps one of the most prevalent and dangerous misconceptions is that eating disorders only affect people who are noticeably thinner than everyone else. Hollywood has played a role in perpetuating this myth — most movies created to address body issues and eating disorders center on the plight of skinny white women.
While we aren’t here to disregard anyone’s struggle, it would be helpful and even life-saving to tell the stories of women of color who are also struggling with eating disorders, and people, both male and female, who may not fit the stereotypical “skinny” body type most commonly associated with eating disorders.
The National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders reports that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. These disorders are complex illnesses that affect 20 million women and 10 million men in the U.S. alone — and their cause is anything but simple. And the worst part? The majority of those suffering won’t be lucky enough to get the help that they deserve, due in large part to the misconceptions surrounding these illnesses.
As with other mental illnesses, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and you can’t always tell whether or not someone is suffering just by looking at them.
When we think of eating disorders, most of us may think of the three main types: anorexia, which involves severely cutting calories by eating very little; bulimia which is eating large amounts of food, often in secret, and then purging; or binge-eating which is the habit of eating well beyond the point of fullness compulsively.
These and other kinds of eating disorders can affect anyone regardless of age, race, gender, socioeconomic status, or even weight.
Now, to completely debunk the myth, your size does not determine whether or not you may develop an eating disorder, the severity of the disorder, or even the “type” of disorder. It is estimated that as much as 4.2 percent of American women have suffered from anorexia in their lifetime. While bulimia affects 4 percent, and binge-eating affects 2.8 percent of women in the United States. About 90 percent of people with eating disorders are women, but recently, more men have been sharing their experiences as well. According to the Central Region Eating Disorder Service, eating disorders tend to be more common among people who have difficulties naming and managing their emotions, those with high body dissatisfaction, or those who may have experienced sexual abuse.
Being too quick to assume that someone who is in a bigger body struggles with binge-eating or that someone in a smaller body has anorexia is not only offensive to perfectly healthy people whose bodies look like that, it also marginalizes the very real struggles of people dealing with those issues whose bodies don’t necessarily tell the story for them. The weight stigma is one that has been instilled from a young age, and one we have yet to fully shake as a society.
Additionally, the assumption that someone who might be overweight or someone with a “normal” BMI couldn’t possibly have an eating disorder is problematic and may prevent a timely diagnosis. Because an overweight or obese body is not what most people picture when they think of eating disorders, people who are overweight are often left out of the eating disorder conversation almost entirely.
There have even been reports of some doctors overlooking overweight but anorexic patients.
Because of limited knowledge on the matter, many may believe if someone overweight did, in fact, have an eating disorder then they wouldn’t be overweight.
According to Dr. Amelia Davis, MD, is the medical director of Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders, “Eating disorders are caused by a combination of complex factors including genetics, biochemical, psychological, environmental and cultural factors.” She adds that sometimes eating disorders can result from psychological issues that are unrelated to weight loss, and people who have them “may begin using these behaviors (dieting, starving, and purging) as ways of coping with stress and to help relieve unpleasant or overwhelming emotions.”
The simple fact is, you cannot define someone’s health by how much they weigh and you cannot determine whether they have an eating disorder just by looking at them.
It’s important that we get this right. It’s important that we stop perpetuating these horrible misconceptions — they only serve to suppress pain of those suffering while hindering them from accessing the services and resources they need. Maybe instead of judging anyone, take a moment to listen, or lend a shoulder. We’re all struggling with something, and a little kindness could go a long way, and maybe even save a life.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237 or talk to a trusted health professional.