Eating disorders impact at least 9% of the worldwide population and at least 28.8 million Americans will struggle with an eating disorder in their lifetime (ANAD). Despite their prevalence and discussion across the medical field and pop culture, there’s a lot that’s misunderstood about eating disorders and the people suffering from them.
Eating disorders take on a range of forms and the common misconceptions about them are often spread in the news, social media and conversations with friends and family. The stereotypes that are created are unhelpful because they fail to recognize the diversity of people who struggle with this serious mental illness and misunderstand the nature of the struggle itself.
Today we’re breaking down 5 common myths about eating disorders:
- You can tell if someone has an eating disorder by how thin they are
Someone’s size DOES NOT indicate whether or not they suffer from an eating disorder. People living in larger bodies are also impacted by the illness, and in reality less than 6% of people with eating disorders are clinically diagnosed as “underweight.” If you feel you’re struggling with an eating disorder – don’t wait until you’re “small enough” to raise alarm bells or ask for help. You’re worthy of help right now, regardless of your size.
- Eating disorders only impact young women
Popular media often depicts eating disorders as disproportionately affecting young, cisgender, white women. In reality, eating disorders are a serious, life-threatening mental illness affecting anyone regardless of age, race, gender identity, sexual orientation or background. What is often not displayed in the media are the high proportion of men, members of the LGBTQ+ community and impoverished people suffering from the illness and encountering obstacles to seeking treatment.
- People who struggle with eating disorders are vain and obsessed with appearance
With a disease that’s often talked about in regards to “getting skinny” there’s typically a stigma that people who suffer from eating disorders are just “too obsessed” with their image. This overly-simplistic and inaccurate line of thinking is extremely harmful as it discounts the much deeper pain occurring. More often eating disorders develop as a need for control or coping mechanism in response to past traumas and the product of growing up in a society poisoned by diet culture. It’s not actually about fitting into a dress size, it’s about trying to survive as a human in a messy world.
- Eating disorders are glamorous
Disordered eating is so ingrained in today’s society from what we see on the runway to articles we read about our favorite celebrities and their diets that eating disorders are often seen as a “success in willpower.” It’s not uncommon for people to be praised for their discipline while in the depths of a devastating eating disorder. In passing people say “I wish I could have an eating disorder so I can be skinny.” There is nothing glamorous about an eating disorder. About the isolation, loneliness, hair loss, persistent cold chill, aches and fear. Anyone with an eating disorder will tell you – it’s not a goal to achieve, it’s an illness that makes you feel trapped.
- Eating disorders are a life-long struggle, you can never be “fully recovered”
One of the most damaging misconceptions about eating disorders is that it is a struggle you’ll always face – everyday having to think about food and your body, and being unable to imagine a life where this isn’t the case. Recovery is not easy, it’s hard fought and often non-linear. Don’t get hung up on the semantics of whether you’re in “full” or “partial” recovery. Focus on the little actions you can take each day (e.g. eating breakfast when your eating disorder is telling you to skip it, skipping a workout to rest your body, etc) that all eventually add up to a life without an eating disorder. Recovery is not easy but it IS possible.
I hope these 5 myth-busters encourage you to challenge the stereotypes you’ve come to learn about eating disorders, especially if you’re struggling with one or know someone who is. I invite you to consider eating disorders through the lens of compassion and if you’re interested in learning more, reach out to one of our therapists at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By: Maddy Weingast, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC