A few weeks ago, I was talking to someone who is in recovery for her battle with anorexia. She talked about how she felt like some people didn’t take her seriously when she got to the point of wanting to seek out treatment because she still enjoyed going out to dinner in the depths of her battle with anorexia. And that if you would have gone out to eat with her, you may not have noticed any restrictive or “abnormal” behavior. She went on to explain that she almost felt like she had to “prove” her struggle to some people in order to receive the care that she needed. Undoubtedly, there are eating disorder stereotypes at play here that impacted both the perception of and experience with her illness and recovery journey.

Eating Disorder Stereotypes: Perceptions vs. Realities

You may be familiar with the stereotypes and myths that surround the perception of certain eating disorders: those who struggle with anorexia and always thin, eating disorders only impact females, healing from an eating disorder is nearly impossible, those who have eating disorders are obsessed with appearance, those who have restrictive eating disorders hate food, just to name a few. These and many other misconceptions continue to demonstrate that the complexity and severity of eating disorders are still widely misunderstood by many.

While these misconceptions about the way people perceive eating disorders often circulate, I don’t as often encounter information about stereotypes that surround the way people experience certain eating disorders. If you have an eating disorder or are in recovery, you know that they’re competitive illnesses. Because of their competitive nature, differences in the way two people experience the same eating disorder have the power to ignite feelings of insecurity, confusion, and even envy. 

Navigating Comparison and Competition when Struggling with an Eating Disorder

Before you know it, comparing your experience with someone else’s may cause you to convince yourself that you’re either: not sick enough to get help, not able to talk about what you’re going through because someone “has it worse,” or maybe even that you need to present as more sick than someone else in order to feel seen.

The reality is that two people struggling with the same eating disorder can have two very different experiences within their struggle. Having two different experiences within this struggle is incredibly normal. Your eating disorder is deserving of attention and treatment regardless of how it “compares” to a stereotype or the experience of someone else who struggles with the same disorder.

Here are 8 truths about your experience to remember: 

1. You can have an eating disorder and look forward to food-related events and holidays.

While some who have anorexia, bulimia, ARFID, or  binge eating disorder may feel a lot of anxiety when it comes to food-related holidays, this is not the case for everyone, and your eating disorder is no less worthy of treatment and healing is this is not part of your personal experience.

2. You can have an eating disorder if you don’t engage in visible restriction behaviors.

Eating disorders aren’t always apparent from external behaviors like skipping meals or excessively exercising. Some individuals may restrict their food intake in more subtle ways, such as meticulously counting calories or rigidly adhering to food rules, which may not be immediately noticeable to other people.

3. You can have an eating disorder and not struggle with eating around other people.

Maybe you still enjoy eating around other people, maybe eating around other people made you feel safe when you were struggling. Not everyone with an eating disorder struggles with eating around other people, and this doesn’t make your eating disorder less serious than that of someone who does struggle to eat around others.

4. You can have an eating disorder if you don’t eat only “healthy” foods.

The stereotype that those who have restrictive eating disorders only eat what diet culture categorizes as “healthy” food can further stigmatize and minimize the experience of those who don’t only eat these foods but who still struggle with an eating disorder. Your safe foods may not be fruits and vegetables; maybe your safe foods.

5. You can have an eating disorder and not experience body image concerns.

While body image dissatisfaction is common among those who have eating disorders, it’s not a universal experience. Some people may struggle primarily with control, anxiety, or perfectionism related to food and eating, rather than with dissatisfaction with their body.

6. You can have an eating disorder even if no one notices that you’re sick.

Even if your eating disorder goes “undetected” by other people, you are still worthy of treatment and recovery. You do not have to look a certain way, “as sick as” someone else, or adhere to a stereotype for your eating disorder to be real and serious.

7. You can have an eating disorder if you weren’t forced into treatment.

Not everyone who has an eating disorder will be pushed into a treatment program by family, friends, or medical professionals. Not everyone with an eating disorder will undergo formal treatment. Your level or method of treatment does not determine the severity of your eating disorder.

8. You can have an eating disorder and still love food.

Many people who struggle with eating disorders, even restrictive eating disorders, enjoy food. Eating disorders can sometimes be flexible around food. Enjoy food, feeling neutral about food, or being okay with someone else’s “fear food” does not make your illness less severe than someone else’s.

Ultimately, Your Eating Disorder is Real . . .

. . .And you deserve support and recovery. You do not have to adhere to the stereotypical presentation of the eating disorder you have to be worthy of care. You do not have to display the same exact symptoms or have the same struggles as someone else with the same eating disorder. Your treatment journey does not have to look the same or “more intense” than someone else’s for your recovery to be worthy of sharing. You deserve healing, and your journey is valid all on its own.

By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC

All images via Unsplash

How Can Wildflower Therapy in Philadelphia, PA Help You?

If you’re looking for someone to come alongside you to help you unpack and approach the the complex set of emotions you may experience during the holiday seasonour therapists in Pennsylvania are honored to help!  In fact, you can get to know a little bit more about them here and book a free consultation here.

Other Mental Health Services Provided by Wildflower Therapy, Philadelphia, PA

Life is a unique and sometimes messy journey for each of us; we all have our own individual battles to fight. Our therapists know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to any of life’s challenges and because of that, we offer many unique perspectives and approaches to help meet you where you are with our Philadelphia, PA Therapy services.

We offer services for eating disorder therapy, services for anxiety, and depression, and have practitioners who specialize in perinatal mental health maternal mental healththerapy for college students and athletes. As well as LGBTQIA+ Affirming Therapy. As you can see, we have something to offer just about anyone in our Philadelphia, PA office. Reaching out is often the most difficult step you can take to improve your mental health. We look forward to partnering with you on this journey!