I started last week’s blog post by noting that loneliness doesn’t have a type, and my inclination is to repeat the same sentiment here: Like loneliness, eating disorders do not have a specific type, demographic, or “look.” However, if asked to describe what someone thinks about when they think of someone who has an eating disorder, many people in the general population would likely describe qualities that reflect a stereotype: a young, white, thin, cisgender, heterosexual female. 

And this isn’t surprising. Media commonly perpetuates the narrative that those who struggle with eating disorders are those who fit this stereotype. While there are undoubtedly many people who identify as such who struggle with eating disorders, we know that research indicates that eating disorders do not, in fact, discriminate and can impact anyone, regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity, culture, body size, or sexual orientation.

The Implications of Eating Disorder Stereotypes on Marginalized Populations

Decades of perpetuating and reinforcing a misinformed stereotype as the “face” of those who struggle with eating disorders have led to a lack of understanding and recognition about eating disorders for those in marginalized groups. This misperception is not new, which is perhaps part of why it is so alarming. This result is often that marginalized people who struggle with eating disorders do not receive a timely diagnosis or treatment, and some even have their experiences ignored or dismissed.

Before we continue, I should add that in this post, my intent is not to tell someone else’s story for them; rather, I simply aim to shed light on the fact that there are many untold and underrepresented stories of individuals who are either currently struggling with an eating disorder, have bravely overcome one, or are in the process of recovery. The still-evident lack of visibility and representation of these stories in the media and general discussions can be incredibly harmful for those in marginalized populations.

As is true in many cases where stereotypes exist, knowledge is power. Breaking down stereotypes through education and increased awareness is crucial in many situations where stereotypes exist. Doing so can be empowering for ourselves, our loved ones, and our society as a whole when it comes to eating disorders and recovery. 

So, let’s take a look at some research that flies in the face of common misconceptions about eating disorders in marginalized populations. Please note that this is not an exhaustive report, but rather just the tip of a much larger iceberg.

The Reality About Eating Disorders Among People in Marginalized Groups

  • Black teenagers are 50% more likely to exhibit bulimic behavior (binging and purging) than white teenagers
  • BIPOC folks with eating disorders are half as likely to be diagnosed or to receive treatment.2
  • Latinx folks are significantly more likely to suffer from bulimia nervosa than their non-Latinx peers.
  • Over the course of ten years, hospitalizations related to eating disorders for patients ages 45-65 increased by 88%
  • Males represent 25% of individuals with anorexia nervosa, and they are at a higher risk of dying, in part because they are often diagnosed later since many people assume males don’t have eating disorders.:
  • Rates of body dissatisfaction were higher among transgender and nonbinary youth (90%) compared to cisgender youth (80%).
  • Transgender college students report experiencing disordered eating at approximately four times the rate of their cisgender classmates.
  • Gay men are 7 times more likely to report binge-eating and 12 times more likely to report purging than heterosexual men.
  • Less than 6% of people with eating disorders are medically diagnosed as “underweight.”
  • People in larger bodies are half as likely as those at a “normal weight” or “underweight” to be diagnosed with an eating disorder.
  • Anorexia nervosa (which involves a low body weight) only makes up 3% of total eating disorder diagnoses, whereas binge eating disorder makes up 47%, other specified feeding and eating disorders make up 38%, and bulimia nervosa makes up 12%.

The Implications: An Urgency for Truth and Representation

Every year, 10,200 people die as a direct result of an eating disorder, which translates to one death every 52 minutes. And research indicates that about 26% of people with eating disorders attempt suicide. These sobering numbers emphasize the importance of providing individuals – of all races, ethnicities, genders, body sizes, sexual orientation, opportunities to share their experiences and have their struggles taken seriously.

Maybe you are part of a marginalized population and are struggling with an eating disorder or on your eating disorder recovery journey, and maybe along that journey you have experienced barriers that have made it more difficult to seek help, receive adequate care, or feel that you are part of a community that will rally with and around you as you fight this battle. Even if you do not personally identify as someone in a marginalized group who is struggling or has struggled with an eating disorder, it is quite probable that you have loved ones, classmates, teammates, coworkers, or acquaintances who do. And we owe it to ourselves and the people in our lives to continue shedding light on misconceptions that have impeded truth, treatment opportunities, and equal representation.

Increasing Awareness about Eating Disorders for Individuals in Marginalized Bodies

No one can confine anyone’s personal eating disorder or any life experiences to one set of rules or expectations. It’s crucial that we challenge harmful stereotypes and engage in conversations, media consumption, and self-awareness through the lens of this truth. Doing so helps us to dispel harmful misconceptions.  Eating disorder risk factors, motivation factors, behavior, and physical presentation vary greatly, so continuing to increase awareness could be the nudge one needs to seek treatment or could be what a family or friend needs to recognize struggles their loved ones may face in isolation.

Eating disorders are complex and diverse; their impact transcends the bounds of gender, race, ethnicity, body type, socioeconomic status, age, and sexual orientation. Increasing understanding of the diverse experiences of individuals with eating disorders can help us advocate, break down barriers to care, and support ourselves, friends, and family when embarking on an eating disorder recovery journey. This ultimately allows us to approach our own journey and others’ with the understanding, compassion, and respect for the battles each of us face.

By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC

*All statistics and facts from: National Eating Disorders Association, National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, and West Virginia University

All images via Unsplash

How Can Eating Disorder Therapy in Philadelphia 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 throughout your eating disorder recovery journey, our therapists in Pennsylvania would be honored to help!  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 journey for each of us, and we all have our individual battles to fight. Our therapists know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to any of life’s difficulties and 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 helping you on this journey!