It’s National Eating Disorder Awareness week and as a dietitian and an eating disorder recovery advocate, I have a lot to say about eating disorders and the way our society talks about them. In my life, I have dealt with anorexia nervosa, orthorexia, exercise addiction and immense body shame. I have been underweight. I have nearly passed out at the gym more times than I can count. I have abused my body in more ways than one. I have spent hundreds of hours with therapists, doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, dietitians. I spent years living a numb, gray, miserable life, feeling like I had been visited by a Dementor from Harry Potter. And I have recovered — gaining back my weight, my life, my happiness and becoming a (non-diet) Registered Dietitian myself.
Today, I spend much of my time spreading awareness through my blog and my Instagram, and I regularly come into contact with people who make it clear to me that our society still does not understand eating disorders. So to help, I have compiled a collection of eating disorder myths that I think need to be busted ASAP.
Eating Disorders Are Not Dependent On Size
You can be a size 00 with an eating disorder or you can be a size 28 with an eating disorder — and your size does not determine the severity or “type” eating disorder. Don’t assume that someone who is in a bigger body suffers from binge eating and don’t assume that someone in a smaller body has anorexia. Weight stigma is something that our culture teaches us from a young age, and one of the most common misconceptions about eating disorders is that they have to look a certain way.
And believing that to be true is not necessarily our fault; ever since health class in grade school, we have been told that all people with anorexia are skeletal-looking, with dry hair and cracked skin. That image is sold to us everywhere in our society. Just look at the pictures that accompany most articles on eating disorders — a black and white photo of a skeletal woman hunched in the corner or a bigger woman looking guiltily at a cupcake. That is not the reality of most eating disorders. As the Center for Eating Disorders says, "the bottom line is that 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."
Even though my eating disorder was screaming at me not to, I told the resident there about the problems I was having with food. But when the doctor came in, there was no mention of them. Not a word.
And this isn’t just a problem in our society — it’s a problem in the medical community. As someone who suffered from anorexia, my eating disorder was not taken seriously for years because I was not significantly underweight. When things started to get bad, I tried to reach out to my doctor. Even though my eating disorder was screaming at me not to, I told the resident there about the problems I was having with food. But when the doctor came in, there was no mention of them. Not a word.
As she started to walk out of the room after my appointment, I sheepishly stammered out, “Did um...the resident uh…tell you about my eating thing?” to which she responded, “Oh yeah, just don’t lose any more weight, you’re fine.” And this was said to someone who was underweight. Think about all the women and men in bigger bodies who have eating disorders — they suddenly lose a lot of weight but instead of concern, they’re met with praise. No one questions it when they “needed” to lose the weight, which is why it is so important to find medical professionals who understand and ideally have a background in eating disorder treatment. Fortunately, there are organizations that are dedicated to helping people find treatment teams and other professionals in their area — like this help finder from Recovery Warriors. The fact is anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating and eating disorders not otherwise specified can look different on every body. What determines eating disorders is not weight; it is your actions and behaviors around food.
Eating Disorders Don’t Discriminate About Race Or Socioeconomic Status
For so long, eating disorders in general (and anorexia particular) have been considered a sickness for wealthy, typically young white girls (insert eye roll here). Television is filled with characters that fit this mold — think Emma from Degrassi , Cassie from Skins and Hannah from Pretty Little Liars. A quick Google image search of eating disorders yields thousands of pictures of young white women (note: do not do this if you yourself have suffered and could be triggered).
The idea that eating disorders are just for straight, white women is one that desperately needs to be put to rest.
In reality, eating disorders do not discriminate; they do not care about your race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. A 2013 study showed that Latina and Asian women are more likely to report body dissatisfaction than white women and information from University of Chapel Hill shows members of the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to develop anorexia and bulimia than people who identify as heterosexual. The idea that eating disorders are just for straight, white women is one that desperately needs to be put to rest.
In fact, the National Eating Disorder Association has a whole section of their website devoted to diversity in eating disorders. A quick glance and it will become clear to you that not all people who suffer from eating disorders are rich, young white women. Eating disorders affect people with bodies of all different colors, from all different backgrounds and with all different stories. Anorexia is not just for “white girls trying to look better” and similarly, those with binge eating disorder are not just “lazy” and those with bulimia are not just “going through a phase”. Eating disorders are real, they are serious and they need to be talked about in a way that honors that.
Eating Disorders Are Not Here To Be The Butt Of Your Jokes
They are also not here for hyperbole. Saying that you "binged" last night because you ate slightly more than usual is not a true binge — and spreading the message that it is is dangerous and confusing for those people who truly do suffer from binge eating. Joking that you’re just going to lose the weight by “turning bulimic” reinforces the false idea that being bulimic (or having any eating disorder or mental illness) is a choice. People with eating disorders don’t suddenly “decide” that they are going to have one; it’s a mental illness and like all mental illnesses, it’s not something that can be chosen.
Likewise, joking that you’re just going to “stop eating’ is not clever or cute or funny. These kinds of statements are dangerous and normalize eating disorder behavior that has already become so normalized in our society. So many eating disorder behaviors are considered standard, praised even, in our “health”-obsessed culture — small portions, hours at the gym, obsessing over our weight. All of this reinforces the idea that the "right" thing to do is spend our days in the gym, cut out many foods from our diet and eat smaller meals — actions which, to any eating disorder professional, are cause for concern. But all of these things have been established as normal to some extent in our society. We do not need any more conversation that’s going to contribute to that idea.
So what can we do? What can we do, as people and as a society, to talk about eating disorders?
First and foremost, if you think you have a problem with food, think you’re using unhealthy behaviors, or feel like your relationship to food or your body is “off” — get help. The National Eating Disorder Association has a screening tool on their website that takes less than three minutes and can evaluate your risk for an eating disorder. They also have links to get help and find treatment near you. No matter what you’re dealing with, you are always worthy of getting help.
The second thing we can do is stop glamorizing eating disorders. We can stop telling people that they are “so good” when they eat little or skip dessert. We can stop congratulating weight loss. We can stop praising people for spending hours at the gym or following whatever diet is trending. We can stop demonizing foods, so that when we see a celebrity eating a cookie, it doesn’t have to be a big deal worthy of tabloid coverage. We can stop congratulating each other on “willpower” if we refuse a donut in the breakroom. During my training to become a dietitian, I saw other professionals praising clients who ate smaller meals, cut out sugar and dedicated themselves to "clean" eating. But there is an abundance of research that shows approaching health and diet with a Health at Every Size perspective, which stresses intuitive eating, body trust and embodiment, leads to better health outcomes than the dangerous dieting fads that are so often splayed on the cover of magazines. Instead of approaching people who are skipping meals or obsessed with what their body looks like with accolades, we can start approaching them with gentle concern and compassion.
Lastly, we can invite people with stories to come forward and share them without judgement or criticism. Eating disorders are still considered a taboo topic. When I share with others that I have dealt with an eating disorder in my past, I can often see them visibly trying to figure out how to react or what to say. And it’s not their fault — we live in a culture that has such a stigma surrounding mental illness, we still don’t know how to talk about it in a helpful or productive way. As someone who has publicly shared her story through Instagram and blogging, I also know how cruel people can be — trolls have told me that I recovered “wrong” or that I looked better before. They’re a product of our thin-obsessed culture but that means it is more important than ever to keep talking about it. If we stop talking about it now, they’ll never stop and we’ll never advance our understanding of eating disorders as a society.
And if you haven’t suffered from an eating disorder, try to stop using language that reinforces the stigma around them. Do a little research into eating disorders or recovery stories if you’re interested. Let’s continue to use our voices, share our stories (and the stories of others) and bring eating disorders into the light.