This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, an annual event put on by NEDA to educate the general public about eating disorders and to help dispel misconceptions. The theme of this year’s week is “I didn’t know” and in keeping with that theme we’re going to kick off this week with some myths about eating disorders and the real information you need to know. If you have any questions about eating disorders or are curious about what it’s like to have one, please sound off in the comments and I’ll do my best to jump in. So without further ado, some common myths about eating disorders and the real facts behind them.
1. Eating disorders are just a phase or a fad diet. They’re not really serious. If we can just convince people they look fine and they should eat, they can get over it.
Eating disorders are extremely serious. If you want evidence of that, just remember that they have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. In addition, they tend to be lasting, damaging illnesses that can seriously impact someone’s life for years. There is a high rate of relapse in eating disorders, and the duration of the illness is often quite long (definitely longer than the teenage phase of stereotypes). While it’s true that the focus of an eating disorder is often on body shape, the underlying concerns of those with eating disorders are far from shallow and cannot be dispelled simply by convincing someone that they are attractive or that they need to eat.
2. There are only two eating disorders: anorexia and bulimia.
One of the serious problems with this myth is that it propagates the idea that all of those with eating disorders are thin or average sized. In reality, eating disorders cover a wide variety of symptoms. Binge eating disorder was recently added to the DSM and while the numbers on it are still new, it appears to be incredibly common. In addition to these three there is also Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, which covers all of those individuals with disordered eating whose behaviors don’t fit into the strict constraints of the anorexia or bulimia diagnoses (as an example, anorexia has a weight requirement or an amenorrhea requirement. For those who don’t fit that requirement but do have all the other symptoms of anorexia, EDNOS would be the appropriate diagnosis). In addition, anorexia is not the only serious eating disorder. All eating disorders have high mortality rates and can wreak havoc on the body.
3. Only white, rich, cis girls get eating disorders.
This myth seems to stem from the idea that eating disorders are some sort of pastime for people who have nothing better to do with their lives, and who are vapid and shallow. Statistically this does not bear out though. Eating disorders are more common in women, but men do get them. Older women get them. Queer and trans people get them. People who aren’t white get them. People not in the US get them. They’re really not interested in discriminating. What is true is that eating disorders tend to get diagnosed more frequently in young white women because that is the perception of what an eating disorder is.In reality, anyone can use food to manage their emotions and in doing so develop an eating disorder.
4. Eating disorders are a new phenomenon caused by the media.
It is true that the terms used to label eating disorders are fairly new.The word anorexia has only existed since the late 1800s as an example. However we do have instances of individuals starving themselves going back as far as we have records. Often these had the same types of symptoms as eating disorders today: perfectionism, hyperactivity, depression, melancholy. In the past the explanation was religion, but the underlying behaviors appear to be quite similar. Additionally, we have good evidence that up to 50% of the cause of eating disorders is genetic (thanks to twin studies). Individuals who don’t consume much media also get eating disorders, including those in communities cut off from mainstream media. The etiology of eating disorders is extremely complex and we don’t fully understand it, but we do know that genetics and a stressful or invalidating environment appear to be the two key factors in developing one.
5. You can tell if someone has an eating disorder by looking.
I understand the appeal of this myth. I think everyone likes to play the game of sidewalk diagnosis. I can’t deny that I do it sometimes too (although after living with an eating disorder for 6ish years I tend to look for a certain dead look in the eyes rather than a specific body type). It’s nice to stick labels on people. Unfortunately, eating disorders come in a wide variety of types and flavors, which means that any body type can house an eating disorder. People who are drastically underweight can have eating disorders, people who are drastically overweight can have eating disorders, and everyone in between can have them. While the way we eat can affect our bodies, it does not determine our body type. Some individuals remain thin no matter what they eat (you all know them), and similarly some individuals simply can’t lose weight beyond a certain point no matter what they do to their bodies. Even if someone is engaging in eating disordered activities, this may not show on their body. Don’t make assumptions and don’t diagnose unless you’re a therapist and have actually spent some time with this person and their mental health.