Content Note: today we’re talking about eating disorders. There will not be any detailed descriptions of disordered eating.
Between the ages of thirteen and twenty, I watched my close friend deal with an eating disorder. In many ways, she was lucky – she’s alive and healthy, for one. She was never hospitalized at 90lbs, because she never got there. Luckier still, given what put her in danger – she had what is known as Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. Not quite anorexia, not quite bulimia, but rather an intermittent mix of the two. Unless she told you, you’d have no idea.
I can count the number of people I care about who have had eating disorders on more than one hand – and those are just the diagnosed cases. There are a few more friends that I’ve suspected of disordered eating, and still more who deal with the legacies of their mothers’ eating disorders. Two of those friends required hospitalization, but – thank goodness – all of them are alive.
This week is Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and the theme this year is #ihadnoidea. In keeping with this theme that so powerfully resonates with my personal experiences, I want take the opportunity to highlight 4 common misconceptions of eating disorders and outline a few ways you can seek help for yourself or someone you love. I will not provide detailed accounts of disordered eating behaviors because a) I am not a survivor myself; and b) I do not want this to read as a how-to guide for disordered eating, as so many pieces on eating disorders do.
When dealing with issues that stigmatize and marginalize people, I always prefer to let survivors speak for themselves. Here’s what Melissa Fabello, Everyday Feminism editor and eating disorder/body positivity activist has to say (transcript here):
Need cold, hard empirical data to dismantle your misconceptions instead? (Think about that for a moment.) I have some of that, too:
- Myth: Eating disorders are only found in women. The National Eating Disorder Association estimates that men account for 10% of patients with diagnosed eating disorders. Particularly worrisome is that lifetime history of bulimia nervosa is 21 times higher among Latino men than White men, and 1.2-1.9 times higher than Black and Asian-American men. Among gay and bisexual men prevalence is much higher; a Columbia University Study found that 15% of GB men had experienced an eating disorder in their lifetime.
- Myth: Eating disorders only effect white people. People all over the world have eating disorders. In the US, African-American and Latina women are significantly more likely have both a lifetime and past-year history of bulimia nervosa. The same is true for binge eating disorder.
- Myth: “Overweight and obese people may have binge eating disorder, but there’s no way they’re anorexic or bulimic.” There is no mandatory weight cap to have anorexia or bulimia. Yes, obesity (BMI >30) is more closely linked to binge eating disorder. However, a 2008 study found that obese individuals made up 5% of participants with a lifetime history of anorexia and over 30% of those with a history of bulimia.
- Myth: “Lots of people have some version of an eating disorder It’s not a big deal.” Not only is this assumption wrong, but it’s also quite harmful. Eating disorders have among the highest mortality rates of all mental illnesses. While recovery is definitely possible, it can be long and incredibly difficult, because unlike heroin or alcohol, you can’t avoid food for the rest of your life. People in recovery have to face their eating disorders at least three times a day, for the rest of their lives.
What You Can Do
- Take a free, anonymous screening test to see if you’re at risk for disordered eating. If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, you should know that there are many ways to get help. The National Eating Disorder Association has a great set of resources for help, including a toll-free, confidential helpline you can call at 1-800-931-2237. That link will also have resources (such as this parent toolkit) you can share with your family and friends.
- Get information about what recovery really looks like. Take a look at the myriad body positivity resources out there on Instagram (@effyourbeautystandards/#effyourbeautystandards is the BEST), Tumblr (not always SFW). Read what we’ve written on the subject here, here, here. Find what resonates with you.
- If someone you love has an eating disorder, learn about the best ways to help:
3. Avoid body talk. Don’t draw attention to her/his body or try to validate her/his experience by talking about your own weight or body image. Body-specific compliments (i.e.: “I wish I had a body like yours,” “I already think you’re beautiful,” etc.) may seem like a viable solution, but they can actually be damaging to a person in recovery. Well-meaning compliments can be distorted, so it’s best to avoid them. – Melissa Fabello, Adios Barbie
- If you’re a parent, teach your children to love their bodies. If you’re a health care provider, ask the right questions about eating disorders to ensure early detection and treatment — but be careful not to make matters worse.
- Become a better media consumer. Don’t just regurgitate the negative messages about body image and self esteem. Don’t engage in body policing. Work to create safer spaces for people in your life that deal with disordered eating.