Topic Tuesday: Misconceptions

“What You Probably Don’t Know About Eating Disorders” (By: Peggy Miller)

In honor of this month being NEDA week, I decided to write about some common cultural misconceptions about eating disorders. Ending the stigma around eating disorders and getting help begins with knowing and spreading truth, and my hope is that this post will be informative and helpful in that process.

Eating disorders are NOT solely defined by weight or body type.

Many of you have probably heard this before, but it is so true. Solely using a BMI and/or a weight to diagnose the severity of someone’s eating disorder is just not accurate. Different behaviors with food affect different people’s bodies in different ways, but they are ALL damaging to a person’s health. For instance, someone whose disorder involves bingeing or bingeing/purging might gain weight, or they might remain the same weight as their set point. Someone with a more restrictive eating disorder might be severely underweight, or they might remain a “normal” weight even though they have still lost a significant amount of weight from their body’s set point. Frequently, someone who has been restricting for a long time will eventually start bingeing, and sometimes they might continue to lose weight while other times they might gain weight as their body goes into starvation mode and holds onto all food. There are many ways that behaviors of an eating disorder can affect a person’s body, but the point is, weight alone cannot measure the severity or the presence of an eating disorder (it is important though! It’s just not the only thing that matters.)

So, doctors and professionals need to be careful to ask about the thoughts and behaviors of a person rather than just looking at the weight. The frequent comment people make of “you don’t look like you have an eating disorder!” is so damaging and can keep people from getting needed help, which means endangering their life by living longer in their eating disorder all because they do not feel like they are worthy of recovery. Also, if you are currently struggling with an eating disorder and feel that you do not deserve recovery because you don’t “look like” you have an eating disorder, PLEASE know that you deserve life and recovery. Your eating disorder wants you dead, and it will never tell you that you are “sick enough” to deserve help. Some of the worst eating disorders are in bodies that are at a “healthy weight”- an eating disorder is not solely defined by weight!

Eating disorders DO NOT only affect rich white girls.

Again, this is NOT true. Eating disorders affect people of all genders, socioeconomic classes, and races. They are also not just confined to first world countries. Eating disorders are more diagnosed and treated in first world countries, but they are present in developing countries as well. Eating disorders are ways of dealing with deep inner pain and hurt, and these emotions are not just confined to one kind of people.

People with eating disorders are NOT shallow.

I know a lot of people with eating disorders, and they are truly some of the best and deepest people I know. Even though it can seem like someone with an eating disorder only cares about their appearance, that is not the case. Someone with an eating disorder has learned to manage their emotions and their lives with food – they have deep emotional pain and unmet needs. They have a mental illness. Trust me, if you could sit in on a session or a group with clients with eating disorders you would not think they are shallow. Usually, body image is a major issue, but it is not all about the actual appearance. For instance, many people with eating disorders associate gaining weight with being a burden and being un-loveable – it is not just a shallow desire to be thin. If eating disorders were just about appearance, recovery would be a whole lot easier.

Some eating disorders are NOT “better” than others.

Our culture tends to glorify anorexia – the extreme thinness and the self-control are considered desirable. However, it tends to think that people who struggle with bingeing lack control or discipline, and this creates more feelings of shame for them as they try to seek help. The truth is that every kind of eating disorder is damaging physically, mentally, and emotionally. In any kind of eating disorder, the person is not in control, the eating disorder is. No eating disorder behavior is better than another, they are all awful.

An eating disorder is not a choice, but recovery is.

A person does not choose to have an eating disorder, but they do choose recovery. Just because they choose recovery does not mean they are immediately better, though. Recovery is so very bumpy and hard. Even if someone you know is in recovery and talking about their eating disorder and at a better place physically, continue to check in with them and be patient with them as they learn to talk about something they have kept hidden for so long. Know that they feel frustrated at themselves when they slip up in recovery – remind them to be upset at their eating disorder and not themselves.

Happy almost NEDA week!

About the Author

Peggy is a college student in Nashville, Tennessee, and hopes to one day become a therapist for eating disorders. She has struggled with some kind of mental illness for most of her life, and has struggled with anorexia for several years before choosing life and recovery by deciding to get treatment. She is passionate about recovery, and hopes to one day get to help a client find the freedom and hope that her treatment professionals helped her find. Peggy absolutely loves people, deep conversations, coffee, and most of all, Jesus. She aspires to show each and every person she meets that they are loved and worth immeasurably more than they can imagine.