Eating disorders are complex illnesses with biological, genetic, cultural and environmental components. They have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder, yet they are consistently trivialized as being about vanity and lifestyle. The fallacies and stereotypes about eating disorders go on and on. “That’s only for white girls.” “You don’t look like you have an eating disorder.” “You’re fine, just eat something.”
Eating disorders are not choices, but serious biologically influenced illnesses.
The truth is that eating disorders affect everyone, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, size or economic status. They are life-threatening illnesses that can lead to bone loss, electrolyte imbalance, organ failure and death. Stigma, misconceptions and myths about eating disorders prevent people from getting the potentially life-saving treatment they need and deserve.
The stigma surrounding eating disorders is a problem in many ways. People too often suffer in silence because they are too ashamed to admit they have a problem and ask for help. Or they may not even realize that they have an eating disorder because they don’t fit the stereotype of a young, white, severely underweight teenage girl. Men, people of color and older adults have problems getting the treatment they need because those around them miss the signs. And even if the warning signs are recognized, individuals do not want to initiate the discussion because they think having an eating disorder is a sign of weakness, femininity or childishness.
Eating disorders affect people of all genders, ages, races, ethnicities, body shapes and weights, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic statuses.
Even medical professionals contribute to the stigma surrounding eating disorders because of a lack of training and the many prevalent myths. Doctors may perform test after test to determine why their male patient keeps losing weight, when he clearly has an eating disorder. They may suggest that their patient loses weight, when that individual is actually struggling with a binge eating disorder. In fact, research has documented that physicians are the #2 source of weight stigma, and stigma has also been demonstrated in nurses and medical students, psychologists, dietitians and fitness professionals.
To fight the stigma, the largest eating disorders organizations in the country have banned together with a list of Nine Truths about Eating Disorders:
Truth #1: Many people with eating disorders look healthy, yet may be extremely ill.
Truth #2: Families are not to blame, and can be the patients’ and providers’ best allies in treatment.
Truth #3: An eating disorder diagnosis is a health crisis that disrupts personal and family functioning.
Truth #4: Eating disorders are not choices, but serious biologically influenced illnesses.
Truth #5: Eating disorders affect people of all genders, ages, races, ethnicities, body shapes and weights,
sexual orientations, and socioeconomic statuses.
Truth #6: Eating disorders carry an increased risk for both suicide and medical complications.
Truth #7: Genes and environment play important roles in the development of eating disorders.
Truth #8: Genes alone do not predict who will develop eating disorders.
Truth #9: Full recovery from an eating disorder is possible.
It’s important that everyone affected seeks professional help. Early detection and intervention greatly increase the chances of successful recovery, so let’s end the stigma and get the facts straight. Everyone knows someone with an eating disorder, whether they realize it or not. So, if you are concerned about yourself or a loved one, take this online screening to see if it’s time to seek help. It’s quick and confidential – remember, 3 minutes can save a life.
Claire Mysko, MA is the CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). To raise awareness and combat stigma, the NEDA is coordinating National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (#NEDAwareness). The goal of NEDAwareness is to put the spotlight on eating disorders and improve public understanding of their causes, dangers and treatments. Millions of people across the country suffer from eating disorders, but by increasing awareness and access to resources, we can encourage early detection and intervention. Learn more at www.nedawareness.org or call the NEDA Helpline for information and resources about eating disorders – 800.931.2237.