Like many mental illnesses and conditions, eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa come prepackaged with a disconcerting number of misconceptions. Allowing these unfounded stereotypes to continuously creep through the public’s consciousness is a dangerous game with potentially lethal consequences.
General confusion and ignorance regarding eating disorders further isolates and shames sufferers who already feel misunderstood, escalating their anxiety levels and increasing the risk of serious injury. These myths also prevent possible treatment for those who may have an eating disorder, but believe that their exclusion from one or more of the myths means they do not. Only by working tirelessly to dispel them can the eating disordered begin traveling down a relatively more positive road to recovery.
1. The media is to blame. : One of the most pervasive myths regarding eating disorders involves pointing fingers at movies, television shows, and magazines touting thinness (or, for men, lean and/or muscular as the only attractive body shape. With so many of the female eating disordered considering emaciated actresses, dancers, and models as “thinspiration,” it is easy to see how this misconception came into existence.
However, anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders are far more complex and complicated than merely a construct of warped societal perceptions of attractiveness. While bombardment of supposedly glamorous waifs and taut bodybuilders negatively impacts the severity of eating disorders, in no way can it be considered the root cause, either.
At their core, anorexia, bulimia, and their kin are mental illnesses related to brutal levels of anxiety and depression, which manifest themselves in erratic eating patterns and, in the most extreme cases, starvation. Psychologists and scientists are still trying to unlock any potential biological or behavioral origins that would better explain the nuances of eating disorders, but blame does not exclusively lay with the media. It does not help, but it also does not initiate.
2. Only women have eating disorders. : An estimated 5-15% of anorexia and bulimia cases are actually male, as are up to 35% of the binge eating disordered. While the staggering majority of sufferers are statistically female, the illnesses are not their exclusive domain by any means.
Both men and women struggling with an eating disorder tend to display a distorted body image, though the former focuses more on musculature while the latter tends to zero in on becoming thinner. This myth is especially disconcerting, since stereotyping eating disorders as absolutely female prevents men and boys with the diseases from receiving a proper diagnosis and treatment.
Even though the psychological profiles of male and female eating disordered carry the exact same behavioral, social, physical, and emotional symptoms, males who feel they may be suffering from anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder may end up denying themselves necessary medical care if they believe that only women can be diagnosed as such.
3. Only upper-class Caucasians have eating disorders. : Eating disorders do not discriminate based on race or socioeconomic bracket any more than they do on gender. Psychologists have diagnosed eating disorders on all continents, with the obvious exception of Antarctica, and at every income level.
The University of California at Santa Barbara reports mostly equal instances of eating disorders amongst its Asian, Caucasian, and Hispanic students. Like the myth that only women can be diagnosed with an eating disorder, the opinion that they also occur exclusively amongst Caucasians with upper-class backgrounds carries with it some bothersome implications.
By adhering to the myth, sufferers of a comparatively lower socioeconomic bracket and/or different ethnicity may potentially reject the idea of seeking professional help altogether. Likewise, they also run the risk of ending up with a misdiagnosis and improper treatment.
4. The eating disordered are easy to spot because they are so thin. : Those suffering from an eating disorder cannot be spotted in a crowd any more than those with clinical depression, anxiety issues, and other common mental illnesses. The disease does not seek out specific body types any more than it does anything else.
Many individuals are genetically predisposed to sport a skinny frame, and their appearance does not inherently indicate the presence of an eating disorder. Nor does someone with a comparatively larger frame clearly represent the absence of one. Women and men of all shapes and sizes can fall victim to eating disorders if they fit the psychological profile – there are absolutely no physical signs or symptoms associated with this mental illness.
Disturbing images of skeletal bodies ravaged by anorexia or bulimia come only from the most extreme and prolonged cases. They serve as a sign of what the eating disordered can eventually become without attentive, supportive, and healthy medical and psychological treatment, but they are not to be considered illustrative of the majority of sufferers.
5. The eating disordered don’t eat. : If voluntary starvation was indicative of an eating disorder, many individuals with religious or sociopolitical reasons for abstaining from food who don’t otherwise display any signs of psychologically struggling with one would incur an incorrect diagnosis.
The truth is, most eating disordered do actually eat as a means of veiling their illness from potentially concerned family and friends. Some choose to create a feeling of fullness by eating calorie–neutral foods such as celery, though some very rare and extreme cases have gone so far as to actually eat cotton balls.
Others eat, but purge the contents of their digestive tract by inducing vomiting or taking laxatives later on. One of the most common eating disorders, eating disorder not otherwise specified, or EDNOS, is characterized by obsessively calculating and analyzing food intake. Binge eating disorder involves an almost uncontrollable compulsion to consume food, but without purging afterwards.
Only the most severe, often un- or insufficiently treated, instances resort to outright starvation, but given their sensationalist nature they receive the brunt of the attention. This serves only to perpetuate the myth and drive it further into the public’s consciousness – family and friends worried that a loved one may be suffering from an eating disorder could potentially dismiss the idea once the individual in question eats in front of them.
6. Having an eating disorder is a lifestyle choice. : As with all mental illnesses, those suffering from an eating disorder do not elect to live life shackled with the associated stresses. Factors such as poor self-esteem, poor impulse control, depression, and anxiety all play a part in diagnosing an individual with an eating disorder.
The label of “lifestyle choice” implies some level of control, as if the sufferer can phase in and out of their symptoms voluntarily. Adhering to a healthy diet and exercise regimen are both lifestyle choices, but when they are carried out to excessive, compulsive extremes they cease to be considered as such and instead end up as indicators of something far more serious.
This lack of control and overall sense of being trapped separates the eating disordered from those simply desiring to lose weight for health reasons. Eating disordered individuals display a complex network of emotional, mental, and physical issues that completely negate any perceptions that they have simply made the choice to hurt themselves.
7. Nobody dies from an eating disorder. : If left untreated or undiagnosed, an eating disorder is one of the few common mental illnesses that can actually kill the host. As a result of unhealthy and inadequate eating habits, sufferers can fall victim to permanent liver, heart, brain, and kidney damage.
Inefficient and injured organs potentially lead to a coma, even death. 5-10% of anorexics die within the first ten years of diagnosis, 18-20% after twenty, and 20% will eventually die due to physical complications or suicide. Because of prevailing stigmas and misconceptions, only one in ten eating disordered individuals are estimated to enter into a treatment plan. By driving stakes into these horrifying myths, the psychological community and active, concerned members of society can hopefully save many more lives from ending as a result of a treatable medical condition.
8. The eating disordered only care about looking pretty. : One of the nastiest, most degrading stigmas associated with eating disorders involves taunts and callous dismissals of its victims as shallow, petty bubbleheads concerned only with the pursuit of the insanely specific and unrealistic Hollywood ideal of what constitutes beauty.
This blasts a giant and entirely unnecessary rift between the eating disordered and mainstream society, furthering miring them in misunderstood isolation and precluding attempts to seek solace and treatment before it becomes too late. Faced with adversity and scorn from external sources, many choose to simply soldier forth and accept their cruel, anxious fate, believing that even extensive psychotherapy cannot cure them.
At their very core, eating disorders are not inherently about food or appearance or beauty. They are about depression, poor self-esteem and self-image, and anxiety. While media blitzes of Photo Shopped celebrities do, in fact, actively help reinforce the issue, they also do not stand as the primary reason why men and women alike succumb to eating disorders.
9. Eating disorders are not illnesses. : The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition, Text Revision officially recognizes four eating disorders – anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, rumination syndrome, and EDNOS.
Many professionals in the psychological community also recognize binge eating disorders, which are under consideration for inclusion in future publications of the DSM. Because of their inclusion in a an official diagnostic manual used by the psychological and medical communities, eating disorders ought to be regarded as serious illnesses and handled as such.
10. An individual cannot have more than one eating disorder. : A logical assumption, but it is actually incorrect. Because anorexia, bulimia, EDNOS, and rumination syndrome all share common symptoms and underlying issues, some sufferers have been known to drift from one to another in order to try and satiate the depression and anxiety.
It is not uncommon for a bulimic to quit a system of binging and purging and resort to eating inadequately, and the same is true in reverse. Professionals as well as concerned family and friends must pay close attention in order to detect subtle shifts in behavior that may signify the presence of multiple eating disorders.
By making an earnest effort to promote an awareness and understanding of eating disorders, millions of lives all over the world can be improved, if not outright saved. Unfortunately, numerous presumptions, misconceptions, and absolute lies prevent many men and women from realizing they suffer from an eating disorder, therefore precluding them from seeking the therapy that could very well mean the difference between life and death.
Spreading the truth and destroying these dangerous falsehoods stands as the best method of preventing the suffering of more individuals who do not realize that they are not beyond health, happiness, and hope.
Mark Dilworth, BA, PES
Her Fitness Hut