Myths and stereotypes around eating disorders are deadly - we need to dismantle them
When you hear ‘eating disorder’, there’s probably a particular image that comes to mind – a white, teenage girl, emaciated, anorexic. While, yes, this is reality for many young women, it’s also an extremely unhelpful stereotype of these deadly illnesses, and an eating disorder definitely isn’t ‘one size fits all.’
These mental health disorders come in all shapes and sizes, all backgrounds, all genders, all races, all sexualities, and all ages. Eating disorders don’t discriminate.
The fact is: perpetuating myths and stereotypes relating to eating disorders only prolongs suffering. It prevents people from seeking help because they believe they aren’t sick enough. It continues to allow young people to grow up in a society where toxic relationships with food are normalised and promotes the idea that you have to fit a certain mould to have a problem worth treating.
It’s hard, of course it is. Dismantling stereotypes and your own biases takes time.
As someone with an eating disorder, who has written several articles now for Inspire the Mind on the topic, and who has been in active recovery for many years, dissecting my own harmful beliefs about my illness has been challenging. I’ve had to completely shift the way I look at my recovery to understand that I actually am sick, and that has been brutal to come to terms with. I’ve opened my eyes to the various forms an eating disorder can take, which now only makes me angrier that these misconceptions are so prevalent.
So, let’s do some myth busting.
MYTH: Only girls get eating disorders.
FACT: Eating disorders don’t discriminate by gender.
Eating disorders are not exclusively female illnesses. It’s reported that 25% of sufferers are thought to be male, and even that percentage is likely to be inaccurate, given that not everyone feels able to seek help. In fact, 1 in 3 men say they’ve never even tried to get treatment for a potential eating disorder, and 1 in 5 men have never spoken to anyone about their struggles.
Alas, stereotypes around masculinity and ‘strength’ are so aggressive, and they teach us that to be diagnosed with a mental illness is to be ‘weak.’ This isn’t the case and dismantling this idea will save lives. Also according to a report by eating disorder charity Beat, 4 in 5 men have actually said that raising awareness about the reality of eating disorders will allow more men to access treatment.
MYTH: Eating disorders mostly affect white people.
FACT: Eating disorders can affect any race.
Research in various forms over the years has shown that people incorrectly believe eating disorders are much more common in white people.
As a result, Black, Asian, and minority ethnic groups feel less confident than white people in seeking help for their eating disorder symptoms. Black women specifically are statistically less likely to receive treatment for an eating disorder than their white counterparts.
Eating disorders are, by nature, such secretive illnesses. So, when you add other factors on top of that, such as ethnic stereotypes and cultural expectations? It’s a cocktail for disaster.
Eating disorders aren’t a white person’s illness – they transcend race. The sooner this is recognised, the sooner everyone can be helped.
MYTH: Only straight people have eating disorders.
FACT: The rates of eating disorders amongst the LGBTQ+ community are alarming.
Mental health struggles are increasingly common among the LGBTQ+ community – and eating disorders are no exception.
Studies have shown that young LGBTQ+ people are more likely to suffer from an eating disorder. It’s difficult to identify their exact causes, however, there’s no denying that LGBTQ+ folk may be at greater risk of experiencing low self-esteem, anxiety about their identity or body dissatisfaction, which can, and does, worsen an existing eating disorder or lead to one developing.
Sadly, 37% of lesbian, gay, or bisexual people have said they would not feel confident seeking help for a suspected eating disorder, compared to 24% of straight people, Parliamentary research has found.
As a queer person myself, I know all too well the fears that come with being honest with professionals about who I am, yet I also understand that secrecy and anxiety only allows my eating disorder to thrive.
MYTH: Eating disorders are children’s illnesses.
FACT: Anyone of any age can have an eating disorder.
I will never forget the woman in her 60s under my eating disorder service. I never met her, nor did I ever speak to her, but a previous nurse would often mention her to me during our sessions, and my heart would ache every time for how much time this illness had stolen from her. I often wonder where she is now, and if she’s able to freely enjoy life with her grandchildren as she hoped.
Many people believe eating disorders predominantly affect young people, but this is incorrect. In fact, research from the NHS information centre showed that up to 6.4% of all adults have displayed signs of an eating disorder. So, we need to change this mistruth, especially as early intervention is key.
Eating disorders aren’t something you ‘grow out of.’ Suggesting as such completely trivialises and undermines their severity. Whether a person struggles with an eating disorder from adolescence through to old age, or their eating disorder develops in later life as the result of a traumatic event, these illnesses don’t discriminate by age.
These ailments must be tackled with the same commitment and compassion in teens and older adults.
MYTH: Anorexia and bulimia are the only serious eating disorders.
FACT: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) recognises seven classifications of eating disorders.
You’d be forgiven for assuming there are only two types of serious eating disorder, as anorexia and bulimia tend to be given the spotlight most often. Whether it’s in documentaries or fictionalised portrayals in movies, those two are typically painted as the deadliest.
The DSM is a diagnostic tool and reference book classifies mental disorders using standard criteria. It is used by healthcare professionals as an authoritative guide to mental illnesses. As of the latest version, the DSM-5, seven types of eating disorders are recognised:
Anorexia nervosa (restricting food intake to keep weight as low as possible).
Bulimia nervosa (eating large quantities of food, and then trying to compensate for that by vomiting, taking laxatives or diuretics, fasting, or exercising excessively).
Binge eating disorder (BED) (regularly eating a lot of food over a short period of time until uncomfortably full).
Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (AFRID) (avoiding certain foods for reasons other than weight/body image).
Pica (eating things not usually considered food).
Rumination disorder (chewing food, spitting it out, re-chewing).
Other specified feeding and eating disorders (OSFED) (symptoms similar to one or more eating disorders, but not meeting all the criteria).
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) also reports that atypical eating disorders are actually the most common, whereas anorexia nervosa is the least common.
So yes, it is true that anorexia and bulimia often lead to people being very physically unwell, and they do cause fatalities. But treating them as the only eating disorders worthy of treatment means others suffer in silence.
MYTH: You must be underweight to have an eating disorder.
FACT: Eating disorders do not have a weight limit.
The very thin image associated with eating disorders is pervasive. Admittedly, it’s the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of an eating disorder, subconsciously. But you cannot tell if a person has an eating disorder merely by looking at them.
In fact, fewer than 6% of people with eating disorders are medically classed as 'underweight'. Of course, weight is often used for guidance in treatment, and this can be absolutely necessary, but eating disorders are not solely weight disorders. Suggesting as such shuns those who actually gain weight as part of their symptoms.
Furthermore, suggesting that you must be underweight to have an eating disorder implies that recovery is simply about putting weight on and learning how to eat again. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Recovery is a long, complex process full of ups and downs.
MYTH: Having an eating disorder is just about wanting to be skinny.
FACT: An eating disorder is not a choice.
Vanity plays a role in my eating disorder. I will admit that. But, my eating disorder is not a lifestyle choice. It is not comparable to a diet or the latest TikTok wellness trend. Over time, it has also snowballed into a whole entity beyond my comprehension. Even if it started as vanity, it is now so much more complicated than I could’ve ever anticipated.
An eating disorder can derive from stressful life events and is often a coping mechanism for trauma. Therefore, when we tell people that they have ‘chosen’ to engage in disordered eating behaviours, we are telling them that they are choosing to suffer. We are placing the blame onto them. We are telling them it is their fault that they are sick. And this is never helpful when a person is trying to get better.
Ultimately, what I want to make clear is: there isn’t one way to have an eating disorder. Suggesting otherwise only increases the shame and stigma attached to them, and with people’s lives being taken by eating disorders on a daily basis, we can no longer afford for this to happen.