10 Myths and Stereotypes About Eating Disorders

The biggest misconceptions about eating disorders that need to be dispelled.

All people with eating disorders are severely underweight. Eating disorders only affect girls. People choose to have eating disorders. Eating disorders are just diets gone wrong. Right? Wrong.

Those are just a handful of the damaging misconceptions surrounding eating disorders, which contribute to stigma and prevent those suffering from seeking help. It’s vital we offer education on the reality of living with an eating disorder to ensure everyone gets the support they need. We need to grow a better understanding about the truth’s of ED’s so people don’t feel invalidated because their illness isn’t what they see in the movies. Let’s start by busting 10 myths…

Myth 1
All people with eating disorders are underweight

Eating disorders are mental illnesses, not weight disorders. Yes, weight loss is a huge physical consequence of many people’s eating disorders, but being underweight is not a prerequisite for having an eating disorder. All eating disorders should be treated with the same respect and severity, regardless of weight. The falsehood that every eating disorder sufferer is emaciated perpetuates weight stigma and prevents those with symptoms from receiving help, both because they don’t believe they look “sick enough,” and fatphobia in medical settings places barriers in their path. Some people gain weight while living with an eating disorder, some remain a “healthy weight,” and others’ weight does not change. People exist in all body shapes and sizes, and so do eating disorders.

Myth 2
Anorexia is the only serious eating disorder

According to research conducted by Beat, just 8% of people with eating disorders have anorexia nervosa. Binge eating disorder is actually more common, making up 22% of known cases. Other existing eating disorders include bulimia nervosa, AFRID (avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder), and OSFED (other specified feeding or eating disorder). Many people displaying eating disorders also go undiagnosed. Whatever a person’s disorder, all eating disorders pose a serious threat to health and, ultimately, life.

Myth 3
All people with eating disorders restrict what they eat

Eating disorders are about just that, disordered relationships with eating. They are not limited to restricting or only consuming a certain number of calories. Binge eating disorder is a perfect example of this. Described as when individuals engage in recurring episodes of eating significantly more food in a short space of time than most people would, feeling a loss of control over their behaviour. Episodes of binge eating can also occur throughout other people’s restrictive eating disorders following periods of starvation.

Myth 4
Getting better is just a matter of eating again

Eating disorders are seriously complex illnesses, and learning to eat again is just half the battle when recovering from one. A big reason why that is, is that EDs are MENTAL illnesses, so a person’s thought patterns must also change. Eating disorders don’t just concern WHAT we eat, they’re about how we THINK about what we eat.  Recovery also means healing other wounds created by an eating disorder. Whether that’s broken relationships, attitudes towards exercise, communication skills, reigniting passion for hobbies or establishing inner trust. They’re “eating” disorders by name, but they affect every other aspect of a person’s life.

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Myth 5
Eating disorders only affect cisgender white teenage girls

Eating disorders do not discriminate against age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, socioeconomic class or occupation. So often thin white schoolgirls are made the “poster images” of eating disorders, but the reality is that 25% of ED sufferers male. 1 in 8 LGBTQ+ people and 1 in 4 non-binary people have an eating disorder according to a Stonewall report. Disabled people experience unique stressors that contribute to eating disorders that are often dismissed by doctors. And according to NHS Digital more people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities are being admitted to hospital because of eating disorders.

Myth 6
Eating disorders derive from vanity

There’s a harmful misconception that people with eating disorders are merely seeking attention, and anyone can move past an ED by ending their obsession with beauty and thinness. EDs are about control, fear, anger, safety and security, secrecy, avoidance, reward and punishment, and so much more. Despite there often being a link between eating disorders and body image issues, EDs themselves don’t revolve solely around wanting to look a certain way. People with eating disorders will go to extreme lengths to hide their illnesses, and can be very reluctant to seek treatment.

Myth 7
Eating disorders are a choice

No one chooses to have an eating disorder. Such complex illnesses could never come into existence through mere choice. Eating disorders can cause a lifetime of pain and misery for those on the receiving end of their brutality, and people often feel ashamed of their behaviours, not proud. Eating disorders require such specialist treatment because they are so convoluted. Recovery is not a matter of just choosing to not have an eating disorder anymore. With a 20% mortality rate of those suffering with anorexia, the belief that someone can ‘snap out’ of their eating disorder is not only unrealistic, but also contributing to the stigma surrounding it.

Myth 8
Everyone has an eating disorder these days

Although disordered eating is very common in today’s society (which is cause for concern, not a reason to dismiss eating disorders as frivolous), not everyone is medically diagnosed with an eating disorder. Over one million people in the U.K. are currently living with eating disorders of various kinds, and these life-threatening illnesses should not be normalised.

Myth 9
Eating disorders are just extreme diets

Eating disorders are not synonymous with diets, and comparing the two completely undermines the severity of eating disorders, and the extreme, sometimes fatal, impact they can have on someone’s psychological and physical health. While some EDs do derive from a history of dieting, and combatting dieting is an obstacle in some people’s path to recovery, eating disorders themselves are not comparable with the Atkins or Keto diets. No one plucks an eating disorder out of a magazine in a dentist waiting room, or decides to follow one like a fashion trend.

Myth 10
You can tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them

Eating disorders can have physical side effects that present themselves in a number of visual ways, but eating disorders are psychological disorders before they are anything else. There’s so much of them that cannot be seen with the eye. The world’s perception of eating disorders is distorted due to stereotypes and the media’s poor representation of them, but it shouldn’t take someone having to LOOK sick or be “worryingly” thin to be taken seriously. If someone with an eating disorder were to walk past you in the street, chances are you wouldn’t know, because EDs live inside the mind and work their way outwards. The physical ramifications of an eating disorder are a result of the mental battle, and we have to break the stigma that an eating disorder can be measured by appearances.

Beat is the UK’s leading charity dedicated to helping people with eating disorders. If you or someone you know is struggling and want to seek help, call their helpline on 0808 801 0677 or visit their website for more details.

Tags: eating disorders, mental health

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