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Harmful Perceptions about Folks Who Have or Are Recovering From Eating Disorders

One of the hardest things for me about admitting to having an anorexia was the pre-conceived notions folks in our society have about eating disorders. On the one hand, our culture is obsessed with weight loss. But on the other hand, folks who hit the point of clinically significant eating disorder are stigmatized as vain and shallow. People often assumed that all I cared about was my appearance. And I did care about my appearance, but that’s a vast oversimplification of the many complicated reasons why I wasn’t feeding my body enough.

Moreover, I held a lot of these harmful stereotypes myself, and because of that, it took me a long time to realize that I needed help. And while I don’t blame anyone but myself for what happened to me, I also believe that if those around me had been more educated, they might too have perceived that I needed help and encouraged me to seek treatment sooner.

So today I’m linking up with Amanda’s Thursday Thinking out Loud to take note of a few of these harmful misperceptions and share the things I wish I’d known.

Myth: Folks who develop eating disorders always do so for the same reasons.

All they care about is their appearance and they only want to lose weight so that they can be attractive to men, right?

I’ve started with this one because I hate it the most. It’s so sexist and unfair.

Truth: Some folks who have eating disorders are not focused so much on appearance but on a certain perception of “health.” Some have anxiety, depression, histories of trauma or abuse–and some don’t. Some are athletes who don’t realize how much food they need to fuel their active lifestyle, or have been told by a doctor to lose weight and take that advice to heart. Some want to be attractive to women. Some seek attention, some seek to disappear. Historically, many people have starved themselves for religious reasons. You get the idea.

Myth: People who have anorexia don’t eat anything ever.

This is probably the #1 reason why I didn’t realize I had anorexia for so long. I’d say to myself (and others), “I eat, right? So at least I don’t have anorexia.”

Truth: People who have anorexia eat, just not anywhere near enough.

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Myth: Having an eating disorder is not really harmful. In fact, it’s glamorous and enviable.

Truth: There are many physical health complications caused by disordered eating, some of which are irreversible even with recovery. If you are extremely malnourished, your heart can stop beating, and…well, we know what happens at that point.

My experience with anorexia, though, was that the psychological effects of being so severely malnourished were the saddest loss. I was depressed, anti-social, and irritable. I couldn’t sleep. I literally could not focus anything besides food for more than about 30 seconds. I couldn’t concentrate on movies or books. I lost all desire for physical or emotional closeness with others.

And yeah, I looked “good” in my bikini, according to cultural norms that somebody came up with about how women are supposed to have a flat tummy and thighs that don’t touch, which at one time I would have thought was totally awesome, but the irony was, when I actually got to that point, I was too depressed to care much.

Myth: Complimenting someone on their appearance will help them feel better about themselves.

Truth: Not necessarily.

A few times folks who I confided in about my eating disorder in the early days of my recovery would say things like, “You’re such a beautiful woman” or “You’re so skinny, you don’t need to worry about what you eat.” That annoyed me

  1. because I was trying to gain weight and was scared what people would think of me when the weight gain began to show
  2. because folks assumed that I cared a lot about my physical appearance, which was sort of true but also a huge oversimplification, and
  3. because I was trying to get that part of me that was concerned about my physical appearance to cool her socks.

and the related…

Myth: Commenting on someone’s weight is okay if they’re skinny.

Truth: Just don’t comment on other people’s weight. It’s rude. When I was way underweight, people often commented on how skinny I was (even complete strangers). It was, frankly, just uncomfortable. They didn’t know how much anguish my body was causing me.

In fact, it’s generally not a good idea to comment on other folks’ bodies unless you’re a doctor.

Myth: You can tell someone has an eating disorder by looking at them.

Truth: Not everyone who has an eating disorder is over- or underweight. And the compliment of that: not everyone who appears over- or underweight has an eating disorder. I’m not an expert, but what I have read is that body weight is determined far more strongly by genetics than by behavior.

So, again, don’t comment on other folks’ bodies unless you’re a doctor.

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Myth: There is a difference between dieting and having an eating disorder.

I know I’ll make a few folks mad with this one. But…Truth: There is a lot of uncritical focus in our culture on weight loss and very little information about the dangers of dieting and weight loss. Quite a few studies have shown that weight loss is not good for you, and that folks who are “overweight” but practice healthy behaviors like exercising and eating a healthy (but not necessarily restrictive) diet are at no higher risk for mortality than folks who are at a so-called healthy weight.

Check out a few articles and posts if you’re curious:

I don’t have the scientific expertise to claim that weight loss is inherently unhealthy for every person in every case. I’ve known people who lost weight as the result of implementing healthy life habits and were quite satisfied with the result.

But what I am saying is that pretending that “dieting” is somehow different than “starving” is not only dangerous (because it gives people–including my former self–the impression that minimizing calorie intake is “healthy”), but it creates an us-them dichotomy (“I don’t have an eating disorder, I’m just on a diet. I’m not like those people.”)

Myth: Recovering from an eating disorder is all psychological. The physical aspect of weight gain is easy and fun. (Don’t you just sit around eating pie?)

If you’ve been starving, you need a ton of calories to recover. If you’ve been starving for a long time, you need a s*** ton of calories to recover. When you start eating again, your metabolism will go crazy, so that even if you do sit around and eat pie all day, you might still have a hard time gaining weight.

Plus, your body isn’t used to processing that much food, and it will be physically uncomfortable–sometimes extremely so.

Plus, remember that for many folks who have eating disorders, sitting around eating all day is terrifying for a myriad of reasons.

So, yes, the psychological element is very important, but no, the physical aspect is also very important and very difficult for some.

Myth: People who have eating disorders are (young, white, straight, female, etc).

Eating disorders don’t discriminate.

I am a white, young, straight, middle-class American female. But I still thought I couldn’t possibly be the “type” of person who gets an eating disorder because I don’t, for example, wear makeup. And I don’t read fashion magazines. And I’m a “nerd,” whatever that means.

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But nerdy people who don’t wear makeup can get eating disorders.

Myth: By merit of the fact that I don’t have an eating disorder, I am qualified to give people who have an eating disorder advice.

Truth: Don’t give people who are struggling with…well, really anything…advice. Unless you’re their doctor or master’s thesis advisor.

Myth:  By merit of the fact that I don’t have an eating disorder, there’s nothing I can do or say to support my friend or loved one.

Truth: Not at all. There’s so much you can do.

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Look for my upcoming post on how to support someone who’s recovering from disordered eating.

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4 comments

  1. Cora says:

    Absolutely. I feel absolutely everything you are saying. My biggest fear/frustration/embarrassment is the belief that others think anyone with an eating disorder only does so for their appearance. This could not be farther from the truth for me. I grew up with 2 brothers, wearing handy downs, and never caring an ounce what I looked like. I feel sad at the thought that someone may think all I want is “to be skinny.” Also, your point about still eating (even a substantial amount) but just not ENOUGH is precisely what I’m struggling with. And since others see that I’m eating, they simply wouldn’t understand that I’m actually struggling. Thank you for this post – it was very motivating. It really helps to know that others are feeling just as you are.

    1. Joyce says:

      Yes! When I was in recovery, it was hard enough to admit that I didn’t really have my life in order, but especially since there were such harmful stereotypes out there. I never wanted to be “that girl.” I’ve found the blogging community such a blessing. Wishing you all the best in recovery!

  2. These are all so true. Such a fantastic and informative post. EDs are like people–individual and unique. I have a chronic illness, and people often mistakenly believe that it can be treated the same way as some other case that they have seen–but as the saying goes, people are snowflakes, and that means that what happens with them internally may be similar, but will not be identical to another person.

  3. Joyce says:

    Thanks, Susie. I agree–it’s really unfair to be put in a box with other people just on the basis of a diagnosis. I’ve noticed even doctors sometimes do it!

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