By Ellen Ricks
When we think of eating disorders, we often think of stick thin, popular, white teenage girls. The dancer, the cheerleader, the girl on the quest for perfection.
That girl is not me.
My name is Ellen, and while I was born without the grace of an athlete, I have struggled with an eating disorder for the better part of my life. I have the disorder that has the highest mortality rate of any other mental illness, a fact hardly mentioned when we talk about eating disorders on TV shows. In fact, there are many myths and stigmas about eating disorders that people believe are true, leading to deadly effects. Here are the top five eating disorder myth people believe and are completely wrong about. Coming from me: your bisexual eating disorder sufferer, who’s never been the cheerleader.
Myth #1: Eating disorders only happen to white, wealthy, cisgender teenage girls.
Thanks to the media, we view eating disorders as a “rich white girl illness” because that’s all we see on TV when they are talked about: Blair Waldorf, Marley Rose, every teenager in a Lifetime movie. Most actresses and models also come forward to talk about their illness are white, cisgender women, so we see them as one way. However, this is far from true. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) ANYONE, regardless of race, age, gender, sexual ordination, and economic standing can get an eating disorder. According to the NEDA, black teenagers and Hispanics are more likely to suffer from bulimia than their white peers. And one in three people who have eating disorders are male. Because of the stigma, men and minorities have a harder time admitting, and, in turn, others believe they have eating disorders because they don’t “look the part”. This can lead to people getting worse in their illness and may even lead to death. To put in perspective: At least 30 million people suffer from eating disorders in the U.S. , so they can’t all be white women.
Myth #2: Eating disorders are self-esteem issues and you should just “love yourself”.
Putting aside how arrogant the “love yourself” advice is, eating disorders are not self-esteem issues. Clinical experts say that eating disorders are “caused by both genetic and environmental factors; they are bio-sociocultural diseases.” Aside from genetic factors, eating disorders may be triggered by a lot of outside factors: bullying, media, diet culture, life stressors, trauma, and coping with other mental health issues. For example, my eating disorder started as a way to cope with my anxiety and depression. In other words, eating disorders can happen to anyone for many reasons, and they won’t just go away because someone says “you don’t need to starve yourself, you’re so pretty!” Thanks for the condescension!
Myth #3: Anorexia and Bulimia are the only “real” eating disorders.
This is another harmful stigma that kills people! While anorexia and bulimia are the most heard of eating disorders, there are many subgroups including: Binge Eating Disorder, Orthorexia (obsession with “healthful’ eating), Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED), Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), Pica (eating disorder involves eating items that are not food like dirt and paint chips), Rumination disorder (regurgitation of food). There is also laxative abuse and compulsive exercise.
Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any other mental illness, but do not be fooled, any eating disorder can be deadly. You don’t have to starve yourself to have an eating disorder. You don’t have to purge to have an eating disorder. Your eating disorder, whatever it looks like, is valid.
Myth #4 Eating disorders are choices
This is the myth is by far the most infuriating. People honestly believe eating disorders are diets and those that suffer can “quit any time they want too.” That they are just “being dramatic”, not to mention all the celebrities who “joke” about “trying out eating disorders” (I’m looking at you Meghan Trainor). Eating disorders are not a choice. They are mental illnesses that distort not only reality but your relationship with food and your body image, as well. I did not choose to have a panic attack whenever I had to eat. I did not choose to feel soul crushing guilt whenever I put food into my body. And I promise you, if I woke up one morning and said to myself “what can I do to ruin my health, my relationships with everyone I love and care about, and leave myself completely isolated?” I would pick the option where I could eat cake. I didn’t choose this, no one would choose this. This happened to me.
Myth #5: Eating disorders can be treated by just eating
The most common response I get when I admit my eating disorder is “why don’t you eat a sandwich or something?”. I am always struck by the brilliance of that sentence: eating a sandwich. Why didn’t I think of that? Silly me and my lady brain, I should have just eaten a sandwich and BOOM! I’m cured! Surprisingly, it’s not that simple.
The goal of recovery isn’t only eating to get to a healthy weight, but also building a healthy relationship with food. There is nothing more dangerous, both physically and mentally, than trying to force feed someone with an eating disorder, especially if they are anorexic because it can trigger a re-feed and can kill them. The best way I can describe recovery, or the thought of recovery is going your whole life thinking something is poisonous, you will die if you drink it. You go through your whole life thinking that and then, suddenly, people say to you “drink that, it’s good for you. It will make you healthy. You need to drink it.” But in your mind, you know that it’s poison but people are forcing you to drink it.
Eating disorder treatment is complex. Because the public has only been aware of eating disorders for 40 years, we still don’t know a lot about its causes, let how to alone treat it. Treating eating disorders is very costly, and isn’t always successful with only 46% of anorexia patients fully recover, less than half. And since most are not covered by insurance companies, eating disorders are more likely to be deadly.
When it comes to eating disorders, some may physically recover (keep a healthy body weight), but they will never mentally recover. And no one really knows why. Eating disorder research receives very little funding. Eating disorders are as common as autism, but still receive the least amount of funding for research. Our hope of treating eating disorder is realizing it isn’t a sandwich. It’s research to discover new treatments that work.
Ellen Ricks is a writer, blogger, and Hufflepuff living in Upstate New York. She has a BFA in Creative Writing which, despite popular belief, is useful. Ellen has been published in a variety of websites, journals, and writes her own fashion blog: Sarcasm in Heels. Her freelance work covers literature, pop culture, mental health, travel, fashion, feminism, and LGBTQ issues. She also writes fiction and poetry. When not writing, Ellen enjoys consuming pumpkin spice everything, frolicking in fancy dresses, and dismantling the patriarchy.
Photo by: Felipe Galvan