When I think of an eating disorder, the first thing that comes to mind is anorexia or bulimia. This might be because of my history with anorexia, but it also has to do with the media’s narrow portrayal of what constitutes an eating disorder. If Lifetime isn’t sensationalizing anorexia or bulimia, the tabloids are diagnosing every young starlet in Hollywood with one of the two. A lesser-known eating disorder is binge eating disorder (BED), a disorder so lacking in mainstream coverage that it wasn’t even listed in the DSM until 2013. The lack of recognition and understanding of BED causes many misconceptions, but speaking more openly about it will bring the awareness it deserves.
Binge eating disorder is characterized by vociferous cravings that can’t be sated. During an episode, one consumes an inordinate amount of food in a relatively short amount of time, without the purging or restricting afterward that are characteristic of other bingeing disorders. These intense binges are described as chaotic, are accompanied by a feeling of loss of control, and are usually done in secret because of pervasive feelings of shame and guilt. This isn’t the typical overeating most people do from time to time. This is eating a large amount of food very rapidly, past the point of being full, and persisting even when you don’t want to. You feel incapable of stopping or slowing down. You do this several times a month, and the guilt you feel afterward makes it incredibly difficult to ever tell a soul.
Being overweight and having binge eating disorder are two different things, but both are ostracized in our society. This is one reason why BED largely goes undiagnosed. People with binge eating disorder often suffer in silence, with severe feelings of guilt. BED is frequently comorbid with other mental illnesses such as depression or bipolar disorder, as well as low self-esteem.
Sometimes the underlying mental illness spurs the disorder. When emotions are too much to handle for someone who has this particular genetic makeup, binge eating can help numb those intense feelings. Sometimes it’s derived from repetitive strict dieting. Severe caloric restriction can trigger the brain to overeat to compensate for the lack of calories, and in people with binge eating disorder, there’s no “off” switch. There may also be a genetic element to the disorder, just as is found in anorexia and bulimia. Children of parents with the disorder are more likely to face the same illness.
Our society harshly judges both overweight people and people who eat more than what society deems acceptable. This is another reason why it’s so difficult to open up about binge eating disorder. It seems everyone has an opinion on a person’s body, and suddenly everyone‘s a doctor. Let me make this clear: someone’s physical size is NOT an indicator of health. You can be heavy and healthy. You can be thin and healthy. You can be heavy or thin and be unhealthy.
As a culture, we’re not great about recognizing this, in daily life or in the media. Shows like The Biggest Loser not only exploit overweight people, but perpetuate the (wrong) message that if you’re overweight, you must shed the weight immediately, no matter the cost. It’s okay to scream at someone, call them names, and treat them with utter disrespect as long as it motivates them to get moving. If this is how you treat anyone, no matter their size, you’re not a good person. Period. Someone being overweight or a different size than what you deem appropriate doesn’t make you morally superior, and is certainly not cause for your judgment.
When societal messaging trumpets the idea that thin is best, thin is strength and self-control, thin is beauty, it’s no wonder that those who don’t fit the ideal face reproach. Negative stigma attached to obesity stems from the perception that overweight people lack discipline and have poor hygiene, and studies even show people associate obesity with a lack of intelligence. This bias even persists in the medical field. A 2001 study revealed that many medical professionals connected obesity with dishonesty, making it difficult for these patients to be taken seriously at their doctor’s offices. I don’t know what’s more troubling: that a medical professional would judge a patient’s character based on their weight, or that overweight people aren’t getting proper treatment because of their size.
Treating binge eating disorder can be tricky. Dieting isn’t the one-way ticket to health and happiness many people think it is because dieting is usually a trigger for most that suffer with BED, and because binge eating disorder is a mental illness. Those with BED can’t simply stop bingeing; the bingeing patterns resemble alcohol-use disorder, or any other disorder which has a compulsive aspect. Like recovering from any other mental disorder, extensive therapy can treat the actual eating disorder and the other mental illnesses that often accompany it. Even so, the battle those with BED face is often lifelong and involves near-constant vigilance.
That’s why it’s time to destigmatize binge eating disorder, so those who suffer can gain support and understanding without fear of judgment or categorization. Eating disorders of any kind are nothing to be ashamed of and can affect anyone, of any race, sexual orientation, and background. It’s imperative that we address these issues just as we would any other illness, and it’s time to challenge harmful stereotypes about a person’s weight. Discriminating against someone because of their size is damaging and continues the cycle of blatant prejudice and sizeism.
It’s important to recognize that bodies come in all different kinds of shapes, and not everyone wants to lose weight. More importantly, we must realize that weight is a delicate issue, and people of all shapes and sizes suffer from eating disorders — and it’s not our place to make snap judgments. Eating disorders are mental disorders, not lifestyle choices. Respect, compassion, and understanding are required to put an end to harmful biases.