Eating Disorder Myths: The Naked Truth

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By Maddie Ruud

Eating disorders are everywhere, and finally, people are beginning to realize it. Unfortunately, with the increased awareness has come a rash of myths, both about the disorders themselves and the people who suffer.

Since food and body are already weighted subjects (excuse the pun!) in Western society, it can be hard to speak up against this type of ignorance, and especially for someone who is currently struggling. That’s why I decided, as soon as I was far enough in my own recovery, that I would take it upon myself to fight these myths–in hand-to-hand combat, if need be.

The Myth: Eating disorders are about food.

The Facts: Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses, with a wide range of psychological, sociological, and physiological factors. Simply “eating right” will not cure an eating disorder. I’ve been told more times than I can count that I should just eat right and exercise in moderation. It’s not that simple, because these are the symptomatic behaviors, not to be confused with the core issues causing them.

The Myth: Eating disorders are a women’s problem.

The Facts: 1 out of every 10 people suffering from an eating disorder is male, but even these numbers may be artificially low. Traditional gender roles can cloud the issue, and doctors might more readily diagnose women and gay men. Current statistics indicate that the homosexual male population has the highest percentage of eating disorders, over straight females.

The Myth: Eating disorders are just a phase.

The Facts: An eating disorder is a serious disease, but one which does respond to treatment. More people die of eating disorders than suicide, or any other mental illness. As many as one quarter of those diagnosed with anorexia nervosa will die from it. The good news is, treatment reduces the mortality rate significantly to only about 4%. Unfortunately, believing this myth may cause eating disordered people to avoid seeking the help they need.

The Myth: Eating disorders are for teenagers.

The Facts: Although 86% of eating disorder diagnoses occur in people under the age of 20, anyone can be affected. There is a disturbing rise in the incidence of eating disorders among middle-aged and post-menopausal women, which researchers compare to the classic male mid-life crisis. Gender roles make disordered eating a more acceptable outlet for women’s feelings about empty-nest syndrome, a stagnated career, or simply getting older.

The Myth: Eating disordered people are all skinny/fat.

The Facts: 70% of women with eating disorders are at or above what is considered a “healthy” weight. But weight is just a number, and as such, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Part of what makes eating disorders so dangerous is that most of the damage is internal. To ignore disordered behaviors because a person looks “ok” is extremely dangerous, but to assume all fat or thin people have disordered eating would be equally wrong. In the end, it is the behaviors and thoughts that tell the truth of the matter.

Just like eating disorders themselves, eating disorder myths are everywhere. These are only five of the most common I’ve come across, but the list goes on and on.

What eating disorder myths have you come across, and how do you fight them?

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Celebrating Eating Disorder Recovery: Inaugural NEDA Walk in Texas

Study: Black Girls 50% More Likely to be Bulimic than Whites

Multicultural Women & Body Image

You Don’t Have to Have an Eating Disorder to be Image Obsessed

What Not To Say To Someone With an Eating Disorder

10 thoughts on “Eating Disorder Myths: The Naked Truth

  1. “Eating disorders are resolved when weight is restored”. Eating disorder recovery involves weight restoration as well as changes in thinking, and in behaviors. Recovery involves being able to eat more than 7 foods, and being able to sit with some additional food without having to overexercise or purge. I could go on….

  2. There is the huge misconception that eating disorders are triggered soley by vanity; that sufferers’ main priority begins as a desire to look like a model. Excuse my language, but BULLSHIT. Eating disorder sufferers often have an underlying mental illness – may that be depression, anxiety spectrum disorders etc.
    More often than not, the victims of this illness are searching for control over something. When everything else feels unchangable, we want something to hold on to, that is just in our hands. We resort to controlling our food intake. At first, we never think we will take it to such lengths as we do in the end. It creeps its way into every aspect of life. In reality, we are completely out of control. The one thing we held on to to make us feel like we held the reigns on our lives esculated too far.

    Although true that eating disorder sufferers often have an unrealistic self image, this does’t necessarily mean that their self-perception has always been warped. Not all anorexics see themselves as vastly overweight. More likely is the denile of their low weight – although in their rational mind they know their weight is low and their dietry intake is unhealthy, the irrational thoughts are a lot stronger and overwhelming, to the degree that we can’t believe what is really there. I, and many sufferes I met, never perceived ourselves as being overweight. Instead we saw ourselves as a healthy size; despite the weight I lost durring my struggle, I continued to see my reflection as healthy. Through lacking nutrition, not only does your body suffer but also your brain; it needs food to function properly. This hinders recovery and ability to see the danger you are potentially in.

    In my case, increasingly severe OCD left me desperate, and this is how I developed an eating disorder. And yet letting it go, even upon realisation of the illness, is not just a matter of to start eating again. It’s a painful process. We long for that illusion of control. It’s not until we find that there is a life after an eating disorder that we realise exactly what happened to us. Looking on it retrospectively is terrifying, yet gives a great sense of relief that it is over and it needn’t define who you are.

  3. “Eating disorders are only caused from a poor body image.”

    My son’s anorexia was not caused by a distorted body image. It was secondary to another mental illness, but he needed to be treated for BOTH.

  4. “Eating disorders are a choice.”
    I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been blamed for having this disorder. People don’t seem to realise its an actual MENTAL ILLNESS not something we choose. Who would choose to be miserable?

  5. Wow. Wonderful. I especially love the part about the “Face” of an eating disorder and that they are about the way in which we relate to food, weight and our bodies, NOT solely with regards to our appearance. Some of the most devestating spaces of my life psychologically was when I was at a healthy weight. I cannot stress the fact enough that one does not need to be emaciated in order to be in pain or severely struggling. Thank you so much for this voice of awareness and breaking the stigmas!!

  6. Ashley, that’s a good (or rather, bad!) one. Sometimes, eating disordered people themselves perpetuate this myth to justify continuing in their behaviors. When it seems unimaginable to live differently, it’s easy to get sucked into that trap.

    Marci, you’re absolutely right. As I posted on your Facebook comment, the myth that eating disorders are a publicity stunt is offensive and dangerous! We want to encourage eating disordered people to seek help, not make them feel more self-conscious about it.

    Keep these myths coming! We’re breaking this wall down, bit by bit, and every contribution helps!

  7. Eating disorders are not a lifestyle. This is mainly in reference to the Thinspiration following. A lot of people with eating disorders (or a great deal of desire or pride to be thin) glamourize it as a lifestyle choice instead of a disease.

  8. Another:
    “Eating Disorders are a way to get attention”
    because so many people who have eating disorders aren’t excruciatingly thin or morbidly obese, it can be assumed that they are “Fine” but looking for attention. They’re NOT. Eating Disorders are horribly painful to deal one wants to fake it for any reason.

    I struggled with severe body image and eating disorder issues for over 20 years and know that once it takes a hold of you, it is incredibly difficult to escape.

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