An eating disorder can be devastating to a person’s life, health and relationships. Let’s find out the truth behind the many myths of these conditions…
As we saw in our previous post, Understanding eating disorders and how they can develop, eating disorders are a huge — but sadly still often invisible — issue in our society. Yet despite this, signs and symptoms of eating disorders still aren’t always taken as seriously as they need to be, sometimes being labelled as a ‘just a phase’, ‘attention seeking’ or even ‘picky eating’. Worse still, some eating disorders can even earn admiration, with people being praised by family and peers for reaching extreme thinness ideals at the expense of health.
In fact, one of the obstacles to people getting the help that they desperately need — and on time — is the many myths and misconceptions around eating disorders. Some of these are rooted in our mass media, others around misunderstandings about how eating disorders are caused (and which groups of people are affected). These lingering stereotypes can mean that the loved ones of people with eating issues may not always spot the signs (or even if they do, might not take them seriously enough at first).
Yet it is crucial that action is taken sooner rather than later as the earlier a person gets help, the better their chances are of recovery. Film, TV and other media have all played a big role in creating, sharing and perpetuating misconceptions around eating disorders. Here are some of the most common ones:
Eating disorders do focus on food in various different ways but it is not actually true that this is the central issue. As we’ve looked at, the real issue is what the person is going through in life, either mentally, emotionally or circumstantially. Food is the distraction from that, it is the coping mechanism.
Eating disorders often develop as a way for someone to numb themselves out from what is really going on inside, whether that is a reaction to current pain or past traumas. Because if something is feeling out of control in our lives, for instance, the death of a parent, an alcoholic partner or external life pressures, then we can’t always control that and we certainly can’t make anyone else change. But what we can control is ourselves and eating is often a representation of that. It can initially feel, to a person with an eating disorder, like this is the one area of life that they can control. But sadly, this is an illusion because as the disorder develops it will begin to completely control them, becoming another problem to battle on top of all the others.
In fact, out of the list of eating disorders above, only two have a preoccupation with weight: anorexia and bulimia. The rest are not actually related to a focus on body size. A related myth of eating disorders is that ‘everyone is underweight’, when in fact, it is usually only people with anorexia who are underweight (and with binge eating people can sometimes gain weight).
But either way, whether someone is medically considered to be over or underweight, their body size does not reflect the level of mental and emotional suffering that they’re going through. Someone can appear to be a ‘healthy size’ but can still be struggling with behaviours, compulsions and feelings that are having a devastating impact on their life. An eating disorder shouldn’t be taken any less seriously because someone’s weight seems to be within a ‘normal’ range.
For a long time, most of the research into eating disorders was based around women. There was also a belief that issues such as anorexia and bulimia mainly affected teenage girls.
It is certainly true that young women can be particularly susceptible to these two eating disorders in particular. This is partly due to pressures in our society for women to be thin and also due to discomfort that teenage girls can develop with their changing bodies when they hit puberty. Yet the fact is that all eating disorders can affect all types of people, of all genders, all ages, and from every kind of background and social class. It is also estimated that around 25% of people with an eating issue are male. These conditions can also affect children as young as six and adults way into retirement age.
Added to this, the myth that eating disorders mainly affect young women is a dangerous one for a number of reasons. Firstly, because it can make other groups of people struggling with these issues feel invisible. And in particular, it can make men who are experiencing symptoms feel ashamed about seeking help (or to not even realise that they have a problem at all). MTA Clinical Director Dr Kate Robinson’s research paper, Being Men With Eating Disorders, is an enlightening read on this topic.
Finally, it can cause all of us to miss signs of eating disorders in less obvious groups, such as men, older people or younger children. Yet no one is immune from developing issues around food.
This idea is related to the previous myth — that eating disorders are a teenage issue and particularly a teenage girl issue.
Yet while most eating issues do indeed first develop in adolescence, they’re not something that you magically grow out of. In fact, without proper treatment and support, a dysfunctional relationship with food can last for a lifetime and in extreme cases, even lead to death. So if a young person develops eating issues in their teens, it isn’t necessarily going to vanish when they hit their 20s and beyond.
Added to this, it is really important to note that eating disorders can develop at any time in life. For instance, it is not impossible for an adult to develop an issue in their 40s (or even older) for the first time, without any prior history. And this could be because of a big life change or some new pressure in that person’s life.
There can sometimes be a misconception that an eating disorder is something you can just ‘snap out of’, through determination and will. For instance, in the case of people with anorexia, the idea that all they have to do is ‘just take a little bite to eat’. Yet people can no more snap out of an eating disorder than they can depression or a physical illness.
This is because an eating issue isn’t simply a choice, it’s a complex set of psychological and physiological interactions that can feel totally overwhelming to the person dealing with it. To reduce it to a simple choice is to place blame, shame and additional pressure on a vulnerable person who is already struggling. The truth is that eating issues are incredibly distressing and can be devastating to a person’s life, health, relationships, job, studies, peace of mind and future goals. They are not something that anyone would ever actively choose.
In the words of Kerrie Jones, CEO and Co-Founder of the Orri treatment centre, ‘Eating disorders invite disconnection. To prevail, eating disorder behaviours — be it restricting, purging, or bingeing — require a disconnect from the self, from what the body wants and needs.’
Eating disorders are an incredibly challenging issue to resolve, as recovering from one actually involves losing a great deal in terms of coping mechanisms. It also involves facing something that you might greatly fear (which is of course much easier to do with support rather than with pressure). And for some people — especially if life experiences have caused them to have low self-esteem — the positive attention and reinforcement from others when they lose weight can be intoxicating.
This is why a lot of therapy for eating disorders involves helping people to feel more empowered in making choices that will benefit them in the long term, rather than going along with the quick wins promised by the disorder itself.
An eating disorder is a serious mental health issue, not a quest for the perfect selfie.
While pressures in our society to be thin — plus toxic cultural attitudes about body shape in general — can definitely create a context for a condition like anorexia developing, the roots of an eating disorder will always go much deeper. These disorders are not just about wanting to ‘look good’ — in fact many, like ARFID, have no relationship with dieting or thinness whatsoever. Others are less about ‘looking good’ than trying to find a way to counter the deep self-loathing and unacceptability a person might feel.
While an eating disorder can partly be a conscious or unconscious way of communicating distress, this is very different from it being a ‘cry for attention’ or about ‘creating drama’. Disordered eating is never simply about communicating pain and often the person’s behaviours around food will serve multiple purposes.
In fact, many people actually often go to great lengths to hide their behaviours. For instance, they might conceal stashes of bingeing snacks, taking breath mints to cover up the fact that they have vomited or pretend to have eaten a meal. This is because eating disorders come with huge amounts of shame attached, which make it even more isolating and difficult to get your needs met. Others may not even realise they have a problem and could be in total denial that they are in the grip of a disorder. Either way, a serious mental health issue is never a simple bid for attention.
That said, harmful eating behaviours — such as restricting food — can sometimes be an unconscious attempt for someone to communicate something that they can’t put into words. One example might be a young person who is struggling with the pressures and changes of adolescence, but can’t express this directly (or feels that they aren’t being heard when they do so). Losing or gaining weight might end up being their way of trying to communicate their distress indirectly but they might not be consciously aware of this or doing so intentionally. Sadly, this unspoken communication can often be missed or misunderstood, instead attracting the wrong kind of attention. This might include being praised for becoming thinner or criticised for making things difficult for the family, rather than getting much-needed emotional support for underlying pain and stress.
For many years it was believed that family dynamics were the cause of eating disorders, for instance having pushy or controlling parents. This idea seeped into our mass media and still lingers on in our culture today. Yet this misconception is very unfair to families and reduces eating disorders to an issue with one simple, partial explanation, yet as we have seen, the causes can be very complex.
While home environments and family relationships can absolutely be a factor in people developing these conditions, it’s not true that they are always triggered by parents. In fact, people with eating disorders can often come from very loving and supportive families who can play a key role in their recovery. There will almost always be multiple reasons contributing to someone developing issues with food — and also, the reasons that led to the eating disorder developing could well be different to those that are now maintaining it.
Even if someone is showing an external improvement in their relationship with food, they might still be struggling a lot inside. This is because the painful root issues that caused their disorder could still be unresolved. The person may well still be trying to manage the part of them that criticises the way they look and may still be trying to accept themselves and their bodies. Eating disorders are a complex interplay of psychological and physiological issues — both need addressing.
So if you or someone you love is managing eating issues, then remember that recovery is a process. People can have good and bad days. Relapse doesn’t mean failure.
For suggestions about what help is available for people wanting to overcome eating issues, our previous post on understanding eating issues shares some therapies that can help. Medical monitoring is also important as there can be some very real risks associated with certain eating behaviours. Peer support and dietetic input can also be very helpful.
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