Don’t Believe These 3 Common Myths About Eating Disorders

Unicorn drawing, vintage myth creature

It’s Eating Disorder Awareness week. Yet, I’d argue most people are already aware of eating disorders. However, they likely don’t have an accurate picture of one one looks like. That’s why I want to dispel three eating disorder myths many people believe.

We all know of the thin, young, white, middle to upper class girl depicted in the media who becomes emaciated and must learn to eat again. She is the main character in the movies you see about eating disorders. She’s the picture you see on the websites for treatment centers and associations dedicated to helping address eating disorders. And she’s the author of the memoirs that get published in the mainstream. Her image overtakes social media once she *recovers* and she now offers to sell you her program so you too can enter the magical world of recovery. 

And while there are some who experience this as their truth, it’s NOT the majority of people struggling with eating disorders.

The truth is, eating disorders affect people of many ages, races, sizes, and shapes.

Which is why, this year for Eating Disorder Awareness week, I want to dispel some of the most common myths.

3 Common Myths About Eating Disorders

1. You can tell if someone has an eating disorder by looking at them.

This is simply untrue. Sadly this myth is perpetuated by media and reinforced by the industrial medical complex. The truth is you cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder by looking at their size. Nor can you tell by weighing them. Eating disorders are complicated and multifaceted and still very misunderstood by many.

At the root of all disorders is an anxiety around food, eating, and gaining weight. Restriction is a how many cope with this anxiety. Unfortunately for many, this restriction results in an increase in obsessive thinking, rigid thoughts and behaviors, and an eating disorder that takes over their life. It also often leads to binge eating, compensatory behaviors, body image distortion, and an increase in anxiety and other mood disruptions.  

And this all happens to people in all size bodies.

The problem is we live in a society entrenched with anti-fat bias and obsessed with thinness. People in smaller bodies earn social capital while those in larger bodies are hit with weight stigma, judgment, and oppression. 

Someone who engages in disordered behaviors in a small body is often diagnosed with an eating disorder. While those in larger bodies are praised for the very same behaviors.

What we diagnose in thin people as anorexia is often prescribed to folks in larger bodies. 

An eating disorder doesn’t start when someone hits a scary low weight. It starts when life begins to revolve around food, their body, and shrinking themselves. As a result of restriction and genetics. The deeper someone falls into an eating disorder, the more absent they become in their lives. And this happens to people in all size bodies. 

2. Eating disorders mostly affect young women.

While eating disorders do often develop during adolescence, teens are not the only ones struggling with them. Eating disorders impact women well into midlife and beyond. Sadly they are often missed by doctors and medical professionals.

It makes sense that eating disorders often develop during puberty. A time when bodies change and grow, hormones run high, and life can feel overwhelming. Those genetically predisposed to develop eating disorders may turn to control their food and body size (unconsciously of course) in order to cope with all of these changes. 

But here’s the thing… once we get out of puberty, our bodies don’t simply stop changing.

Our bodies have been changing since we were conceived and will continue to change until we die.

It’s absurd to expect our bodies to stay the same as they were at 19. And yet our society is obsessed with chasing some ideal body shape and size from exactly that era. 

No, life continues to bring about changes that can trigger eating disorders.

Pregnancy obviously causes dramatic shifts in bodies. Why shouldn’t such a miracle bring about change? Yet instead of nurturing and supporting women who go through one of the most intense life changes, we bombard postpartum women with the message they need to “get their body back.” Instead of celebrating them from growing a human life, we sell them every diet in the book. We comment on their body size while dismissing the truth that their body growing enabled them to create and carry a life. It is maddening.

Motherhood can be an incredibly difficult, stressful, and overwhelming time. At the same time the entire world hyper focuses on the mom’s body. Is it surprising that many women relapse into eating disorders and develop new ones during this time

And it doesn’t stop there.

In midlife- our bodies go through yet another major shift called menopause. So little attention, research, or understanding is even shined on this subject. Once again, at a time when it’s normal for bodies to shift and change, our society drowns women in the messages that they must not gain weight. We are literally telling women to fight their own biology. This is yet another time period where women relapse into eating disorders they thought they’d left behind. And research shows that many women who have never struggled with an eating disorder in the past are developing them during this phase of life. 

3. Eating disorders only affect women.

While this article is obviously written from the perspective of a female, eating disorders do not only impact women. Many men and transgender folks struggle with eating disorders as well. Sadly, they are often not diagnosed. Research does not typically include them, and treatment can be extremely difficult to access. 

Despite the increased stigma that males and transgender people receive, thankfully more people are finally talking about this issue. There are some amazing voices sharing their experiences and lived experiences on social media that need to be heard.  

Regardless of a person’s identities, eating disorders are one of the most lethal mental health issues. After opioid use disorder, eating disorders have the highest rates of death among mental illnesses. 

And even when not lethal, eating disorders affect sufferers physically, emotionally, and mentally. They can be devastating for individuals and their families and friends. 

So this year during Eating Disorder Awareness week I hope you no longer believe these eating disorder myths. Instead understand these three truths. You can’t tell if someone has an eating disorder by looking at them. Eating disorders affect people of all shapes, sizes, and races. And people of all genders can struggle with an eating disorder. 

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