If I had a dollar for every bullsh*t myth that exists about eating disorders, I would be able to make it rain on all the idiots who continue to propagate said myths. If I tried to write about every single one of those myths, I wouldn’t have time to do anything else. So, considering I need to go to work and make some money so that I don’t end up living in a box on the streets, I am only going to address the three myths that I believe to be the most harmful.
1. Families, especially parents, are to blame for eating disorders.
I was recently reading a self-help book that I thought was great until out of nowhere there was an entire chapter dedicated to telling the reader that in order to recover, one must drudge up whatever repressed memories from their childhood led to the disordered behavior and address those before moving forward. In this chapter there was specific focus on how lack of love and support from one’s parents leads to psychological disorders.
I never finished reading that book.
Yes, it is true that there are some people who had a difficult childhood and/or unsupportive parents which led to the development of their eating disorder, however this is not a universal truth for everyone suffering from ED. Despite going on antidepressants when I was 11, I had a relatively normal and happy childhood, and my parents are truly two of the most loving and supportive people I have ever known. My eating disorder is not their fault.
There is a psychological theory known as the diathesis-stress model which is used to explain how psychological disorders develop in individuals. In a nutshell, the theory asserts that it is the combination of genetic predisposition and environmental stress (or triggers) that exceed a threshold which lead to the development of a psychological disorder.
Therefore, no — families are not (always) entirely to blame.
2. You can tell if someone has an eating disorder.
A lot of people believe that those who struggle with an eating disorder are always extremely thin, even emaciated. This myth sadly leads to a lot of people failing to receive the help they so desperately need. The truth of the matter is that a large proportion of people struggling with an eating disorder are of a normal weight — and may even be overweight. Anorexia is the only eating disorder which includes in its diagnostic criteria a requirement to be below a certain BMI. Those with bulimia, binge eating disorder, or OSFED (otherwise specified feeding or eating disorder) are often not underweight at all, meaning they don’t “look” like they have an eating disorder.
Many people also think that if their loved one had disordered behavior when it comes to eating, they would have noticed it. This is also a potentially harmful way of thinking and it is extremely untrue. Speaking as someone who has been struggling with an eating disorder for over 8 years now, I can tell you that those with ED can be extremely good at hiding it. When I first began bingeing, I would eat foods that I found in my parents’ kitchen. I would of course do this late at night when everyone was asleep, but even that was soon not a good enough cover — missing food, dirty dishes, and empty wrappers left too much evidence the next morning of what I had done. So when I got my driver’s license and my first paying job, I began to instead sneak out of the house late at night and go for long drives — hours at a time — hitting up 24-hour fast food joints along the way and bingeing in my car. (For a long time, I thought this shameful behavior was unique to me, but have since learned that bingeing in the car is extremely common amongst those with eating disorders.) So when I first came to my parents asking for help, they were extremely confused. I remember my dad asking me how they wouldn’t have noticed that I was binge eating, why there wouldn’t be food missing from the house. By that point, though, I was a pro.
I have also heard people say that “so and so doesn’t have a problem, I have seen them eat normal amounts.” Ugh. Again, this doesn’t mean they don’t have an eating disorder, all it means is that they are doing a fantastic job of hiding it from you. I have gone all day without eating before when I knew I had plans to go out to dinner with friends or family that evening in order to make sure I could appear to be eating a healthy amount without going over my allowed caloric limit for the day. The last thing I want is to bring attention to what or how much I am eating, so I make sure not to raise any eyebrows when eating in public.
3. Eating disorders are a cry for attention, or a person “going through a phase.”
Must I repeat how much practice I have had in keeping my own eating disorder on the DL? No? Good.
In my life I have known several people who struggle(d) with an eating disorder, and every single one of them has used a different method of hiding it from their friends and family. I ran track with a girl in high school who I found out would go home after track practice and secretly go on another long run. I had a friend in high school who wore almost exclusively baggy clothes to hide from others how thin she was. I met a girl in college who told me she used to wait until her family went to sleep and then would quietly walk up and down the stairs in her house for hours to burn off whatever calories she had consumed that day. These are all tactics that were put into place with the distinct purpose of not drawing attention to the disordered behavior.
Finally, eating disorders are not a phase; they are not something that people dabble with in order to get attention or lose some weight before resuming normal behavior. To think that way is to drastically undermine the seriousness of a mental illness which has the highest mortality rate of any other mental illness. Eating disorders are not a choice. They are serious, dangerous, and a son of a b*tch to try to recover from.