Growing up, my best friend’s sister was diagnosed with anorexia. My mother told me about it in hushed tones dripping with pity. There is still a cloud of secrecy and shame surrounding eating disorders, as a result of ignorance. People with eating disorders are often secretive so that they can keep the disorder going. Family and friends have a hard time detecting the signs because they don’t know what to look for or they don’t want to see it.
A woman told me she was hospitalized for her eating disorder, but that she never met the weight criteria for anorexia. Her family didn’t understand why she was in the hospital if she wasn’t “sick.” The years that she spent battling symptoms of anorexia and bulimia caused irreparable damage to her gastrointestinal tract, and now she can only eat through a feeding tube.
Anorexia and bulimia are the only widely known clinical disorders, but eating disorders have many faces. There are people who have symptoms of full-blown disorders but don’t meet the criteria. Perhaps they just diet excessively, take laxatives, or over exercise. The people that haven’t reached the holy grail of eating disorders—anorexia—are left in a sort of limbo where they don’t necessarily believe that they need help. Some don’t even think they deserve help.
For many people who suffer, eating disorders aren’t about the food and often they aren’t even about weight. They are about not feeling “good enough.” Whether people’s insecurities lie in body image, in academics, or something else entirely, eating disorders give people a semblance of control. One woman told me that she grew up in a poor household and never knew where her next meal was coming from. Restricting what she ate was her way of dealing with that uncertainty. Her eating disorder went undiagnosed for years because no one thought an African American woman would have this problem.
Many people think of those with eating disorders as being white females, but the population includes men, minorities, and older people. Really anyone can suffer from an eating disorder. The authors of a new book called Almost Anorexic estimate that about 1 in 200 people suffer from anorexia nervosa, but 1 in 20 people suffer from subclinical symptoms of anorexia.
When I learned about my friend’s sister, I thought, that’s not possible because I saw her eating. In my head, anorexia was this fixed thing: you never eat and you weigh like 90 pounds. So, that image I had of her eating ice cream out of the carton after school didn’t compute with anorexia. It wasn’t until later that I realized my definition of anorexia was wrong, and it wasn’t until creating this video that I began to understand that even clinical definitions of eating disorders don’t encompass all of the problems people face with food and weight.