The Stigma Of Eating Disorders & Setting Stereotypes Straight
Eating disorders are serious biologically-based mental illnesses, which can affect anyone.
They do not discriminate by age, gender, class, color, culture, size, shape or weight.
They cause a variety of health complications, including heart problems, electrolyte imbalances and osteoporosis.
Eating disorders also have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
Yes, you read that correctly.
But, as Aimee Liu writes in her recently released book Restoring Our Bodies, Reclaiming Our Lives: Guidance and Reflections on Recovery From Eating Disorders:
“…Yet eating disorders receive only a fraction of the research funding that goes to these other conditions [schizophrenia, alcoholism, depression]. And in most regions of the world, private insurance and government funding for treatment are not adequate to support the specialize care required to cure these illnesses. Why? The answer, in a word, is stigma.”
No doubt that some of you can relate to the financial frustrations associated with paying for ED treatment. Some of you probably even encountered outright stigma, stereotypes and misinformed individuals.
And some of you might even be shocked to find out precisely how serious eating disorders are.
Make no mistake, eating disorders are treatable, and recovery is very much possible. (Consider checking out interviews on Weightless with people who’ve recovered.)
But stigma is still a powerful problem with negative consequences. Aimee continues:
“The stigma that surrounds eating disorders paints them as trivial ‘girl problems,’ diets gone awry, adolescent rites of passage, or the acting out of juvenile rebels or ‘control freaks.’ Anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorders are sensationalized by the media as celebrity spectacles. Even the medical profession, by and large, still dismisses disordered eating as a behavioral quirk and thus fails to recognize the serious psychological threat this behavior represents. Stigma suppresses funding and attention to eating-disorders research and is a primary obstacle to adequate treatment and prevention efforts.”
So stigma has the serious repercussions of people hesitating to seek treatment (which is dangerous), being unable to pay for it or thinking they don’t deserve help in the first place.
Men, for instance, are too embarrassed to admit that they suffer from eating disorders, and thereby also are less likely to seek help. Stigma even prevents clinicians from recognizing eating disorders in men and loved ones from stepping in.
Stigma appears in all different shades, stripes and colors. We see it any time a publication – I say that loosely – blasts headlines about “outing” “anorexic” stars. Or when the media portrays eating disorders as vain or as lifestyle choices. Or any time someone says they wish they had that problem.
Stigma is there.
Author Harriet Brown put it perfectly in her must-read book Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle with Anorexia. I’ve featured this excerpt before on Weightless, but I think it’s especially relevant to talk of ED stigma:
“Anorexia is quite possibly the most misunderstood illness in America today. It’s the punch line of a mean joke, a throwaway plot device in TV shows and movies about spoiled rich girls. Or else it’s a fantasy weight-loss strategy; how many times have you heard (or said yourself) ‘Gee, I wouldn’t mind a little anorexia’?”
Eating disorders are not glamorous or beautiful. They’re not hot physiques and fun clothes. They’re not smiles and happiness. They’re not good times with friends.
Eating disorders are ugly, frightening, chaotic and isolating.
We’d never compliment someone for losing weight from cancer. We’d never envy someone with diabetes. And we certainly wouldn’t blame them for either of these conditions.
We’d show compassion and concern. We’d empathize and act with sensitivity.
I hope that we can approach eating disorders with the same kindness and care.
I hope we can all be aware of how we talk about these devastating disorders and try to educate ourselves on the facts – so we don’t contribute to the stigma, pain and isolation.
Again, I want to reiterate that despite eating disorders being difficult and serious illnesses, recovery is absolutely possible. While no one chooses to have an eating disorder, they can choose to seek treatment and work hard to get better.
I’d like to leave you with one final thought from eating disorder researcher Pamela K. Keel, Ph.D, from Aimee’s book:
“From my work, I have drawn the personal conclusion that people are stronger than their eating disorder. Once recovered, most people reconnect with the person they were before ED. They recognize that ED is something that happened to them and that it may have shaped them, but it was never who they really were. Recovery means separating and reclaiming your true self from ED.”
All the net royalties from Restoring Our Bodies, Reclaiming Our Lives will be donated to the research scholarship fund at the Academy for Eating Disorders (AED). I received a free copy, but I’m going to purchase a copy to give away to one reader!
I think this book is incredibly valuable. It weaves together letters from women and men who’ve struggled with eating disorders (and their loved ones) with expert insight from ED specialists. It takes readers through the entire recovery process.
To enter to win a copy of the book, please comment below until this Sunday at 12 a.m. EST. I’ll announce the winner (generated randomly) next Monday.
Tell us how eating disorders or stigma has affected you. What stereotypes do you want to set straight? What helped you in recovery? What questions do you have about eating disorders?
This post was written in honor of APA’s Mental Health Month Blog Party, which is today! I’m thrilled to participate and I hope you found this post helpful.
UPDATE: Jennifer, the publicist at Shambhala Publications, Inc., has generously offered to give away a copy, as well. So two people will snag a copy of Aimee’s book!
Tartakovsky, M. (2011). The Stigma Of Eating Disorders & Setting Stereotypes Straight. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 6, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/weightless/2011/05/the-stigma-of-eating-disorders-setting-stereotypes-straight/