Instead of our usual body-image boosters post on Monday, I wanted to kick-start NEDA Week. Actually, it officially started yesterday (be sure to check out Shannon’s post at Mentoring & Recovery on what you can do!).
If you’re not familiar with NEDA Week, it’s an entire week every February dedicated to eating disorder awareness, sponsored by the National Eating Disorders Association.
One of the best ways to spread awareness, I think, is to talk about accurate information. Because there’s tons of misinformation out there about eating disorders.
So below I wanted to dispel several common myths about eating disorders – with the help of some amazing women who’ve recovered from eating disorders.
1. Myth: Eating disorders only affect adolescents or young women.
2. Myth: If the person would just eat, they’d be fully recovered.
Fact: Food is medicine for someone with an eating disorder, because food is fuel for our bodies and brains. For instance, the first thing that professionals will do when an individual with an ED is malnourished is work on their nutritional needs and help them restore their weight (if that’s necessary).
Talk therapy with someone who’s seriously malnourished is dangerous.
However, a person won’t recover simply by eating. The eating disorder thoughts and behaviors won’t automatically disappear. This is why treatment is so important.
Also, I don’t think that many people appreciate how difficult it really is for someone with an ED to eat. People think that the person is just being stubborn or selfish when they say that they can’t eat.
But in reality, for them, eating can feel like jumping out of a plane (or insert any fear here). Treatment helps with these fears, too.
3. Myth: The media causes eating disorders.
Fact: The media does not cause eating disorders. Eating disorders are a complex combination of factors. There’s a big genetic component, and EDs tend to run in families. As eating disorder specialist Sarah Ravin, Ph.D, writes on her blog,
“…the development of an eating disorder is influenced very heavily by genetics, neurobiology, individual personality traits, and co-morbid disorders. Environment clearly plays a role in the development of eating disorders, but environment alone is not sufficient to cause them.”
The media can trigger someone who’s already genetically predisposed to having an eating disorder. Another common trigger? Dieting!
(See here for a more thorough look at this myth.)
4. Myth: Only anorexia and bulimia are dangerous.
Fact: A person doesn’t have to meet the strict criteria for eating disorders in the diagnostic manual in order to need treatment. There’s a grab-bag category called EDNOS (eating disorders not otherwise specified) where many individuals with eating disorders fall.
Anyone with eating disorder symptoms deserves help and needs it. Everyone should be taken seriously.
There is no typical face of an eating disorder. And no typical size or weight.
As Nina, who’s since recovered, eloquently told me in our interview,
“For a certain period of my eating disorder, I didn’t fit into the typical “eating disorder” image – in that I was slightly overweight, I wasn’t using compensatory behavior and I was consuming a massive amount of calories on a daily basis. This was an eating disorder at its worst for me, but society does not see it as an eating disorder. There is a lot of stigma and shame attached to this state and it can be difficult to get help. You also view yourself as a ‘diet failure,’ not realizing that it is still an eating disorder; it just has a different face.”
Elizabeth, another incredible woman and friend, said, “A person does not have to look sick to be sick. I walked around for many years with an eating disorder and looked perfectly healthy. This is why many people do not get the help they need.”
5. Myth: Eating disorders are a lifestyle.
Fact: These are variations on this myth: People choose eating disorders because they want to be thin or look attractive (i.e., vanity). Or eating disorders are selfish (again, as though someone with an ED chooses this).
Here’s the 100 percent truth: No one chooses to have an eating disorder. Eating disorders are serious, totally unglamorous, potentially life-threatening illnesses.
Fortunately, however, people can choose to seek treatment and focus their efforts on recovery.
6. Myth: It’s best not to have family involved in recovery.
Fact: Families are an important part of helping loved ones recover. In fact, family-based treatment is a highly efficacious form of treatment for kids and teens with anorexia. See this post and this post for more information on family-based treatment, also known as the Maudsley approach.
Also, support is vital for anyone with an eating disorder. The key is for families to get educated about eating disorders and just be there.
The incredible women that I’ve interviewed for Weightless talk about how families can help here.
If you’d like to learn about other myths, see this myth-busting post from last year’s NEDA Week.
A while ago, I also wrote a review of an eating disorder memoir that dispels many pervasive myths (such as you have to be super-skinny to need help).
P.S., Another way to spread eating disorder awareness is to spread the real, concrete, tangible message that recovery is possible for everyone. That even in the darkest of moments, there is hope!
That’s why this week, I’m really honored to publish a three-part Q&A with Susan Schulherr, an eating disorder specialist. She talks about the challenges of recovery and tips to help (and much more).
What questions do you have about eating disorders? What myths have you come across about eating disorders? How will you spread the message of awareness or recovery?