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An Intro to Eating Disorders: Myths

Here at Teen Skepchick we strive to write about things that are relevant to our lives, and thus (we hope), relevant to the lives of other young women. As we’ve gotten to know each other, we’ve come to find that a surprising number of us have struggled with or are currently fighting an eating disorder. Oftentimes, eating disorders are viewed as disorders of the unintelligent or the vain, the cheerleaders or the silly suburban girl. But it’s become obvious to the Teen Skepchicks that even extremely intelligent young women (such as my fellow writers) are vulnerable to eating disorders. Because we have so much to say on the subject, this is just the first in a series of posts about eating disorders, and our thoughts thereupon. As a brief introduction to what eating disorders are, this post will address some common eating disorder myths.

Myth 1: Eating disorders only affect girls/white girls/rich girls/shallow girls/stupid girls.
There are lots of myths about who the typical or only ED sufferer is. Many of us have a picture of a rich, suburban white girl who is beauty obsessed, tanned, thin, and perfect. This is far from the reality about who has EDs. They are not constrained by race, gender, sexual orientation, class, income, family structure, or really any other demographic variable.

Myth 2: People with eating disorders are looking for attention.
There are a couple of facets to this myth. The first problem is that there is almost no overarching claim we can make about what people with eating disorders are looking for, or what they use their eating disorder for. Many people use their eating disorders to hide rather than seek attention, and others have no interest in what other people think. However the underlying myth here is that asking for attention or help when you are struggling, hurting, or lost is a bad thing. Even if some people use their eating disorders to ask for attention or help, all that means is that they have no other way of expressing that. Attention is a very human need, and we shouldn’t fault anyone for it.

Myth 3: You can tell who has an eating disorder by how they look.
There are people with eating disorders all along the BMI scale. While an eating disorder does have a physical component, it is primarily a mental illness, and it is impossible to see a mental illness on someone’s body. In addition, not everyone’s body reacts to calorie deprivation in the same way. Some people never lose to an unhealthy weight, but they are still harming their bodies. Bulimia does not tend to create extreme weight loss, so many people suffering from bulimia look to be at a “healthy” weight. There is no way to identify an eating disorder from appearance alone.

Myth 4: The only eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia.
Eating disorders come in all forms. They are as varied as the people who suffer from them. In addition to anorexia and bulimia, binge eating disorder and eating disorder not otherwise specified are also diagnosable. There is also type 2 (purging type) anorexia, which few people know of. Many times, the symptoms of an eating disorder don’t fall neatly into either the anorexia or bulimia box, but that does not make them any less dangerous. In addition to the obvious symptoms of either restriction or binging and purging, there are a number of other symptoms including over-exercise, abusing laxatives, binging (without purging), chewing and spitting, hoarding food, and any other compulsive behaviors around food.

Myth 5: Eating disorders are about losing weight.
I hope that most people have moved past this impression, because it’s been debunked so many times, but it’s still important to say.Eating disorders are a coping tool. People use them to manage their lives in some way, generally to manage their emotions. This means that eating disorders can be about almost anything: control, perfectionism, depression, punishment, family problems, relationships problems…managing weight is generally a way to manage life, but managing life can mean many things.

Myth 6: Eating disorders happen because of the media/weight obsessed parents/diet culture/etc.
There are many causes for eating disorders, and trying to sum up the cause of “eating disorders” into one simple phrase will never be a useful or informative endeavor. There is a large genetic component to developing an eating disorder, but in addition there is usually some sort of environmental factor. These environmental factors vary. Many people with eating disorders have multiple diagnoses and developed an eating disorder to deal with other mental illness problems. Many eating disorders do have family related origins, but some come about because of pressure in school, athletics, or other places. Of course having a thin-obsessed media does not help many girls with their body image, but if media was the exclusive reason for the prevalence of eating disorders then everyone would have one. Eating disorders come from a complicated interplay of a variety of factors.

Myth 7: Eating disorders are a choice.
Eating disorders are caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. They are life-threatening illnesses, and in order to recover, most people have to dedicate years of their lives and a great deal of time and energy to their recovery. There is no choice in getting an eating disorder, and it is extremely offensive to anyone with a mental illness to suggest that it is our choice to have or keep our mental illness.

Myth 8: If I just get him/her to eat, he/she’d be ok.
While increasing food intake is an important part of recovery and extremely important for the health of someone with an eating disorder, simply forcing someone with an eating disorder to eat will not help. It does not hit the underlying issues that pushed the person to feel as if they had to harm their body. Unless the mental issues underlying the eating disorder are resolved, the person will immediately revert to their previous behaviors. It is always important to remember that while an eating disorder has physical symptoms, it is a mental illness, and should be treated as such. If you know someone with an eating disorder, be gentle and supportive, don’t yell, force or control, and above all LISTEN because each eating disorder is individual.

Myth 9: Eating disorders are just a teenage phase/diet gone out of control.
Eating disorders are life-threatening illnesses. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. They have serious health consequences. Eating disorders are not something that a person can simply grow out of because it’s just a phase, or something that they can replace with “healthy weight loss”. The process of recovery from an eating disorder is incredibly difficult and requires a great deal of commitment from the person who has the eating disorder as well as their support people. Dismissing the seriousness of an eating disorder is a way to let a dangerous problem go untreated.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at

1 Comment

  1. October 16, 2012 at 11:46 am —

    Excellent post; I’ve volunteered with and worked with anorexic teens and adults (friends and family as well) and I consider it a silent killer because it’s just not talked about. As a result of this the level of ignorance about how to deal with the disorder most people’s responses make things *worse* rather than better.

    I did read a synopsis of a study that suggests that higher-IQ and working memory increase the risk of developing anorexia but I haven’t had a chance to read the paper itself yet so I don’t know how credible that claim is.

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