Common misconceptions and comments made about eating disorders

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head in sand

Online chatter these days often illustrates there is a long way to go before many people fully realize what an eating disorder truly is: a mental illness, or a disease of the brain.

On February 2, we published an article detailing the struggles of a 21-year-old B.C. woman who has resorted to crowd-funding to treat her severe eating disorder. Some of the publicly posted responses highlight the common misconceptions about eating disorders, so we thought we’d take a look at the kinds of misinformation that gets in the way of the good work being done to help those struggling with eating disorders.

While many of those who responded to our story were supportive of the woman’s endeavors to receive help, another fair share could not understand why her disease warranted help, let alone a news story.

The issue is complex.

For starters, there’s a fairly good chance you had no idea it’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. From February 1 to 7, the Provincial Eating Disorders Awareness Campaign is running multiple events and initiatives to raise understanding around the severity and pervasiveness of eating disorders in B.C. and around the world.

Buildings and structures around B.C. will be lit up purple, purple wristbands will be sold and a social media campaign called #Purple4PEDAW will hit Facebook and Twitter.

Initiatives for PEDAW around Metro Vancouver

BC Place Stadium Purple

Image: BC Place

  • Wear purple for PEDAW on Friday, February 6 and share your photos with #Purple4PEDAW on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter
  • In Vancouver: BC Place, the dome at TELUS World of Science and the Olympic Cauldron at the Vancouver Convention Centre will light up purple on February 6
  • In Coquitlam: the fountain at Lafarge Lake at Town Centre Park will light up purple on February 6

These initiatives are a fantastic way to raise awareness and get communities involved in spreading the word about eating disorders, and those with compassion and understanding will acknowledge this.

But those without the education, life experiences or personal struggles that create compassion for and understanding of eating disorders will continue to criticize the publicity of this disease. They will mumble under their breaths something like “just eat a hamburger” or whisper to their friends “she doesn’t look anorexic.”

And that is where a direct response to these comments is needed. For eating disorders to receive the support they need, the stigmatization needs to be removed and the harsh reality of the disease needs to be learned.

Here are some common misconceptions and comments made about eating disorders, along with responses to the issues from professionals:

1. Just eat if you’re anorexic.

“Having an eating disorder means having neurological or neuroanatomical organization of your brain that creates enormous barriers to eating normally. These barriers include visual and sensory distortions, impacts on reward centers and executive organization of the brain, distortions of senses of fullness and hunger, and over evaluation of body size and shape, in addition to other issues that may be present. The combination of all of these things makes eating incredibly hard to do.”

Dr. Mark Warren, Cleveland Center for Eating Disorders

2. Just smoke weed, then you’ll get the munchies!

“We definitely want individuals to eat and digest food in order to heal their physical bodies. This being said, balance is key, so optimally they will work with supports to find ways of eating without using other substances that further promote numbing out to their present experience.”

Natasha Files, Individual and Family Therapist, Looking Glass Foundation

3. It’s more important to donate money to underprivileged children who can’t afford to eat.

“Suffering takes many forms. I have worked with individuals from all socio-economic realms, with some people having money for food and others not. Please choose to donate money to what moves you, but know that eating disorders are an illness cloaked in shame and secrecy. Many individuals do not get help unless their loved ones encourage them to do so, meaning that asking for support takes significant courage.”

– Natasha Files, Individual and Family Therapist, Looking Glass Foundation

4. #firstworldproblems

“There have been many reports about eating disorders in Western countries in the late 20th century. It has been claimed that those with eating disorders have mostly been white women and that few cases have been seen in non-Western countries other than Japan. Recently, eating disorders have been reported in non-Western countries, such as the Middle East and the People’s Republic of China.These recent studies suggest that the prevalence of eating disorders has been rising among non-Western countries as well. However, eating disorders may present differently in different cultures, and diagnostic criteria based on Western norms may not always be appropriate.”

– Makino, Maria, Koji Tsuboi, and Lorraine Dennerstein. “Prevalence of Eating Disorders: A Comparison of Western and Non-Western Countries.” Medscape General Medicine 6.3 (2004): 49. Print.

5. There are people fighting cancer who can’t eat, and other people far worse off. Stop being so selfish and just eat.

“These kinds of statements just increase the guilt and shame of a person suffering from an eating disorder- which can lead to an increase in coping behaviours designed to avoid those uncomfortable feelings… cue the binge purge cycle or restriction!”

Trixie Hennessey MSW, RSW, Individual and Family Therapist

6. Anorexia is a serious disorder… but it’s not as bad as cancer or AIDS. We should focus on helping those people.

“Categorizing eating disorders as less deserving of support than other illnesses proves the ongoing struggle with stigmatization in our society. One outcome of struggling with an eating disorder is death. Eating disorders are the third most chronic condition among adolescent females (after asthma and obesity), yet have significantly less funding towards research and treatment.”

– Natasha Files, Individual and Family Therapist, Looking Glass Foundation

“Actually, more people die from eating disorders (350,000) than from breast cancer (approximately 40,000) every year. Females aged 15–24 are 12 times more likely to die of an eating disorder than any other cause of death. More people die of eating disorders than any other mental/behavioral disorder including depression.”

– Atlanta Center for Eating Disorders

7. You don’t look anorexic!

“Being the most lethal of psychiatric illness, eating disorders come with a number of serious health consequences, even if the individual looks “okay”. Low blood sugar, blood abnormalities (electrolyte imbalances), enamel erosion, dizziness/confusion, esophagitis, arrhythmias, acrocyanosis, edema, growth retardation in children and adolescents, and sometimes death. Eating disorders affect every system of the body, meaning that glancing at someone’s body shape does not determine the level of physical impact.”

– Natasha Files, Individual and Family Therapist, Looking Glass Foundation

8. You should be grateful you can afford to feed yourself. If you knew real hardship, you wouldn’t have this problem.

“Individuals who develop eating disorders are usually very sensitive.  They are physiologically more sensitive from birth than the average person. They are very in tune with the feelings of others and have a strong drive to want everyone around them to be happy. This often leads to perfectionism as they try to reduce any negativity that they or others will experience. As the disorder progresses they become caught in a vicious cycle where their attempts at being the best that they can be actually does cause others negative feelings — but at that point they can’t just stop. The attempt to be perfect is primarily a way to ensure that nothing about them will cause anyone else any distress and to ensure that others will not find fault in them, something that they are very sensitive about.”

– Atlanta Center for Eating Disorders

9. Starving yourself to death is a choice, just like taking drugs or drinking too much.

“There is no choice when it comes to an eating disorder. There is a choice to start out with behaviours such as dieting, exercising, fasting, etc… but there are many people that diet, exercise and overeat that do not have an eating disorder. There are many people unhappy with their weight and shape who do not have an eating disorder. Eating disorder treatment is complex and an intense process. I would encourage you to question this assumption, as I feel it perpetuates the stigma and feelings of shame that keep people from reaching our for help if they need it.”

– Trixie Hennessey MSW, RSW, Individual and Family Therapist

“Someone can make the choice to pursue recovery, but the act of recovery itself is a lot of hard work and involves more than simply deciding to not act on symptoms. In most cases, the eating disorder has become a person’s primary way of coping with intense emotions and difficult life events.  In order to heal from the eating disorder, a person needs appropriate treatment and support regarding medical monitoring, nutritional rehabilitation as well as learning and practicing healthier ways to manage stress.”

– The Center for Eating Disorders

About PEDAW

The Provincial Eating Disorders Awareness (PEDAW) campaign is a BC Province wide effort to raise awareness around prevention and early intervention of eating disorders as well as media literacy, resiliency, building healthy body image and self-esteem. The initiative is led by Jessie’s Legacy Eating Disorders Prevention Program at Family Services of the North Shore in collaboration with Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre, Looking Glass Foundation, St. Paul’s Specialized Adult Eating Disorder Program, BC Children’s Hospital Eating Disorders Program, Healthy Minds, Healthy Campuses and Project True. PEDAW is launched the first full week in February with activities and events taking place throughout the year.

Resources for more information about eating disorders and where to receive help:

 

Featured Image: Head in sand via Shutterstock

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Jill Slattery Jill Slattery was born and raised in Vancouver, where she also earned an Arts degree from UBC in English and Creative Writing. She is an avid TV-watcher and a shameless Taylor Swift fangirl. Jill is a Staff Writer at Vancity Buzz. Contact her at jill@vancitybuzz.com
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