Eating disorders are the deadliest of mental illnesses but are often incredibly misunderstood -- even by some treatment professionals.
I recently attended the 25th Annual Renfrew Center Foundation Conference, where I was thrilled to be surrounded by like-minded professionals, many of whom dedicate their careers towards helping people to recover from eating disorders. There are some common misconceptions about eating disorders, which were debunked at the conference by the expert speakers. The following are some myths about eating disorders and why they are completely untrue.
Myth 1: Eating disorders are all about vanity.
There is a common myth that people with eating disorders are simply "vain" and that eating disorders are all about wanting to look like the models in magazines. This could not be further from the truth. Rather, eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that are often triggered by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Additionally, they are a maladaptive coping strategy for numbing uncomfortable feelings, maintaining a false sense of control, and for attempting to cope with past trauma.
Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., the medical director of The Trauma Center in Boston, spoke at the conference about the relationship between eating disorders and childhood trauma. Van Der Kolk stated that many individuals with a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa have experienced childhood physical and sexual abuse. Van Der Kolk also discussed how lack of stable attachments in early childhood could contribute to the development of eating disorders and other mental health challenges. It is clear that eating disorders are complex illnesses-and stating that sufferers are "vain" is hurtful and blatantly untrue.
Myth 2: Eating disorders are a "women's illness."
The reality is that men develop eating disorders, and the belief that eating disorders are a "women's illness" stigmatizes male sufferers and may prevent them from getting treatment. According to The National Eating Disorder Association, "in the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or EDNOS."
Leigh Cohn, MAT, CEDS, discussed the stigma that faces males with eating disorders at the conference. Cohn discussed how much of the data surrounding the prevalence of men with eating disorders is flawed -- as often men do not seek treatment for their eating disorders. He stated that seeking treatment holds a double stigma for men -- in that not only do they have to cope with the stigma of having an eating disorder, they may also feel ashamed for having what is commonly thought to be a "women's disease."
Cohn also emphasized the lack of resources and support for males with eating disorders. For instance, "only a handful of clinics around the country have specific programs for males." Cohn exemplified his point about male eating disorders often not being taken seriously when he said, "twice this week when I told people that I worked with males with eating disorders-they laughed at me."
It is important to note that people can develop eating disorders -- regardless of their gender, race, or social class. Cohn stated, "The LGBTQ community is at high risk (of developing eating disorders), and they need access to treatment and prevention."
Myth 3: You can never fully recover from an eating disorder.
There are still many people who believe that once diagnosed with an eating disorder you can never fully recover. This is likely based upon the common model of addiction and recovery, i.e., many alcoholics in recovery will self-identify as being an "alcoholic" for life. However, there are many individuals whose lives serve as examples that full recovery from an eating disorder is completely possible.
Kristina Saffran, the co-founder of Project Heal, stated:
"There was no click, no magical pill to cure me. I made a conscious decision to change my life, and worked at it. Now I'm a real person. I have hopes and dreams. I have real relationships. I go out and socialize. I care about important things instead of how many calories I ate for lunch or how much I weigh. People don't pity me anymore, they want to be friends with me. None of this would be possible if I hadn't gotten rid of my eating disorder."
At the conference, Ann Kearney-Cooke, Ph.D., discussed how important the power of suggestion is when working with clients. Kearney-Cooke explained that she might ask a client how their lives will be different when they recover from their eating disorder. This question helps clients to recognize that full recovery is possible.
Myth 4: There are only two types of eating disorders-anorexia and bulimia.
The DSM-5 recognizes several types of eating disorders which include: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, other specified feeding and eating disorder, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder.
It is also important to note that all eating disorders are serious mental illnesses. Further, it is impossible to determine someone's level of suffering based upon their physical appearance. Everyone who is struggling with an eating disorder deserves to seek treatment, regardless of his or her weight.
It is my hope that by educating people about eating disorders, we can work to eventually eliminate the stigma surrounding individuals with eating disorders-as well as encourage people to seek help when they are struggling. No one chooses to have an eating disorder, but they can make the choice to work towards recovery.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
For more information about The Renfrew Center visit their website.
For self-love, body positive, and recovery inspiration, connect with Jennifer on Facebook.