She reached out to me via social media. "I'm really struggling," she said. "I can't stop obsessing about food and it's taking over my life. But I don't think that I have an eating disorder because I'm technically considered overweight for my height."
Unfortunately this kind of viewpoint is far too common. As a culture we have this pervasive belief of "what someone with an eating disorder looks like." In the eyes of our society someone with an eating disorder is typically viewed as a young, emaciated, Caucasian female. However, eating disorders do not discriminate based upon age, race, gender, body-type, or socioeconomic status.
Eating disorders can occur in people of all shapes and sizes. Why is it that if a thin individual is engaging in compulsive exercise and restrictive behaviors they are considered to be sick and in need of treatment? However, if a larger person is engaging in the same behaviors they are often applauded for "working on their health"? This maddening perception can have highly detrimental implications for those who are struggling.
Eating disorders are one of the few mental illnesses where we judge an individual's level of suffering on the basis of their physical state. However, it's important to note that eating disorders can have dire mental and physical consequences for individuals who may outwardly appear to meet our societal standard of "healthy" or who are considered "overweight" via BMI (don't get me started on how flawed BMI is).
The belief that you can tell who has an eating disorder based upon their appearance is dangerous because it prevents people from seeking life-saving treatment. It also allows them to stay in the denial about the severity of their illnesses, and promotes discrimination towards individuals in larger bodies. Eating disorders are mental illnesses and you cannot tell whether someone is struggling on the basis of their weight.
The misconceptions, stigma, and lack of access to proper treatment -- which people with eating disorders often experience -- is why I am so passionate about raising awareness for the first World Eating Disorders Action Day, which is on June 2, 2016. This day is a critical step for raising awareness of the severity of eating disorders, as well as debunking common myths and stereotypes. This day also serves to combat stigma and shares the message that individuals who are struggling deserve to be able to seek and have access to evidence-based treatment if they are struggling.
No one chooses to have an eating disorder, but they can choose to work towards recovery at any time. Full recovery and freedom is possible.
Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW is a mental health therapist, intuitive eating counselor, and blogger on The Huffington Post and Psychology Today. She specializes in treating adolescents, survivors of trauma, and individuals with eating disorders and mood disorders. She is a junior board member for The National Eating Disorders Association. "Like" Jennifer on Facebook at Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW. Or check out her website at www.jenniferrollin.com
Join Jennifer in supporting World Eating Disorders Action Day (June 2, 2016). Be sure to follow along on twitter @WorldEDDay and hashtag #WeDoAct, #WorldEDActionDay, @WorldEatingDisordersAction on Instagram and World Eating Disorders Action Day on Facebook.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.