Why eating disorder stereotypes are so harmful
This SpunOut.ie readers shares their experience with Anorexia Nervosa and their road to recovery
It’s a Tuesday morning and I’m waiting to see my psychiatrist. I’m filled with dread and anxiety sitting in the empty waiting room, staring at the wall. I hear my name being called and I follow the doctor into a room. I sit down and awkwardly look up. He asks me the usual questions “how has your mood been?”, and “any thoughts of harming yourself?” etc. I’m slightly nervous as he continues to jot down notes on a page when he pauses for a moment and looks up at me, “have you lost any weight since we last saw you?” My stomach churns and I want the ground beneath me to swallow me up and make me disappear. I don’t really know what to tell him but the truth “um, no, I don’t think so.” He nods his head, jots it down and changes the subject, but my brain is fixated on that one question he asked me. The disordered part of my brain is screaming at me that I’m a failure, that “he doesn’t believe you have an eating disorder”, “you’re not sick enough”, “you’re a fake.” All of this negative self-talk just because I hadn’t lost any weight.
Focusing on my weight and body image
As many people with eating disorders do, I have struggled with my body image and perception of my own weight since my early teens. Now twenty, I still sometimes let the numbers on the scales determine how ‘sick’ I am. I don’t blame anyone for this. It’s a psychological part of an eating disorder, but being part of the Irish mental health services for nearly seven years now has definitely shaped how I view my weight as part of my eating disorder.
When I was fourteen, I first spoke to my CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) psychiatrist about how I had been obsessing over my food and trying to lose weight. It was mentioned about referring me to the dietician but that was the last I ever heard of it. Although my struggles with food were constant, my eating disorder wasn’t considered my ‘main struggle’ at the time as I was also suffering from depression and anxiety. So, I felt like my eating disorder was swept under the rug, until the odd time the psychiatrist would weigh me just to see that I was in and around the same weight I always had been.
This carried on until I was seventeen and admitted to an inpatient unit where they also told me I would see a dietician because of my "significant eating problems” but this never happened and I was discharged three months later without any discussion about seeing a dietician. I kept telling myself it was because I wasn’t underweight that they didn’t think I had a problem, so I continued to believe that. It wasn’t until I was transferred to the adult mental health services that the words eating disorder were mentioned to me. I was terrified. I kept telling them I couldn’t possibly have an eating disorder because I was a healthy weight. This is when I began to realise that eating disorders are not all about weight.
Eating disorder stereotypes
All this time I had been telling myself that to have an eating disorder I needed to be severely underweight like I had seen on TV, online and in gossip magazines. The stereotype attached to eating disorders is extremely damaging to those who suffer with eating disorders because anybody, of any weight, body shape or size can suffer with an eating disorder. The idea that you need to be a certain weight or even BMI to ‘classify’ as having an eating disorder is simply not true, and it can be extremely harmful to people who suffer with eating disorders.
In 2018 I was officially diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa. At the time I laughed at my psychiatrist because I had been at a so-called ‘healthy weight’ for such a long time that I couldn’t possibly be diagnosed with anorexia. A part of me was rejecting the diagnosis, but another part of me felt like someone finally listened to me and that my eating disorder wasn’t swept under the rug like it so often had before.
I sometimes still struggle to accept it, but I have been suffering with anorexia for the past five years of my life and denying it, all because I thought I didn’t fit the eating disorder stereotype.
Supporting people with eating disorders
I strongly believe that the way our country deals with eating disorders needs to be changed because so many people are being dismissed and so many people are getting worse because their weight isn’t a ‘concern.’ It is proven that early intervention can save lives so why aren’t we doing it? If you are reading this right now and are in the same situation I found myself in for years, just know that what you’re thinking and feeling is valid, your weight does not determine whether or not you should seek help, and you deserve to get help for whatever you are struggling with.
If you are struggling with food, eating, body image, or weight, please speak to someone. You may not think it is a big problem now but eating disorders can manifest themselves in so many different ways, so please speak to someone and try to get help. You are not alone in this.