Written by Caley and Katie
As an eating disorder therapist, I am constantly inundated with a number of questions and statements surrounding the mysterious nature of eating disorders. Whether it is a way to gain more knowledge and understanding, I am constantly amazed by the myths floating around our public sphere. I find myself curious as to where some outlandish ideas originate.
Recently, I was watching a trailer for a new film and as though my question was being answered, a scene spoke strongly to me as to where some myths surrounding eating disorders may be born.
In the film, two young women are sitting at a table for a meal. The anorexic girl looks at her plate of food and rattles off the calorie content of her plate like she is playing a fun, new viral game. The other woman looks enthralled by the ability of her friend and praises her for speed and accuracy. They both laugh and smile at each other. I was not laughing.
Just like the friend, I was also baffled. Not, however, that someone knew the exact calorie count of a plate of food. Rather, I was astonished that a film was portraying an eating disordered symptom as a humorous activity.
Eating disorders are not funny. Eating disorders are not a game.
Presently, film and social media have erupted as a platform to share and discuss current events and hot topics. Nonetheless, eating disorders have become a popular subject to display in movies, TV series, and trending hashtags. I have mixed feelings about this as I am a cheerleader for eating disorder awareness, and at the same time, I cringe to see my disease so poorly portrayed and stigmas and stereotypes reinforced.
What I have taken from recent films and the growing conversation about eating disorders is that people are desperately seeking the truth. I love the idea that people are brave and sharing their stories and I also understand that everyone experiences an eating disorder differently.
Off the top of my head I have listed several myths taken from recent films and press about eating disorders that have hit me as incorrect from my own personal narrative. This is my own personal take and challenge to these myths:
1. Eating disorders are about food, thinness, and beauty.
My eating disorder was about so much more than any of the above. My eating disorder was a complex, serious disease that stemmed from a need for control in my chaotic surroundings. My eating disorder behaviors were aimed at making the world a better place and striving to be a good citizen through obedience to outward messages of the thin ideal. To be honest, I can’t put my finger on exactly what my eating disorder was about and why it happened. I personally believe it would be a great injustice to my suffering and growth to say my eating disorder was about one thing and that’s that. I want to leave it open so I can continually grow and learn from the recovery process.
2. Eating disorders are a choice.
Why would I choose to give up my childhood and adolescence to live in a tiny hospital room where I was poked with needles twice a day and forced to go to the bathroom with the door open? My simple challenge to this myth should be self-explanatory.
3. To have a legitimate eating disorder you have to be admitted to an inpatient facility.
Yes, I spent several years in inpatient facilities. However, the most challenging years of my eating disorder were spent outside of a treatment center. There are several people struggling with severe eating disorders that do not have insurance coverage, childcare, or means to an inpatient facility. This is not an indication of severity or presence of an eating disorder.
4. You have to be underweight to have an eating disorder.
Similar to my answer to question #3, the most challenging years of my eating disorder were spent at a healthy weight. Again, eating disorders are much more complex than food and weight.
5. To recover from an eating disorder you simply have to eat.
Hopefully this has been explained enough in the answers above. I can’t stress enough that there is so much more than “just eating” and the process of recovery is a challenging transformation of self-exploration and behavior change.
6. only young, white, affluent females struggle with eating disorders.
Eating disorders are an equal opportunity disease. Unfortunately the preponderance of eating disorder research is conducted using convenience samples, which do not accurately reflect the general population in terms of race, gender, sex, or socioeconomic status. The dependence on convenience samples have provided convenient, however faulty, conclusions about eating disorder demographics. Research that utilizes greater diversity of sampling indicate that, contrary to previously held beliefs, eating disorders are no longer considered to primarily affect young, Caucasian, middle-class females (Becker et al., 2010). In one study (Gentile et al.,2007) that examined prevalence rates in a diverse, low-income college sample of 884 students, it was found that 10% met criteria for an eating disorder diagnosis; 12% of the women 7.3% of the men. In this same study, Latino/as (12.6%) and students who identified as “other” (17.8%) constituted the majority of eating disorder diagnoses; while Caucasians (6.0%) and African Americans (5.0%) presented with the fewest.
7. recovery depends on motivation: if someone is not recovering then she/he is just not wanting it, or trying, hard enough.
It is unfair and inaccurate, far too simple, to state that recovery is dependent on motivation, or any single factor. First of all, the emphasis on motivation should go out the window, in my humble opinion. Clinicians lean on this term far too much, and then in turn, patients do as well. The word is used so often in the field, and for varied reasons, that it has lost meaning. By relying on this word, we lose our ability to communicate clearly, and the door to explore real solutions is slammed shut. Furthermore, there is absolutely no way to measure motivation. Someone who says they are motivated can demonstrate unrelenting eating disorder symptoms, while someone who claims to have no, to very little, motivation can follow treatment recommendations, and build a life of recovery. The construct of motivation is subjective; someone can determine that she/he is motivated, while the treatment team can determine otherwise. Due to the subjectivity - and the dependence on this undefined and unmeasurable construct within the field of eating disorder treatment - it has become an empty shell of a word, and is certainly not something to blame recovery or the disease on.
8. recovery can only occur if someone goes to an inpatient facility or meets regularly with keanu reeves (see above trailer for reference).
Residential and inpatient treatment can be of great benefit. However, there are many paths to recovery. Not everyone can afford residential, and yet they still create a way to recover. Inpatient and residential treatment is not a guarantee of recovery; unfortunately, relapse rates remain high. Recovery depends on you; it depends on your ability to never give up, to reach out for help and support, all forms of it. This is a bold statement, but I'm fairly certain that Keanu Reeves is not going to save you.
9. eating disorders are all about needing control.
I recently read a fascinating book (with an unfortunate title) "Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche" by Ethan Watters. This book in coordination with "Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa" by Joan Jacobs Brumberg, presents the argument that our experience of an illness is often shaped by the cultural conceptualization of it. For example, if someone is embedded in a culture that describes an eating disorder like Anorexia Nervosa as a disorder about control, then the person with the disorder is more likely to translate and describe, even experience, their disorder in this manner. Language doesn't just allow us to communicate with others, it also shapes the way we communicate with ourselves. Throughout history, and across cultural lines, the one constant description used by patients is a physical discomfort, descriptions that are more somatic in nature.
As much as I have disagreed with aspects of recent films about eating disorders, I appreciate that there can be multiple truths and multiple lived experiences. What may be offensive or outraging to me may hit home for someone else. As I have read comment sections out of interest on other’s views, I have certainly noticed this to be true with many varying opinions. The beauty in advocacy is that there are many stories to be told and I believe the world is ready to hear them.
This is only my take and my own story. At Rooted Recovery, we hear different stories every day and understand that eating disorders do not discriminate. We want to give you a chance to share your experience and story; we want to debunk myths and share the truth about eating disorders.
We invite you to share your story with us. Do you feel that the media accurately portrays eating disorders? What do wish the public- treatment professionals included- could better understand about your experience?
To share your story, complete our HIPAA compliant form below.