Written by Ally Geist
Well, it’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week! I love mental health awareness weeks, because while people should try to educate themselves all year round, these weeks are an opportunity to strongly give certain communities a voice, and give them the opportunity to advocate for themselves. To be honest, I didn’t know much about eating disorders at all until last EDAW. I didn’t realize how many people I know and love have struggled with eating disorders because I was, self-admittedly, very ignorant in my understanding of what they look like. I, too, imagined an eating disorder to look a certain way, and didn’t recognize that they do not discriminate. Eating disorders, in my opinion, are among the most romanticized mental illnesses. They are depicted in a very particular way in the media, and the idea of them being mental illnesses is often overlooked. So, let’s smash some ignorance and a whole lot of stigma this week! Here are 15 things you may not know about eating disorders:
1) You don't have to be emaciated to have an eating disorder.
Many people struggling with eating disorders are within a “healthy” weight range, or even overweight. There is no weight requirement or body requirement to have an ED – they do not discriminate.
2) Eating disorders don't just affect white, able-bodied, cis women.
They can affect anyone, not just the young, thin, white, cis-gender woman. 1 in 10 people with eating disorders are male, and those who don’t fit the media-depicted box of struggling with an eating disorder are often hesitant to speak up and reach out for help.
3) Eating disorders are not a joke.
Making jokes about binging, saying “it’s okay, she’s just going to throw up later” (I’m looking at you Miss Congeniality), or making jokes about how models stay thin isn’t okay. It can be very damaging.
4) Eating disorders are not stand-alone illnesses.
They often co-exist with other mental disorders, such as anxiety, depression, or addictions. In fact, many ED treatment centres are also equipped to treat addictions.
5) Eating disorders are not a choice.
They are not attention-seeking, and someone doesn’t just choose to starve themselves, binge, or purge.
6) There are more eating disorders than Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa.
While these are very real and dangerous illnesses, other EDs such as pica, binge eating disorder, orthorexia, purging disorder, or OSFED/EDNOS (other specified feeding and eating disorder/eating disorder not otherwise specified) are often overlooked. If you don’t fit the DSM-5 criteria for anorexia or bulimia it doesn’t mean your illness is any less valid. In fact, most people with eating disorders don’t fit the diagnostic criteria for anorexia or bulimia.
7) You can’t “just eat”.
Eating disorders are debilitating mental illnesses. People with EDs often think about food all the time, and they do want to eat. But it’s so much more complicated than that – their invisible struggle is very real.
8) Eating disorders are not about wanting to be thin.
They are complex mental illnesses, and eating disorders are often used to mask something underlying. It’s not a lifestyle choice.
9) Congratulating someone on “looking healthy” or “having willpower” can be damaging.
When someone with an ED hears they look healthy (especially when you know they are in recovery) it can be really triggering. To their eating disorder, this could mean that they aren’t “sick enough”. When someone has lost a lot of weight, talking about how you wish you could have their discipline or their willpower can be super validating to their ED and perpetuate unhealthy ED behaviours.
10) While recovery is a choice, developing an eating disorder definitely is not.
Hearing “don’t you have anything better to do”, “you are smarter than this” and “you’re not even trying to get better” is not okay. This individual is struggling and needs support, not stigma.
11) Just because someone is recovering doesn’t mean that the eating disorder or underlying issues aren’t still there.
Many people I have spoken to have expressed bittersweet feelings to becoming more physically healthy: while it feels so great to have a healthy body, sometimes it can be hard when people now see you as “healthy” and your mind is still such a battlefield.
12) No matter how far you are into recovery, little comments can still hurt.
Mental illness or not, we all have bad days. Sometimes little things can be upsetting. If you do know someone is struggling with disordered eating, be mindful of the comments you make.
13) People with eating disorders still eat.
This is something that, admittedly, I didn’t realize before I came to university. In the media, we are taught that the person with an eating disorder is someone who eats a handful of lettuce leaves before their date so they can “look beautiful”. Disordered eating habits come in many forms, and just because you see someone eat a meal doesn’t mean that their disorder is any less valid. We all need to eat to survive.
14) There is no one, fool-proof path to recovery from this illness.
Because of the nature of EDs, and their often-intense physical complications, recovery must be a holistic process, often involving doctors, counsellors, nutritionists, psychiatrists and dentists. That said, some people find recovery within themselves, or a friend. Some people find therapy groups helpful, while others choose to practice mindfulness and meditation to help progress their recovery. Recovery is all about finding what works for you. Every day that you do not give up on yourself is a win in and of itself. There is no such thing as taking “too long” to recover. There is no such thing as recovering “wrong”. Every stage of your journey is a process you can learn from.
15) An eating disorder does not define who you are.
Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, herself, struggled with bulimia as a young woman and now speaks up about the illness and the importance of promoting positive body image among youth. She is using her struggles to empower others, but does not let herself be defined by them. This illness may be a part of you, but it will never define you. You are your smiles, your laughs, that great joke you told earlier. You are the love you have for your family and friends, the way your dog jumps on you when you get home, and so much more.
Be kind, educate yourself, and don’t be afraid to ask someone what they need.