Written by Holiday Silver
There is a common misconception – perpetuated largely by the media, as these things often are – that eating disorders are merely a desire to be thin. The physical manifestation of vanity. Not only is this a gross oversimplification, but it can prove deadly to eating disorder sufferers.
Treatment is difficult enough without a society which condescends and criticizes sufferers over a crucial misunderstanding of their illness.
Eating disorders have infinite causes – a desire thinness being one, but far from the only. There are three main types of eating disorders – anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and EDNOS/OSFED (there are also others that are less common, such as orthorexia).
The Mayo Clinic defines anorexia nervosa as “an eating disorder characterized by an abnormally low body weight, intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of body weight.” Bulimia nervosa is characterized by a binge-purge cycle in which a person consumes an abnormally large amount of calories only to attempt to rid themselves of it afterwards. OSFED (Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder), formerly diagnosed as EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), encompasses most other eating disorders that do not fit the other two main diagnoses. This includes subtypes such as atypical anorexia, in which sufferers often fit all criteria for anorexia but are of normal or higher weight.
The stereotypical anorectic (or eating disordered person in general, really) portrayed by the media is a white, bone-thin teenaged girl refusing to eat for weeks or months on end. While this certainly fits some cases, it is far from representative. This portrayal of eating disorder sufferers as privileged, upper-middle class white teenage girls feeds into the idea that these diseases are a product of vanity. What do these kids have to worry about? They have loving parents, a cozy house, and ironically more food than they could ever eat. Why are they wasting their good fortune for the sake of a shrinking waistline? Eating disorders often have roots in emotional trauma or distress. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, nearly 50% of diagnosed eating disorder patients meet the criteria for depression.
After Silence, an organization dedicated to the recovery of rape and sexual abuse survivors, reports that up to 40% of those suffering from eating disorders have also dealt with sexual trauma. There is a very clear connection between traumatic events (such as rape) and stressful life changes (a death in the family, a divorce, etc.) and a higher propensity for developing an eating disorder. Along with the eating disordered behaviors, many sufferers experience mental and emotional changes and a dysmorphic body image. This warped body image can further encourage sufferers to attempt to control a weight issue they do not have. It can also be a form of control.
Many eating disordered patients feel a loss of control in their usual lives and overcompensate for this by strictly controlling their food behavior. Sufferers come from all walks of life. Eating disorders can crop up in all races, genders, and socio-economic classes for any number of reasons. They are often the product of depression, of feeling a need for control, of surviving a traumatic event, and yes, even of wanting to be thin. Every sufferer’s experience with their eating disorder is unique, and it is nothing short of a fatal mistake to simplify what they endure to the vain tears shed by privileged children.
Anorexia does not care about the color of your skin. Bulimia does not care about how much money you have in the bank. Anyone who has suffered with an eating disorder will tell you that it is sheer hell on Earth, not to be wished on their worst enemy – imprisonment in their own mind and body. Sufferers benefit from love, support, and understanding. Recovery is extremely difficult, but very possible. If someone you know is struggling, remember that they did not do this to themselves on purpose. This is not a joke and it is not teen angst. This is not a disease of vanity.