Debunking Eating Disorder Myths

TRIGGER WARNING: The following pages contain information about eating disorders.

Considering National Eating Disorder Awareness Week was held February 26th through March 4th this year, it is essential to dispel some of the damaging myths surrounding eating disorders, as these disorders affect survivors year-round. Cultivating a deeper understanding of these illnesses beyond the awareness week should ultimately help educate the ignorant, empower activists, and comfort those who are suffering from these detrimental disorders.  

Myth #1: You can tell someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them.

False. Eating disorders can certainly manifest themselves physically, but in reality, those struggling with them come in all shapes and sizes. Shutting down the misinformed notion that all people with eating disorders look thin or emaciated is important to survivors of eating disorders who may not feel as if their experiences are valid as a result of not fitting this stereotype. Sure, people with eating disorders can look emaciated, but a person’s weight and physical build are not what determines if they have an eating disorder: their eating behaviors are. To assume that a person has an eating disorder based solely on physical attributes is damaging to individuals who may not be suffering from an eating disorder at all, and especially to survivors who do not fit the “mold.”

Acknowledging that eating disorders do not have a singular “look” is the first step in understanding them.

Myth #2: Eating disorders are solely physical disorders.

False. Eating disorders are first and foremost a mental illness, but people tend to reject or fail to realize this because these disorders center themselves around body image. This mental illness is considered a bio-psycho-social disease, which means that genetic, biological, environmental and social factors all play a role in the development of an eating disorder. While the media has a profound impact on body image and self-esteem, eating disorders can develop for a myriad of reasons. Many who suffer from an eating disorder may engage in these destructive eating habits in order to cope with traumatic events or as a result of stressful transitions or life changes. The point is that these disorders are both mentally and physically harmful.

Myth #3: Women are the only ones who suffer from eating disorders.

False. Both men and women suffer from eating disorders. Creating a space where everyone feels comfortable sharing their stories is important in aiding survivors in feeling less alone. In fact, people from all walks of life suffer from these disorders; people of color, the lgbtq+ community, and athletes suffer from eating disorders too. Eating disorders can develop regardless of size, age, environment, or ethnicity. Just as how other mental illnesses are not specific to one type of person, this illness is no exception.

The fact of the matter is that there is no limit to how many myths muddle what it really means to have an eating disorder. Eating disorders are debilitating, life-threatening, heart-breaking, and everything in between. Accepting these harsh truths and believing in a person suffering from an eating disorder, rather than believing in stereotypes, is pivotal in giving survivors the support needed to recover. Recovery is possible. Give power to the survivor, not the disorders. The difference support and the active effort to understand eating disorders have on reconstructing our society’s interpretation of mental health is truly powerful.

If you believe that you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, please consider contacting the NEDA helpline at (800) 931-2237. You are not alone, and there is hope for a future free of these disorders. It is perhaps the biggest myth that eating disorders are incurable; hope for a happier, healthier body and mind is essential.