White teenage female. Private school student in an upper middle-class suburb. Inveterate perfectionist. Anorexic.
At age 14, I typified the so-called eating disorder profile. These illnesses have long been associated with middle- to upper-class young white women, even among the most sympathetic professionals. (Hilde Bruch, a pioneering eating disorder practitioner, said in her 1978 book The Golden Cage: The Enigma of Anorexia Nervosa that anorexia primarily affects girls raised in “privileged, even luxurious circumstances.”)
Unfortunately, stereotypes still prevail, in part because eating disorders most often get the spotlight when one befalls a rich or famous young female. Undoubtedly, these women suffer just as acutely as non-famous people with eating disorders. But in turning celebrities and models into kinds of mascots, we risk construing eating disorders as trends or extreme diets, rather than the deadly illnesses they are.
Eating disorders affect more than 20 million people in the United States and upwards of 500,000 people in Canada. These disorders have the highest case-fatality rate of any psychiatric illness, killing as many as 20 percent of those affected. A far cry from “extreme diets,” eating disorders are complex, biologically-based illnesses. Researchers still have a long way to go in understanding the neurochemical mechanisms of eating disorders, but they do know that there is a strong genetic component at work. People who have this genetic predisposition may develop an eating disorder as a result of some environmental stressor or trigger—such as a traumatic event—whereas the very same triggers won’t cause an eating disorder in someone without the genetic predisposition.
This is why casting eating disorders as diets or fads is so off-base. Tens of millions of people are unhappy with their bodies and go to extreme measures to alter them—without developing eating disorders. Conversely, not everyone with an eating disorder is on a quest to be thin. The difference between these two camps of people comes down to their biologies.
Fortunately, organizations such as the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) in the U.S. and the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) in Canada work tirelessly to debunk the stereotypes. Their campaigns provide education about these illnesses and highlight diverse survivor stories. Thanks to these efforts, more people are coming to understand that eating disorders affect women—and men—of every age, race, nationality, and socioeconomic class.
The myths and stereotypes that surround eating disorders have to go. Besides stigmatizing sufferers, these dangerous misconceptions influence access to treatment, whether that’s because people resist seeking help out of fear and shame, or (and this is perhaps worse) because the ignorance born of these stereotypes leads to a gross underestimation of their severity. And with the serious complications that an eating disorder could cause—including death—they are something that need to be addressed immediately.
About Joanna Kay
Joanna Kay is a writer in New York City and is recovering from an eating disorder. She is the author of The Middle Ground, a blog that deals with issues that impact people midway through the recovery process. You can follow Joanna on Facebook and Twitter, and additionally you can check out her blog The Middle Ground. Follow her HMC posts on Twitter with #AfterAnorexia