If you ask a random person what they picture when you say “person with an eating disorder,” you’ll likely get a description similar to the stereotype images that adorned my 6th grade health textbook. The very few times eating disorders were discussed during my middle school education, it often involved a few quick statistics and a request to refer to page 28.
And what was on page 28?
A photo of an extremely thin young girl looking sullen and defeated. She had feathered bangs and rocked a pair of acid washed A.C. Slater inspired jeans because our textbooks had not been updated since 1990.
I didn’t think much of the generalization the time since my 12-year-old brain was preoccupied with boys and a countdown to the day my braces were coming off. I do, however, remember the statistics shared. My teacher, with complete confidence, stated that 1-4% of women would experience an eating disorder in their lifetime. 1-4%. That’s it.
I call that nonsense.
I had bulimia for 15 years, and my battles began a mere 5 years after sitting in that classroom. Do I appear as a sullen, helpless female to those around me?
Hardly. I am in my 30s, have a graduate degree, work in corporate finance, and have a laundry list of awards and accolades to my name. I’m living proof that not only is it 100% possible but also alarmingly easy to hide the shackles of an eating disorder on the outside.
Tragedy of the stereotype
Eating disorder stereotypes are among the most tragic roadblocks to recovery, both on an individual and social basis. No one wants to be labeled, especially when the label does not even remotely depict who they are. I despised the thought of being perceived as weak, sad, and unable to help myself. I didn’t like having assumptions made about me or my story.
One of the most difficult hurdles for anyone with an eating disorder to overcome is a toxic dependence on external validation.
The burden of shame that weighs upon the shoulders of someone struggling with and eating disorder can be paralyzing. I know this was the case for me. I lived in the dark for more than a decade before I had finally had enough.
But I finally decided to tell my story and own my issue unapologetically.
How did I do it?
So what did it take to grow the cojones to share my socially taboo secret after a 15 year battle? Learning to not care what other people think.
The truth is 99% of what people do or say is not about you – it’s about them. If what they say is hurtful or judgmental, they’re telling you that your desire to beak the stereotype threatens them.
It took many years and a hefty therapy bill for me to develop the self-worth and confidence muscles I needed to own my truth. The biggest takeaway was the realization that I should have come forward SO much sooner.
Within 24 hours of publishing my blog post about battling bulimia, I was contacted by ten people I have known for most of my life. These individuals either had struggles in the past or were currently dealing with disordered eating. This leads me to believe the 1-4% statistic has missed the mark considerably.
Share your story
Did any of these people fit the socially accepted stereotype of ED patients? NOPE. Among them there was 1 doctor, 2 PhDs, 3 business owners, and 4 others whose Facebook profiles and Instagram feeds would suggest borderline “perfect” lives. Telling me their story took courage, and the opportunity to offer them my support was life changing.
Not all those suffering from eating disorders are female. Not all those battling their relationship with food are thin. Those in need of help may never show any outward indication of a problem.
That’s why breaking the stereotype of eating disorders is crucial. Making this widespread issue visible is necessary if we want to make an impact.
If you are currently battling or have overcome an eating disorder, I hope this inspires you to share your story. You could inspire someone who feels they are in this situation alone seek the help and support they need.