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“Eating Disorders Make You Skinny” and Other Popular ED Myths, Debunked

Posted Apr 11 2013 1:39am

anatshirt

Anyone else seriously freaked out these t-shirts come in children’s sizes? At least the girl on the left has enough sense to show her disapproval. 

Amanda Bynes tweeted something interesting. I know, I never thought I’d write those words either. And yet, in the midst of a whole bunch of crazy in which she literally told rapper Drake to “murder” her ladybits (what does that even mean?!) she made a rather astute observation:

I’m suing certain blogs and magazines saying I have a mental illness! They take pictures anytime I’ve gained weight then write a fake story!

— Amanda Bynes (@AmandaBynes) April 5, 2013

 

I have an eating disorder so I have a hard time staying thin.

— Amanda Bynes (@AmandaBynes) April 5, 2013

 ”I have an eating disorder so I have a hard time staying thin.” I love her SO MUCH for saying this. First because you don’t often hear celebs talking about their eating disorders in the present tense – it’s always about how they had an eating disorder in the past. Because we can only talk about our struggles after we’re done struggling? Second, because she tackles a very popular eating disorder myth.

Myth: An eating disorder automatically makes you skinny. (See also the correlating myth: If someone is very skinny then he/she must have an eating disorder.) 

In spite of the number of Lifetime movies you may have seen on the subject, having an eating disorder or engaging in disordered eating behaviors (yeah, there actually is a difference), does not guarantee you thin thighs and xylophone ribs. While I don’t have any stats to back this up, from personal experience it seems there are far more women with eating disorders who are of an average weight or overweight. You may recall that even at my very thinnest (and sickest), I just looked a little bony. Most people thought I looked great. One woman even stopped me to tell me I had “the perfect body.” I was definitely not the walking skeleton you think of when you hear “anorexic”. Yet I was terribly sick. And the public acclaim/denial of my problem didn’t help my recovery one bit.

The first issue is that anorexia is not the only eating disorder on the block. Bulimia, binge eating, and all the forms of ED-NOS (eating disorder – not otherwise specified) allow for as many iterations of screwed up behavior as there are sufferers. In fact, binge eating is now ranked as the most common eating disorder.

The second problem is that eating disorders don’t live in stasis. It’s very hard to stay anorexic your entire life. It’s a tricky disease and while most people don’t die from it many don’t recover 100% either. There’s a lot of two steps forward, one step back. Plus, one eating disorder can morph into another. Here’s a secret that many ED sufferers find very painful: Many anorexics end up becoming bulimic or binge eaters because after years of restriction your body wants food and because you’ve ignored your hunger signals so long, you don’t know how to feed yourself properly. The shame of going from “perfect” control over your food to “none” (we’re nothing if not black-and-white thinkers!) adds to awful mix, often causing cycles of restricting followed by periods of bingeing. I personally started out anorexic, then moved to orthorexia, then I added on over-exercising and finally ended up with some bingeing tendencies that were what finally made me seek out Intuitive Eating to end the insanity. Believe me when I say that my weight roller-coastered up and down during these transitions.

Busted: People with eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. You can’t tell an eating disorder by looking at someone. Also, for anyone flirting with the idea of disordered eating, know this: It never works the way you think it will. 

Myth: Eating disorders only happen to white, teenage girls

Adult, middle-aged women are the fastest growing group of sufferers. In addition, rates of eating disorders in African Americans and Latinas are rising at an unprecedented rate. Often the ways the disorder manifests can look different in different populations but sick is sick, no matter your age or skin color. Since I’m white, I don’t feel qualified to speak to a person of color’s experience but check out this excellent NOVA documentary for more perspective. Not to mention that now it is estimated that nearly 20% of ED sufferers are men.

A survey of thousands of American women done by Self magazine and the University of North Carolina a few years ago had some interesting results:

- Fully 75% of adult American women reported disordered eating behaviors or a full-blown eating disorder.

- In addition to this, as was found in the “ contagious eating disorder ” study (it’s contagious! Panic!!), cultural context matters. Eating disorders cluster because we learn the behaviors from those who are closest to us: our friends and family.

- 67% of respondents (excluding those with active eating disorders) are trying to lose weight. 53% of dieters are already at a healthy weight and are still trying to lose weight. That is a recipe for an eating disorder if I’ve ever heard one.

Busted: Eating disorders afflict people from a wide range of cultural, socioeconomic and gender backgrounds.

Myth: People with eating disorder have food issues.

One of the things people said to me a lot when I told them about my eating disorders was “Oh, I could never have an eating disorder! I just love food too much!” For some reason I found this more hurtful than almost anything else. There are a lot of reasons people have an eating disorder and they generally have very little to do with the food itself:

1. Genetics. It’s hard to tease apart the effects of nature versus nurture in something so basic to our survival as food but I believe there is a strong genetic component. As the saying goes, “Genetics load the gun, environment pulls the trigger.” Disordered eating has been passed down through my family from generation to generation, just like our recipe for “goop rolls” and our distinctive “Hilton squint.”

2. Control. And I do not mean self control. People always say to me “oh, you must have had so much self control as an anorexic!” It’s fear, people. It’s about controlling the one thing you have absolute control over – what goes in your mouth – in a society that can feel very out of control. Every major flare up of my disordered eating has occurred around a great stressor in my life. It’s a coping technique. A bad one, but still a coping strategy.

3. Perfectionism. I’m a perfectionist. Always have been. My mother will tell you that I cried when I came out of the womb because I only got a 9 on my  APGAR . I’ve never got anything less than an “A” in school (seriously). I’ll get sick or faint rather than drop out of a race. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do in 100%. In some areas of life, this perfectionistic drive is a bonus but in a society that values thinness over almost anything else? Disaster.

4. Black and White Thinking. Despite all of my husband’s attempts to train it out of me, I’m still a notoriously black-and-white thinker. I understand the world is nuanced but when it comes to myself, well, I’m either good or bad. And food is either good or bad. When I hear advice like “trans fats are bad for you” I take out all transfats from my diet. I don’t think “well, they’re not great for me but I’m not going to die if I eat a ding dong.” It was this kind of thinking that led to my  orthorexia .

5. Endorphins. The starvation cycle is self-reinforcing. Once you deprive yourself long enough, the body kicks in some extra energy which, if you were truly in an environment with no food, would give you an extra boost to go find some food. However, in an anorexic who is surrounded by food this hollow feeling can be rather addictive.

6. Self punishment. This probably goes along with black and white thinking but I’m very hard on myself and I think a lot of eating disordered people are too. So yes, sometimes I would use food as a reward for being good or take it away as a punishment for being bad.

7. Depression. When you are severely depressed, you may think “What’s the point of eating anyhow?” Some depressed people overeat, some undereat but changes in eating patterns are often one of the first and best signs of depression.

8. The desire to be thin. Thin is  greatly rewarded in our society . I’m not saying it’s right – in fact, I think it’s a travesty that is wreaking havoc in the souls of our daughters – but it is the truth. And those of us who are perfectionistic people-pleasers will do our best to be what society deems acceptable. Even more so when many of our friends and/or family members are doing it.

 Busted: It’s not about the food. Some of the anorexics I have known have been the most passionate people I’ve ever met about food. They spend hours combing through recipes and baking and serving and planning and cooking. They love food. They just don’t love themselves.

What do you wish people knew about eating disorders? (I know I missed a lot of good stuff!) What do you think about Amanda Bynes’ tweet: Cry for help or attention seeking?   

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