Thursday, June 7, 2018

Stereotypes and Anorexia

I was given a prompt to write about stereotypes in the eating disorder community. I'm a firm believer that we are all unique and that one condition will never look exactly the same on someone else. 

Any time anyone overgeneralizes about a group of individuals, it reinforces possibly incorrect beliefs held in general society. It's true that some stereotypes have a basis for being formed and aren't necessarily harmful or hurtful, but others are used to demean and repress certain groups of people. When it comes to eating disorders, we come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and genders. There is no one specific look that exemplifies eating disorders. In fact, there isn't even a look that's specific to anorexia. Those who are not emaciated can still suffer from the illness. You can't tell if a person has an eating disorder by merely looking at him or her, and not all underweight people have anorexia nervosa. Anorexic or not, there are plenty of people, especially on the internet, who knowingly or unknowingly promote an unhealthy lifestyle, diet culture, and/or extreme thinness. I have addressed those who are unwell and pretend they're not while promoting their unhealthy ways in previous blog posts

The typical myth floating around regarding anorexia is that people who suffer from the illness are generally thin, white, female, relatively wealthy, and controlling. It's starting to become more widely accepted, however, that anorexia and other disorders affect men and those in the LGBTQ community as well. It's also becoming common knowledge that having an eating disorder is not a choice, is not considered cheating in sports, and it isn't a lifestyle to be admired. In 2013, several groups of researchers looked at brain imaging, and the results suggested that anorexia is a neurological disorder. Specifically, those with eating disorders show dullness in the insulas but overactivity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This suggests that anorexia is more than purely a behavioral issue. 

Statistics around eating disorders vary, but the one thing that's clear is that eating disorders are the most deadly of all mental illnesses. Because the incidence of bulimia is increasing, there are now almost as many deaths occurring with bulimics as with anorexics and those with EDNOS. It may seem unfair that more attention is directed toward anorexia, but when anywhere between 5-10% of anorexics die within 10 years of the onset of the illness, time isn't on our side. Early detection is important, and treatment is crucial. As much as I agree that awareness needs to be showered on all eating disorders, there's no denying the fact that anorexia and related illnesses can kill quickly. 

It should be noted that I support the HAES movement, but there are some points that a very small group of individuals associated with the movement see differently than I do. I agree that, in general terms, fat people are discriminated against more, and that weight doesn't necessarily determine health. But thin people face some of the same problems as those who don't fall into the unrealistic beauty standard set by society. For example, anorexics also go to the doctor wondering if they will be heard and not discounted because of their diagnosis. Doctors often think whatever real illness we face is self-induced because of our eating disorders. We also get called names and get ugly stares in the streets. People tell us how and what we "should" be eating. Somehow we are expected to keep quiet about this because, oh, I don't know, somebody else has it worse or something. Obviously, I understand the major differences and the different stigmas of the two situations, but you just can't look at someone and make assumptions. 

My main point is that drawing attention to anorexia doesn't mean ignoring other illnesses. Just like people can support raising awareness around the diminishing population of mountain gorillas without discounting that of the blue whale, it's not impossible to call attention to those suffering from anorexia without discounting the severity and the symptoms of others who have different eating issues. 

Looking at someone, it's also impossible to know her history, and many people with eating disorders have struggled with multiple types of illnesses. For example, it's not unheard of for those who have been obese to become anorexic or fluctuate between heavier and lighter weights. You just never know the inner struggles of someone by looking at her outer appearance. Fat or thin, you don't know if she struggles with depression, addiction, poor self-esteem, anxiety, OCD, bipolar, or any other mental illness or condition. Many of us have had experience being at both ends of the spectrum, bullied and teased for being "too" fat at one time and "too" thin at another. 

Ultimately, try to have a little compassion. Avoid making judgments, and treat others who are struggling with the same compassion you would like to receive. 

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