OPINION–Debunking eating disorders misconceptions

In the United States, there are 325.7 million people. Of those, 30 million have some type of eating disorder and every 62 minutes, someone dies from complications of an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are mental illnesses that don’t discriminate against gender, ethnicity or age. They can affect anyone. In the media it is often misconstrued that eating disorders are an illness that mainly impact young, white teenage girls who want to get skinny quick.

This toxic narrative that not only puts young girls in a negative light with an extremely complicated mental illness, but it spreads misinformation. If a young man going through an eating disorder and is under the impression that it is a “female-exclusive” disease, he might be hesitant to reach out for the help needed.

This narrative doesn’t inform parents that their young, elementary-aged children are also susceptible. It doesn’t inform teens that their parents may be dealing with this illness as well.

Most people think eating disorders grow from self image issues, but can actually grow from other factors.

“I think the most common reason for an eating disorder is actually trauma,” former Rogers Memorial Hospital Caregiver Maria Bolyard said. “Control is a huge piece, but control really ties to trauma. Any form of trauma that you had, but you feel [is] out of control, then your way of taking control back is through manipulating your body. The thing is that people then forget the dangers of it, because they’re so focused on the control piece of it.”

Social media can influence a person’s eating disorder in different ways than originally thought. One of the more typically expected influences is the impact on body image. Many influencers and models in ads on social media build an unrealistic perception of what an attractive body should look like.

“I think it’s so important to address how the toxicity of social media has influenced eating disorders in young teens,” said an anonymous student. “I’ve been on the internet since I was little and it definitely caused an eating disorder and body dysmorphia. I was comparing myself to influencers at such a young age. Social media is extremely toxic on body image and I think it’s time for a change.”

But this is not the only way social media can impact or initiate an eating disorder. Seeing friends hanging out, but hanging out without you, creates a feeling of exclusion. The exclusion can manifest into a rabbit hole of “I’m not good enough. It’s because I’m not good enough that I wasn’t invited to come with,” which in turn feeds the need for some patients to binge or withhold food intake. The internet also houses many communities, such as the K-pop community or YouTube fandoms. But some preach a message that can be dangerous.

“There are websites and things that are specific to people with eating disorders, that encourage them,” Bolyard said. “they are known as pro-ana sites. Their message is that eating disorders are fine, or that everybody should have one. ‘It’s cool, it’s hip. It’s not dangerous. There’s no consequences to having an eating disorder.’ and things like that.”
With organizations like YouTube and TikTok having such a grasp on viewers, there’s also the danger of imitating what you see your favorite influencers do to be cool. When influencers ignore their health and don’t address to their audiences the dangers of an eating disorder or denying how theirs is getting out of hand, it can send the wrong message. Especially to the younger, more impressionable watchers.

Eating disorders are illnesses that are complex in nature and have many different elements. There is no one reason for them — just like there’s not just one profile for them. And despite how it may seem, they hold more power over victim’s choices than the victim’s themselves do.

“I think when it first starts it’s a choice,” Bolyard said. “And there is research out there that says there’s a piece of your brain that gets turned off, that’s when the eating disorder takes over. It’s working to flip that switch again. Back to normalizing their thoughts and behaviors. So what might start out as a choice, is no longer controlled by a choice.”

But while there are 30 million people in the United States with an eating disorder, 60% of those patients are able to make a full recovery. The earlier the signs are detected, the sooner treatment can be.

More general information can be found at nationaleatingdisorders.org.