Media Monday: Exploring Eating Disorder Stereotypes

TEPF Volunteer

Close your eyes. What comes to mind when you try to visualize an individual with an eating disorder? Are they male or female? Young or old? Light or dark skinned? Are they thin or overweight?

For many people, when you bring up the term “eating disorder,” what comes to mind is a white, underweight, teenage girl. And although there may be many teenage girls suffering from an eating disorder, this does not accurately depict the majority. In fact, “the most common profile of someone suffering from an eating disorder is a woman or man in their 30s or 40s,” says psychiatrist, Cythia Bulik in her book, Midlife Eating Disorders. And it’s not just that we typecast eating disorders with age and gender — we do it with do it with race too. “Countless people in mid-life from all ethnic backgrounds struggle with eating disorders,” says Bulik.

And for those individuals struggling with an eating disorder in their 30’s and 40’s, the most common eating disorder is not anorexia, but binge-eating disorder (BED). I would guess that most people aren’t aware of this. In fact, I recently had a friend say to me that he was surprised when he saw people come out of an eating disorder treatment center that were overweight. I was taken aback at first, but continued to listen as he explained that he had always thought people with eating disorders were underweight, not overweight. Although I was a little shocked to hear that one of my peers thought this way, I remembered that I had also personally experienced this stigma myself while in a dual treatment facility. A man asked me why I was in treatment, and when I said I had an eating disorder he said, “you don’t look too thin.” Although my experience occurred a decade ago, this recent experience with a friend — alongside of the article that inspired this blog — have reminded me that we have not yet done a good enough job to educate the public about how people with eating disorders come in different shapes and sizes and colors.

What I also want to make sure I get across is the danger of this type of stereotyping: it makes it harder for those who do not fall within the stereotype to come forth for help. For example, when the man at my treatment center commented that I didn’t look too thin, in my head I remember thinking, well maybe I shouldn’t be here (which was ridiculous). And as Bulik explains, many times doctors “typecast [eating] disorders as a teen issue,” and “overlook these disorders in adults.” And in turn, for many, this stereotyping can become an obstacle to care.

What can we do? What can you do? Educate people by tweeting and posting the article below to Facebook. Let’s remove the stereotypes and the obstacles to care with conversation.