By Lauren Meyer and Maia Murphey
Trigger/Content warning: This piece will be discussing potentially sensitive and/or triggering subjects regarding eating disorders, mental illness, and emotional/sexual abuse.
As National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (NEDA Week) is wrapping up, Bell is taking this opportunity to educate our readers on eating disorders, discuss some common misconceptions and provide useful resources for those that may be — or know someone who is — suffering from an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are serious mental and physical illnesses, but fortunately, they are treatable. They affect at least 9% of the world’s population, and 28.8 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. Some are characterized by weight loss or a lack of weight gain such as Anorexia Nervosa, and others by binge eating — sometimes followed by self-induced vomiting — such as Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder.
These are the three most common eating disorders.
Individuals with Anorexia Nervosa often restrict their calorie intake and the types of food they eat, compulsively exercise, purge via vomiting and laxatives or binge eat. While studies have shown that larger-bodied individuals can also have anorexia, they may be less likely to get a medical diagnosis due to cultural prejudice against obesity.
Bulimia Nervosa is characterized by binge eating and purging. Purging can include self-induced vomiting or taking laxatives to “reverse” the effects of their binge. The most telling sign that someone is suffering from Bulimia Nervosa is disappearing after eating, often to the bathroom.
Binge Eating Disorder is one of the newest eating disorders, recently revised and now recognized by insurance companies. People with this disorder have recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food, often very quickly or to the point of discomfort. There’s a feeling of no control and is followed by shame, distress or guilt.
Other eating disorders encompass signs such as an obsession with proper or “healthy” eating, limiting the amount or types of food consumed without distress about gaining weight and sometimes involve eating items that are typically not considered food such as hair or dirt.
Signs associated with eating disorders include dramatic weight fluctuation, frequent mention of food or weight, excessive exercising, purging, restricting food intake, eating secretly, and many other symptoms and medical complications.
Eating disorders (ED) are complex medical and physical illnesses that are not a choice. The National Eating Disorders Association’s NEDA Week theme is “Everyone Has a Seat at the Table.” This year, they are focusing on marginalized communities who are continuously underrepresented, encouraging conversations to raise awareness, challenging systemic and socio-cultural biases and giving a voice to those from all backgrounds and experiences.
The few times eating disorders appear in the media, they are almost always portrayed by an affluent, straight, white, cisgender woman. In reality, eating disorders affect people of every gender, age, race, sexual orientation, body shape and body weight. Marginalized populations are treated differently when it comes to a medical diagnosis or treatment for an eating disorder.
It has been found that BIPOC with eating disorders are half as likely to be diagnosed or to receive treatment. Similarly, people in larger bodies are half as likely as those at “normal weight” or “underweight” to be diagnosed with an eating disorder. This shows that our representations in the media of EDs do not reflect reality, but do reflect who is (wrongly) prioritized in this treatment. Additionally, 20% of women with anorexia have high levels of autistic traits and there is evidence that these women benefit the least from current treatment methods. Our medical practices are not shaped to help all the people who are suffering from these diseases, just the subset that is anticipated.
It is essential to acknowledge the many factors that can contribute to the development of an ED — the most prominent being environmental and social factors. Today, many women feel pressured to conform to standards of beauty that idealize thinness to be deemed conventionally attractive. Additionally, men are under similar pressure of maintaining a relatively “thin” bulky physique to be considered “attractive.”
Along with this blatant discrimination, marginalized groups experience unique environmental and social factors that contribute toward eating disorders. Asian American college students report higher levels of body dissatisfaction and negative attitudes toward obesity than their non-Asian, BIPOC peers. Gay and bisexual boys are significantly more likely to fast, vomit, or take laxatives or diet pills to control their weight. 32% of transgender people report using their eating disorder to modify their body without hormones. Non-binary people may restrict their eating to appear thin, consistent with the common stereotype of androgynous people in society.
It’s important to acknowledge the common misconception that all eating disorders stem from social factors and appearance-based anxieties. While the “ideal body” reinforced in today’s media plays a significant role in some cases, this notion excludes many other factors that can contribute to the development of an eating disorder. These other aspects are psychological factors, interpersonal factors and biological factors.
Among the psychological factors, an eating disorder can go beyond simply fearing food and gaining weight. When people feel they have lost control of their life, they may turn to their bodies to gain control. Struggles with depression, anxiety, anger, stress, loneliness and substance abuse can cause an ED to develop and be used as a coping mechanism by creating an illusion of safety. Regulating this aspect of life can make those with an ED feel powerful through their control.
Disordered eating behaviors can also be tied with psychological factors and interpersonal factors, whether that is from history or instances of trauma. As stated by the National Eating Disorders Association, “trauma can cause disruption in the nervous system which may make it difficult for individuals to manage their emotions and so they turn to eating disorder behaviors or other addictions as a way to manage these uncomfortable emotions.” This also applies to those who have felt neglected or are a victim of physical or emotional abuse. Studies have shown that sexual assault survivors may feel a disconnect with their physical bodies which can lead to a complicated relationship with food, lifestyle choices and self-care.
Biological factors are also aspects of ED. Although under-researched, family members who have linked disordered eating with traits like depression, anxiety, perfectionism and moodiness can pass down these characteristics associated with developing an ED. Recent research shows that inherited genetic and biological factors, including family history, contribute to approximately “56% of the risk for developing an eating disorder.”
In support of NEDA, take the time this week to spread hope for those in recovery, confront cultural stigma, be an advocate and an ally, and educate both yourself and the public about the prevalence and misconceptions of eating disorders.
And most importantly, be kind to yourself and others!
If you or a loved one are showing signs of an eating disorder, please consider contacting one of the listed hotlines below. You’re never alone.
UHS 24-hour Crisis Services: (608) 265-5600 (option 9)
The National Eating Disorder Association: (800) 931-2237
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders: (630) 577-1330
Overeaters Anonymous: (505) 891-2664
Lauren Meyer (she/her) is a Staff Writer and Graphic Designer for Bell Magazine. She is a sophomore at UW–Madison and is currently studying in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications. Her interests include Communication Arts, Journalism, and Gender and Women’s Studies.
Maia Murphey (she/her) is a Staff Writer and Editor for Bell Magazine. She is a second-year student at UW–Madison majoring in Nonprofit Leadership and Political Science with certificates in Public Policy, Global Health, and Criminal Justice.