By: Chloe Cho, Contributing Writer
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, eating disorders are psychological disorders that affect at least 30 million people in the U.S. alone, with 1 person dying every hour because of them. Here’s a brief overview of what they are, what causes them, and how you can help.
You might've heard about eating disorders before; maybe you've heard of it on social media, or a family member or friend has one. Maybe you have one.
Eating disorders (abbreviated EDs) are illnesses that start psychological but severely affect physical health. Those who are affected make huge changes to their eating habits and hold negative thoughts about food. The three most common EDs are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating. Most of them develop in part due to psychological or emotional health issues that, more often than not, are linked to toxic body image. Here’s how it begins.
I asked Gigi, a teenage girl with anorexia, when and how her ED began. Ever since she was 11-years-old, her family was always “telling me to watch what I ate, or the media just shoving the idea of skinny down my throat.” She added, “Ironic, because soon I would be pushing my fingers down my throat in an effort to be that ‘ideal’ person.” Gigi is not the only one who’s been pressured by society to have the perfect body. Beauty standards seep into our everyday lives and spread like a disease, through the media, family, and peers. Most of the time, people are not even aware that they are perpetuating these standards. “I had lots of males in my life telling me to slim down,” Gigi told me. “Or that I’m fat or that I’m ‘thick,’ but that doesn’t seem like a compliment… my mother would do the same thing.” Over 50% of Americans aren’t happy with their weight. 70% of perfectly healthy women want to be thinner. This “fatphobia” is starting to spread its tendrils to younger and younger audiences: The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reports that over 80% of 10-year-olds in the U.S. are scared of being fat, and 46% of 9 to 11-year-old sometimes or often diet. EDs are starting to present themselves at a younger age than before, according to formal research and clinical studies.
WHAT IT’S LIKE
It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to have an ED if you’d never had one. A teenage girl named Fiona said to me, “Eating disorders are very specific to every individual.” But there is a common emotion many people with EDs fight with, and that’s shame. Not feeling upset because they ate, but because they feel as if they were a problem without a solution. A teenager named Matt (not real name), who has the binge-eating disorder, said that he eats a huge amount of food every other day, only to feel terrible afterward. “I can’t control it,” he said. “I really want to, but I can’t.” Gigi also spoke about shame: “Every calorie [is] a failure and [my inner] voice comes back each time. ‘Be like her,’ ‘you aren’t good enough,’ ‘what a f*cking disappointment.’”
People with EDs will also sometimes deny that they have a problem. Fiona struggles with body dysmorphia along with anorexia. “My brain literally distorts how my body looks, so if I look in a mirror I don’t see what everybody else sees,” she said. “If someone says, like, “Your things aren’t super big,” to me, it looks like that.” Sometimes, people with EDs will flat-out deny that there’s a problem because they truly believe that they are being healthy. This is called anosognosia; , it can be caused by body dysmorphia.
HOW TO HELP
So what can you do to help someone fight an ED? First, recognize the warning signs. People with EDs tend to hide, so it might be difficult to see them. But if they are acting strange around food, maybe even scared, keep an eye on them and let them know that you are there for them if they need help. Always support them. Do not try to make them feel better; instead, empathize with them. “If someone says like, ‘your things aren’t super big’ and like, to me, it looks like that, it can be a bit frustrating,” said Fiona. “[What really] helped me is if I pointed out an insecurity that I had and [someone] described how it made me beautiful.”
What if you are struggling with an ED? “Fully recovering is really hard, [but] that’s not what you should focus on,” said Gigi. “Slowly taking it day by day and working through stopping the compulsions. There will be slip-ups and that’s perfectly okay.” Talk to a therapist, groups, OA (Overeating Anonymous, a non-profit group that helps anyone with an eating disorder), or a nutritionist. Open up to your family and friends, and don’t be ashamed of what you’ve been through. Because you are not a victim. You are a survivor.
Visit NEDA (the National Eating Disorders Association) for more information: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/