Skeletal. Caucasian. Teenage. Heterosexual. Alone. Apathetic.
The general public tends to stereotype eating disorders into the above adjectives, which irks me quite some.
I have an eating disorder. I have been in recovery since 2010.
When I entered treatment, I was thin (not skeletal), biracial, teenage, bisexual, single and wholly empathetic. Nine years on, I am curvy, (still) biracial, 25 years of age, bisexual, married and still wholly empathetic. However, as the adage goes, appearances can be deceptive – my recovery is challenged every day by the public’s perceptions of eating disorders. I am lucky in that I have a secure family unit with my hubby – and the cat – who both literally and metaphorically bare their teeth at the Anorexia Nervosa that occasionally rears its head at times of extreme stress.
There is an assumption that once a sufferer of an eating disorder begins to look physically well again, life has returned to normal, but what is not considered medically significant is that it haunts you. The illusion of control, the comfort of the old safety net, your private supply of emotional anaesthesia – it follows you. You wake up in cold sweats in the middle of the night lest you have a dream you have been bingeing and purging or the adult eating disorders team has turned you down (again) because you are now too “healthy” to qualify for treatment, or that someone has judged your character based on social prejudices. The irony of these nightmares is this is the reality for many sufferers.
Fighting the eating disorder, however, is not an easy task when you no longer embody the stereotypes – or in my case, where I never embodied the stereotypes to begin with. It was an uphill battle convincing society, professionals and myself I was worthy of the help.
Misconceptions about eating disorders significantly affect those who attempt to seek help, at best making accessing treatment a challenge and at worst, no access to treatment at all. For me, where once upon a time my identity was Anorexia Nervosa, I had to learn about what a real identity entailed. To understand who I am as a person (a taxing task for most, let alone a 16-year-old girl forced into treatment) I had to learn many lessons. The first was to understand why I stopped eating to begin with.
Like everybody, I am a complex individual with unique struggles and pinpointing exact reasons is nigh on impossible. This is what I do know.
A driving force behind the development of my eating disorder was my sexuality. Coming from a background of childhood trauma, I attempted to starve myself into a state of oblivion – a factor I have discovered is common. I have met people of all weights and shapes with traumatic backgrounds who use the eating disorder as a crutch in an attempt to make themselves as unattractive as possible to deflect attention from sexuality. I am bisexual, a fact nobody in my family was bothered by, apart from myself. Combined with trauma and the misconception bisexuals are “greedy”, I internally combusted and embarked on the suicidal crusade to starve myself into nothingness.
Culturally, I was caught in the confusion of East meets the West at home (an Eastern mum married to a Western dad presented rather chaotic situations). Amidst the constant fights behind closed doors combined with the pressure of maintaining the “perfect family” image to the outside world I was left silently quaking fury. I felt like a cultural misfit.
I became secretive and starved, becoming increasingly withdrawn and obsessive. The warning signs were all there, yet it was only when my weight hit a critical point I was forced to access urgent care, which involved significant weight gain, CBT and family therapy. It also involved dating people again and understanding I am not “greedy”.
Through the years post treatment, I have learned and educated people about the fact eating disorders are mental illnesses that are deadly no matter what the weight, shape, background, sexuality or colour of the person. Eating disorders do not discriminate and leave no stone unturned in holding one hostage. The stereotypes that influence access to treatment are literally life threatening and it is evident when looking at current figures that there is a crisis at hand.
Life with an eating disorder is cruel. It robs you of identity, self, relationships and pride but in the end, there is this. When it boils down to you as a person versus the eating disorder, hold onto the fact recovery is entirely possible. You deserve recovery – meaning you deserve to live your life, not merely exist. Period.
Eating disorders take many different forms, and anyone can have one, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, class, ability, or any other aspect of identity. Yet these things can have an impact on the way someone's eating disorder develops and on their ability to seek and receive help. Have you got a story about how stereotypes and expectations around eating disorders have affected you? If so, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.