By Carli Seigelstein
New York City, New York
Eating disorders are the deadliest of all mental illnesses. They affect 30 million Americans daily and kill one person every 62 minutes. So, why is no one talking about eating disorders if they are so common and have lasting impacts on our health? Eating disorders go far beyond the layperson’s viewpoint of the skinny girl who uses the bathroom after eating.
Let’s start with some basics: the most common three types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. The lesser-known are pica, rumination disorder and orthorexia, which mental health professionals refer to as OSFEDs (other specified feeding or eating disorders). Living with an eating disorder (ED) is not a strictly physical struggle, as half of those who have an ED also meet the criteria for depression.
Just to be clear: there is no poster child for eating disorders or a certain weight that you must look to have an ED. Chunky, bony, “normal”, girls, boys, women, men, gender non-conforming people, Black, Latinx, white, Asian, happy or sad—there is no character trait that disqualifies someone from having an ED. All eating disorders do not look the same on everyone either. It’s time to stop assuming that merely because someone looks skinny that they do not eat or simply because someone looks bigger they overeat.
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) explored weight stigma, fatphobia and weight bias in recent research. NEDA found that “perceived weight-based discrimination” correlated with “low self-esteem, psychosocial functioning, binge eating, and psychological distress.” The impacts of perceived weight-based discrimination are equal to that of real weight-based discrimination, meaning that the threat of experiencing fatphobia has the power to negatively impact our mental health “whether or not we are already fat”, said NEDA.
This fear of being fat is what drives 44% of high school girls and 15% of high school boys to lose weight. Of course, wanting to lose weight can be healthy with the right goals in mind; however, about a quarter of dieters develop an ED. It is specifically an issue among those aged 12 to 25, as 95% of the ED population lies within this age group. Yet, there is absolutely nothing being done to combat it. Instead, we hear girls normalizing not eating all day or bragging about having the ability to skip breakfast and feel full with just an iced coffee. After coming to terms with my ED, I became aware of a multitude of other girls my age who had experienced something similar. We spoke casually in the lunchroom about not being hungry; yet when it is time to do the real work and talk about prevention and recovery, there is deep silence.
The scariest part is that this disease is deadly, but society views it as a simple fix: “Just eat.” For young women who suffer from anorexia nervosa between 15 and 24 years old, the mortality rate is twelve times higher than the death rate of all other causes of death at those ages. While anorexia nervosa does have the highest mortality rate of eating disorders, it does not dismiss the fact that all EDs are very real and very painful. Only 10% of people with an ED receive treatment, and only half of the teens with anorexia or bulimia have a full recovery. Eating disorders can be never-ending, as 50% of those with anorexia will develop bulimia or binge-eating disorder.
The lack of conversation about this worldwide struggle will only lead to more cases of such disorders. There needs to be more work for prevention and education about the reality of living with an ED. The inadequacy of research surrounding eating disorders is alarming, with .93 cents being the average amount spent per affected individual.
With the addition of unrealistic body images shown through social media, the expectation to conform to a certain look, and the lack of acceptance for those who do look different, it is becoming increasingly easier to develop an eating disorder in the 21st century. Polaris Teen Center speaks about how the “importance placed on thinness in the media” fabricates a longing to “achieve the impossible” body shape and size, thus becoming a trigger to dieting. 69% of teenage girls reported that celebrities in the media influenced their idea of the “perfect” body.
We must do better not only for ourselves, but for the children of coming generations.
If you are suffering from an eating disorder, do not wait until you think you are “sick enough." The time is now, visit http://nationaleatingdisorders.org for treatment and recovery information, call the helpline at 1-800-931-2237 or text 'NEDA' to 741741 for 24/7 crisis support.