“In our culture, there’s that stereotypical female, there’s that stereotypical chiseled six-pack male, and those images make an impact on us.”
Ten minutes of reading a fashion magazine is all that it takes for someone to feel worse about his or her own body.
With such a sobering statistic in mind, Keri Clifton isn’t surprised that eating disorders in the United States are on the rise.
According to Clifton, community outreach coordinator for the Emily Program, more than 50 percent of Americans know someone suffering from an eating disorder.
Yet misconceptions about these increasingly common diseases still exist.
Clifton has worked for the Emily Program, an eating disorder treatment program based in St. Paul, for five and a half years. Her job is to educate middle and high school students about the truth surrounding eating disorders.
“One of the most important things we are trying to do is break down stereotypes surrounding eating disorders,” Clifton said. “Often when you think of someone with an eating disorder, you’re thinking of someone who is young, thin, white, female and in a well-off family.”
It’s an image that instantly springs to mind because “generally, girls are portrayed as more stressed,” said Nick Kessler, a sophomore at Wayzata High School.
“It’s easier to imagine a girl having an eating disorder. Stress is present throughout life, but it is seen more in teens due to schoolwork, peer pressure, concern over appearance, social status, wealth, and much more,” he said.
CAUSE AND EFFECT
The truth is that due to their complexity, eating disorders impact people of all different ages and genders, not only teenage girls.
Clifton said eating disorders follow the bio-psycho-social model—
that is, biologically, some might have a “generic predisposition to develop one” or “if mom and dad struggled with an eating disorder, that might make you develop one.”
On the other hand, Clifton said that eating disorders can also develop in perfectionists as a psychological defense mechanism when they feel isolated and alone, often alienating them further.
“I, personally, have never had an eating disorder, but I am friends with many that have, and I never know much about what they go through because they never open up to people about it,” said Kenzie Mertz, a student at the University of Minnesota. “From what I see however, they are never happy.”
Finally, societal causes of eating disorders manifest themselves in everyday American culture.
“In our culture, there’s that stereotypical female, there’s that stereotypical chiseled six-pack male, and those images make an impact on us,” Clifton said. “We consume (those images) all day and every day.”
Mertz has also noticed how ideal bodies vary across different cultures, making it even more difficult for people to feel comfortable in their own skin.
“I went to Nicaragua for six weeks a few years ago, and the people there thought I looked too thin and sickly,” she said. “My body type is average or semi-curvy, so I believe I would be considered a plus size in society, in the U.S., because I’m definitely bigger than a size four… But people (in Nicaragua) thought I wasn’t big enough.”
Perception of the perfect body differs in varying countries, but gender is just as important as cultural factors.
“Boys are portrayed (by the media) as playing sports and being athletic, which is difficult to do if you are too thin or too heavy,” Kessler said. “I sometimes feel too thin, no matter how much I try to eat. Though I’ve gotten over this, I have tried in the past to eat more to appear more ‘normal.’”
According to the Emily Program, about 10 percent of people diagnosed with eating disorders are male, and the number is probably higher since males often do not seek treatment. Those are the stigmas Clifton works hard at breaking down.
“As a male, it seems more unusual … to have an eating disorder,” Kessler said. “If I had an eating disorder, I would have trouble discussing it with someone because feeling insecure is always somewhat of a touchy subject.”
As for the thin part of the “young, thin, white, female” stereotype, Clifton said that not all people suffering from eating disorders are “extremely” thin.
A common misconception is that anorexia, an eating disorder in which people severely restrict the amount and variety of their food intake, is the most common eating disorder. Yet while anorexia has the highest mortality rate, it is actually the least common eating disorder in the United States, according to the Emily Program.
“Anorexia is the most visible eating disorder when someone is quite chronic and thin, so it’s an easy image to latch onto in terms of the devastating impact it could have on someone’s body,” Clifton said.
“I think we’re looking for a quick visual—‘Oh, that’s what that looks like’—when in reality, there just isn’t one.”
The most common eating disorder is binge-eating disorder, in which a person loses control over their diet and often becomes obese as a result, showing that victims of eating disorders are not always emaciated, Clifton said.
“You can’t always tell when a person has an eating disorder just by looking at them. That stereotype makes (people) less likely to access care when they need it, because they think, ‘Oh, I’m not that. I’m not that sick, so I should be fine,’” she said
Yet the spread of eating disorders is not only perpetuated by the public’s misconceptions, but also the culture of the 21st century.
Thinspiration blogs, which combine the words “thin” and “inspiration,” often post pictures of slim people that bloggers emulate, sometimes for healthy weight loss, and sometimes not. Some thinspiration bloggers state that they are pro-ana or pro-mia—code names for anorexia and bulimia. Commonly found on pro-ana and pro-mia blogs are images of frighteningly thin “role models” and reminders to control food intake.
Joy Nollenberg, founder of the Joy Project, a nonprofit eating disorder awareness organization, acknowledged that thinspiration is generally negative, but added that “thinspo” blogs are popular because they are seen as a form of community.
“It has been my experience at the Joy Project that people who gravitate towards (thinspiration) forums as a means for connection are often people who are alone and scared,” Nollenberg said.
“They feel misunderstood by people around them who don’t have eating disorders. The Internet provides a means of connection for them to reach out to people who understand what it’s like to have an eating disorder.”
Also making recovery difficult for someone with an eating disorder is American culture itself—especially the normalization of what Clifton called “fat talk,” or casually mentioning dissatisfaction with one’s body.
“It almost seems normal that most of us are always trying to lose five pounds, so those ideas are manifested in our everyday language and interactions with people,” Clifton said. “For someone with an eating disorder … to be bombarded constantly with those ideas can be challenging.”
With all the images, all the misconceptions, all the stereotypes—it’s why education about early identification and fostering a healthy, supportive environment remains essential, Nollenberg said.
“Most loved ones want to jump in and ‘fix’ the person, or they want to take control of the eating disordered person’s food intake. These are well-intentioned ideas, but they’re not particularly useful,” she said.
“Instead, express your concerns about the person’s behavior and general well being. If you want to help, but aren’t sure what to do–say so! Don’t pretend to have all the answers if you don’t. Simply let the person know that you would like to help.”