Eating disorders

Myths about eating disorders

People often came up against misunderstandings about eating disorders from their family, friends, the general public, the media and health professionals. Young people we spoke with described how incorrect ideas about what eating disorders were could make their experience worse:

  • People who had an eating disorder themselves, family and friends sometimes being unable to recognise signs and symptoms of eating disorders.
  • Feeling bad about themselves for not fitting with others’ ideas of what people with eating disorders look like.
  • Being thought of as ‘vain’.
  • Not being taken seriously by family and friends (or by themselves).
  • Finding it difficult to talk to others about their thoughts and feelings.
  • Finding it difficult to get access to services.
  • Not being listened to or being taken seriously by health services.
  • Being wrongly diagnosed.

The following are some of the most common myths young people wanted to clear up:

Myth 1) People with eating disorders are underweight
The most common myth that people talked about was the idea that eating disorders were only about weight and appearance. People had come across unhelpful ideas that people with eating problems were always underweight and obsessed by their appearance; or that people with eating disorders could only be “skinny”, “emotional teenage girls”. Jasmin stressed that eating disorders were first and foremost about coping with emotions and often linked to low self-esteem and depression. She described how she had struggled just as much when she was underweight as she did after she put some weight on, because the underlying issues were the same.

The idea that eating disorders were about wanting to lose weight, and looking a certain way, made it harder for some people to realise that they might have an eating problem. Maria had always thought that eating disorders affected “silly girls who fussed about their appearance”. Neither she nor her family realised at first that she was suffering from an eating disorder. People also said that the focus on weight in eating disorders made it harder for them to talk about their problem. Hannah Z was afraid to go to the doctor’s in case she was judged for not being underweight. Laura described feeling “a fake”, despite years of struggle with eating disordered behaviours because she associated eating disorders with “emaciated” people.

“I always had the attitude that people with eating disorders were very skinny, very kind of fragile girls, teenage girls, very emotional about things. But to be honest all my friends that have their eating disorders aren’t the typical stereotypical life-form of what somebody with an eating disorder is.” Nico

Myth 2) Eating disorders only affect women
The numbers of men with eating disorders are rapidly increasing partly due to increased awareness among support services and men themselves. The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines on eating disorders 2004 stated that 180,000 (11 per cent) of them were men. The proportion of men with eating disorders is now thought to be higher than previously suggested (as much as 25 % higher according to the NHS Information Centre, 2007) and on the increase.

Despite this, people still commonly think of eating disorders as “a woman’s illness”, as Andrew put it. People talked about the gender stereotypes of “a macho culture” where men “don’t speak” or “seek help”. Craig thought that being diagnosed with an eating disorder might threaten some men’s sense of “masculinity”.
Men often said they had never realised what they had could be an eating disorder. They themselves only associated eating disorders with women, particularly younger girls. Some believed that doctors didn’t take them as seriously or diagnose them as readily as they would do a woman with the same symptoms. Men pointed out that much of the information about eating disorder symptoms could be alienating as it focused on periods, female hormones and fertility (ability to have children).
Men who had been inpatients had all been the only male on the ward. Rob said it was strange at first but that the “similarities [in their experiences] outweighed any differences” between him and the others. James had his own room but it was hard being under observation by female staff even when going to the toilet or shower.

It was sometimes thought that only particular ‘types’ of men developed eating disorders. Sam noted that eating disorders could affect all men, across age, ethnicity, social class or sexuality.

“Men of all ages, backgrounds and sexualities can get affected by eating disorders, and we really need to challenge those almost secondary stereotypes. The primary one being about gender, the secondary one is that men with eating disorders are either young or gay and it’s not the case at all. Eating disorders are indiscriminate full stop.” Sam

Sam, the founder and director of the UK’s only charity for eating disorders in men, ‘Men Get Eating Disorders Too’ described the main aim of the charity being to work towards “gender inclusive services and attitudes” in eating disorders. He called for a “2-tier approach” so that men can seek help “without fear or anxiety of not being taken seriously” and, when they do, health professionals are fully equipped to diagnose eating disorders in men, and men and women have equal access to help and support.
Myth 3) Eating disorders are caused by glamorous images of celebrities in the media.
Despite what is often said in the media, developing an eating disorder is never simply about people wanting to look like the celebrities in glossy magazines. However, people felt that media played big role in promoting unrealistic images of what was “healthy” or what a healthy body looked like. Katie said the media commonly showed successful people as being skinny. Emily criticised the media for putting across the message that “skinny is better” through regular features on dieting tips and celebrity bodies. Georgia said that, although the media couldn’t be blamed for people developing an eating disorder, it could add pressure for people to look a certain way. Some also felt that the media portrayed eating disorders as an illness that “famous people” had. Lauren never thought that she, with “a normal life style and a good childhood”, could get an eating disorder.

“I never really think I’ve been the typical person that would get anorexia and I think everyone thinks that like. You think it wouldn’t be you. It’s just these really famous people or something. I don’t think people realise just regular people just get it and it’s so common.” Hannah Z

Sam pointed out that the media could also have a positive impact. When handled well, the media can help raise awareness of eating disorders and help to raise the profile of the aspects of eating disorders that are not well understood.
Myth 4) The only types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa
People we spoke with had experienced anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), Binge Eating Disorder (BED) , ED-DMT1 (‘Diabulimia) and varying degrees of undiagnosed disordered eating. Many had, and were diagnosed with, more than one type of an eating disorder. The experience of these people changed over time, from bingeing (eating excessive amounts) to restricting (limiting food), for example. Some said that they had found it easier to talk about anorexia nervosa than bulimia nervosa and that there were more services available for people with anorexia.
Myth 5) Eating disorders only affect young people
It is widely and incorrectly believed that eating disorders only affect young people. Although eating disorders are most commonly diagnosed in teenage years, it is estimated that one third of eating disorder cases become long-term and can last through middle age and beyond.

“The stereotype is teenage girls, but really it’s not because, because when I was in hospital there was women that were in their sixties there. And you know, there was all different ages, all different backgrounds, races, it didn’t matter.” Rebekah
Myth 6) People choose to have an eating disorder to get attention and can ‘snap out of it’

Overall, people felt it was not often understood how serious eating disorders can be. Of all the psychiatric illnesses, anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality (death) rate (NICE 2009). People felt that they often didn’t get help early enough, because they were unwilling to seek help or because they hadn’t been diagnosed. Some had been accused of “attention seeking” and Rebekah didn't ask for help because she was worried that she wouldn't be taken seriously. Sometimes people were only offered treatment when already dangerously ill. Annabelle has lost three of her friends to eating disorders.

“I think far too often you only get help, the right help is only given when it has got serious.” Annabelle
People commonly felt that talking about eating disorders wasn’t easy and some said it was still a “taboo” topic. Eva felt that there was “stigma” around eating disorders meaning that there are negative ideas or judgements about people who have eating disorders. She was careful when and with whom she talked about her experiences. Some said that there was stigma around mental health problems particularly among older people, like their grandparents.


Last reviewed July 2015.
Last updated July 2015.

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