Don’t Judge a Book By It’s Cover: Eating Disorders and Appearance

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Can you spot an eating disorder just by looking at someone? Many seem to think so, as tabloids speculate over which celebrities are anorexic and the topic often comes up when gossiping about an extra skinny friend.

Unfortunately, this may be doing more harm than good – even when done with well-meaning intentions.

While some people with anorexia and bulimia have the skin-and-bones figure you might imagine, there are countless people out there who don’t fit the stereotype while struggling with eating disorders. There are also many people who are naturally thin, and criticizing their weight or figure can make them uncomfortable about their appearance and potentially trigger disordered behaviors in order to stave off criticism.

Firstly, it is important to recognize that there are other eating disorders than just anorexia or bulimia. In fact, the most common eating disorder is binge eating disorder which is characterized by uncontrollable eating often relating to emotional issues and problems with body image. This can lead to a person becoming overweight or obese in more severe cases.

More importantly, the majority of people who struggle with eating disorders don’t look any specific way or have a specific figure. The only people who develop the extremely thin body most people imagine when they think of eating disorders are the most severe cases. When a person appears this observably thin from an eating disorder, their lives are often already at risk.

Most people living with eating disorders, including restrictive disorders like anorexia or bulimia, can’t be identified just by looking at a picture or their clothing sizes.

As Stephanie Zerwas, Ph.D., clinical director of the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders tells SELF Magazine, “Oftentimes, someone might look like they’re at a normal weight or like they’re not struggling with an eating disorder, and they’re really struggling with something in secret. Just as you can’t say, ‘Oh, that person’s thin, they look like they have an eating disorder,’ you can’t say, ‘That person’s a healthy weight, so they don’t have an eating disorder.’”

According to Zerwas, this type of speculation is indicative of deeper problems with how people think and talk about eating disorders. One example she points to is the language surrounding eating disorders like “admitting” to having an anorexia or being “accused” of bulimia. “We use those words when we’re talking about situations of guilt, like it’s something to be embarrassed or ashamed about,” she says. “You wouldn’t say, ‘So and so is accused of having type 2 diabetes‘—and yet we use that when we talk about eating disorders all the time.”

Eating disorders are medical conditions and need to be treated as such. They shouldn’t be talked about in ways that create stigma or shame those who are struggling, Zerwas says.

If you are concerned a friend has an eating disorder, don’t look to their appearance. Instead, focus on behaviors and look for warning signs like avoiding meals, sudden dramatic changes in weight, or over-exercising for several hours a day.

“It can be really important to calmly say, ‘I’ve noticed this, this, and this, and I’m worried about you,’,” she says. “Tell them, ‘There are people out there who can help you with this, and I’ll be here for you no matter what.’”

If you think you or someone you know may have an eating disorder, give us a call at (888) 298-4673 and we can find the right treatment plan for you.

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