It is estimated that there are over 1.6 million people suffering from diagnosed or undiagnosed eating disorders throughout the UK. But the truth is, there will be thousands who don’t feel able to reach out for support. People who feel like they aren’t “sick enough”, “don’t look like they have an eating disorder” or are too embarrassed, because they don’t fit that “stereotypical eating disorder image” we all have in our heads.
Imagine if this was the same for physical illnesses. Imagine if there was so much stigma around what someone with cancer should look like… or if someone’s leg just wasn’t “broken enough” - there would be complete uproar! But for some reason, we still live in a society where so many people with eating disorders are left alone and unable to reach out for support because of their illness just not being quite “right for diagnosis”.
It frustrates me how there are still so many misconceptions around eating disorders and so much lack of understanding. I am just going to straighten out four of these now:
“People with eating disorders have to be stick thin” – FALSE
Eating disorders really do come in all shapes and sizes. It is about time we, as society, began to understand and change this. It is the stereotypical images of eating disorders that add to the stigma and shame of people who may be struggling. It is time we changed this.
“People with eating disorders are just on a diet” – FALSE
Whatever anyone says, eating disorders are not just a phase people go through. They aren’t just a diet someone is on; they are a serious mental health problem and can end up killing people. Yes, my anorexia may have started as a diet but it progressed rapidly and I lost complete control over it. That tormenting, relentless voice in my head was horrific. Eating disorders are not just someone on a diet but a serious mental illness.
“Eating disorders are just about weight” - FALSE
When I was 13, I first started skipping meals. Yes, I had body image issues but my main reason for doing this was so that I stopped feeling things. I had been sexually abused as a child and felt quite unhappy with how life had been going. The skipping meals and exercising helped me to switch off from everything that was going on around me. I longed for something to help dampen those feelings of sadness and feelings of loneliness and my anorexia did that. It gave me this sense of purpose and value. Eating disorders are complicated illnesses and there is so much more to them then just aiming to be a certain weight.
“Developing an eating disorder is a choice” - FALSE
I didn’t choose to have anorexia. Anyone who says that about anyone else is wrong!
The time to fight this stigma and these stereotypes is now. And you can help in two simple ways:
- Not simplifying eating disorders and being careful what you say when you talk about them, so that you don’t fuel this.
- Keep talking about mental health. If we have open conversations, we can work to continue to support others, as well as encouraging open dialogue so everyone increases their own understanding of mental health more widely. It will also leave an open platform for people to reach out to for support.
Hope Virgo, Author of Stand Tall Little Girl and Mental Health Advocate. Hope Virgo has recently launched an exciting campaign #Dumpthescales to help challenge the stigma and myths that so often come with eating disorders.