Take a second look: Shaking eating disorders stereotypes

April 28, 2022

Shaking the ED stereotype

It is often wrongly assumed that eating disorders (ED) only affect young, thin, heterosexual, white females. Many of the images we see depicting eating disorders affirm the stereotype. In reality, eating disorders affect people across all demographics and ethnicities but, due to biased assumptions about how eating disorders look and who they affect, people of African American heritage are significantly less likely to receive help and support.

Black teenagers are 50% more likely than white teenagers to exhibit bulimic behaviour, and a study of Hispanic young people showed they were far more likely to suffer from bulimia nervosa. Research also discovered a trend towards higher prevalence of binge eating disorders across all minority groups.

Eating disorders are often considered ‘a teenage problem’, however more and more people are experiencing eating disorders and body dissatisfaction occurring later in life. Some adults struggle throughout their life and never recover, others recover then relapse. The increasing pressure of a youth-obsessed world can cause people to develop diet, exercise and appearance rituals and anxieties that escalate into an eating disorder. Data show that older people may find physiological recovery more difficult as gastrointestinal, cardiac and bone issues worsen as people age.

Not just a ‘women’s problem’

Men are not immune from the grasp of eating disorders either, accounting for 1 in 3 cases; binge eating, purging, laxative abuse, and fasting for weight loss are almost as common among men as they are in women.

In America, 10 million men will be affected by an eating disorder at some point in their lives, but they’re also much less likely to seek treatment and are often under and undiagnosed.

Unsurprisingly, the LGBTQ+ community is also disproportionately affected, and further research is needed to understand the relationships between sexuality, gender identity, body image, and eating disorders. However, there is evidence to show that young gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens may be at higher risk of binge-eating and purging than their heterosexual peers, particularly if they have experienced violence or have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Barriers to Treatment

LGBTQ+ people are also more likely to experience difficulty accessing support, including a lack of appropriate treatment that addresses the complexity of sexuality and gender identity issues, lack of support from family and friends, and poor eating disorder education among LGBTQ+ resource providers who could be ideally positioned to detect and intervene.

The thin ideal, which contributes to body insecurities and disordered eating behaviours transcends cultural and religious communities too. For example, research published in The Washington Times highlighted the underreporting of eating disorders among Orthodox Jewish women resulting in hospitalisation because of a reluctance by families to acknowledge the illness.

With particular cultures, genders and ages far less likely to seek support, often due to perceived judgement from others in (and out of) their community, we risk as a society only providing proper ED support to those who we think “fit the mould”. However, body dysmorphia and eating disorders are not confined to just one demographic. Only by understanding the intersectionality of how eating disorders affect people, can we truly ensure that treatment and support is extended to all who need it, when they need it.

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