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Willson: It’s time to talk about eating disorders, not strengthen stereotypes

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.  

More than 30 million Americans currently struggle with some kind of eating disorder, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. These mental illnesses do not discriminate; they can affect anyone. Anorexia nervosa (AN) has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. About every hour, one person dies of an eating disorder-related complication.

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As a survivor of AN, it’s my responsibility to share a message about the destructive impacts of eating disorders. More importantly, I want to tell anyone suffering that they have the potential and the power to recover.

Despite the fact that so many struggle, there are still gross misunderstandings about disordered eating. Eating Disorders Awareness Week starts Monday, so it’s an optimal time to end the silence, the misconceptions and the shame around eating disorders.

An infographic on common "myths" surrounding eating disorders, and the facts that represent reality.
National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, hosted by the National Eating Disorders Association, will take place from February 26th to March 4th. This year’s theme is “Let’s Get Real,” and it aims to show how eating disorders can affect anyone | National Eating Disorders Association

1. Eating disorders do not only affect adolescent white females.

Any person of any age, gender, socioeconomic or cultural background may be diagnosed. There are multiple types of these disorders, including bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and Other Specified Feeding/Eating Disorder.

Each of these disorders has different diagnostic criteria, symptoms and health impacts, but all are extremely complex and potentially life-threatening. No two cases are identical.

Over the 10 years I suffered from AN, I was hospitalized and sent to treatment nearly a dozen times. During these stints, I met many patients, each with a unique story. There was a 12-year-old girl from the U.K., a 14-year-old boy from North Dakota, a 15-year-old transgender girl from New Jersey, a 17-year-old African-American female from Aurora, and an 8-year-old boy from Colombia.

Often the only thing I had in common with the other patients was a diagnosis, often depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Sometimes we might reduce ourselves to the label the doctors have given, clinging to it like an identity. Early in our stays, we were so sick that we lost sight of who we truly were. 

Thanks to treatment, some were able to reclaim their sense of self. But, many did not. Some of us subsequently fell into a series of relapses, becoming more distant from their soul with every step back. I made a pact with one of my closest friends from treatment to go skiing once we were both healthy. She died before that could happen.

2. Eating disorders are not a choice.

Some people believe eating disorders are a choice. Nothing could be further from the truth. These conditions are recognized as illnesses by the American Psychological Association, and their onset has nothing to do with conscious decision-making.

A 9-year-old girl does not wake up one day and think: “Hey, I should starve, exercise and dehydrate myself to the point of having a Grand Mal seizure. It would be so much fun to get force fed with a rubber tube inserted into my nose, especially while a team of six psych-ward doctors hold me down against my will. I really want to miss two-and-a-half years of school, because I’d much rather be locked up in a hospital room than experience dating, friendship or joy.”

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But, from the age of nine and onward, all those things and more happened to me. It wasn’t a voluntary choice, but a result of the mental illness that compelled me to shed and gain dozens of pounds in an endless cycle of self-destruction.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BegXQGjh98h/?taken-by=laurenkwillson

3. It’s not for attention.

One common misconception is that eating disorders are petty attempts to get attention. Eating disorders are not and should not be treated any differently than other physical conditions, whose onset is regarded as uncontrollable.

I encourage everyone who has struggled with an eating disorder, in any manifestation, to speak out about their struggles. Doing so will allow for earlier diagnosis, remove unnecessary stigma and prevent deaths.  

The need for addressing this topic is well illustrated by a recent interaction of mine.

When I told my mother that I was writing this article, she could not understand why.

“Are you sure?” She asked. “Do you really want to be seen only as ‘that girl who has anorexia’?”

When I told my mother that I was writing this article, she could not understand why.

“Are you sure?” She asked. “Do you really want to be seen only as ‘that girl who has anorexia’?”

“Anorexia took up literally half of my life,” I said. “I can’t change that. But I can use my experiences to shed light on an issue that too many people are afraid to talk about.”

My own mother, who saw me struggle with severe AN, feared that admitting I had this disease would lead others to equate it with my identity.

I am more than a diagnosis, and so is everyone who has been affected by an eating disorder. It is time we start talking about eating disorders and stop pushing false stereotypes. 

Columnist Lauren Willson can be reached at letters@collegian and online at @LaurenKealani

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