Every year, the last week of February commemorates National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. It's a time to bring awareness to the issue and those who suffer and survive it, as well as breaking down the stigma that surrounds it. Weeks like this are important because they send the message loud and clear that this is an issue that does not need to live in silence any longer. It is a legitimate public health issue and a mental illness that deserves time and resources to both prevent and treat.
Weeks like this also give a voice to those who have been silenced for too long. An organization that leads the conversation is the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). NEDA's theme this year is "Come As You Are: Hindsight is 20/20," a theme that calls for self-reflection and acceptance, encouraging those who have suffered and survived to share their stories to empower those who are actively struggling as well as to educate those who are unaware of the epidemic.
As of 2020, eating disorders have the second-highest mortality rate of any mental illness, surpassed only by opioid addiction.
20 million women and 10 million men in the United States alone will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives.
With numbers this high, it becomes very clear that this is an illness that does not discriminate. Individuals of every gender, age, race, class, and body type can and do struggle. However, that's not the image most of us have in our minds when we think of eating disorders. We think of incredibly thin younger women wrapped in layers of clothing that push around food on their plates. While this image is a valid one that represents a lot of individuals suffering from eating disorders, it doesn't show the whole picture, and it ignores the struggle of marginalized voices within the eating disorder population.
For example, despite similar rates of eating disorders among all races and ethnicities, people of color are significantly less likely to receive help for their eating issues. Additionally, black teenagers are 50 percent more likely than white teenagers to exhibit bulimic behavior, and researchers have found that Hispanics were significantly more likely to suffer from bulimia nervosa than their non-Hispanic peers. It's also been found that teenage girls from low-income families are 153 percent more likely to be bulimic than girls from wealthy families, and in a survey of college students, transgender students were significantly more likely than members of any other group to report an eating disorder diagnosis in the past year.
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Additionally, despite the stereotypes of what an eating disorder sufferer looks like, in many of the most common eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder, most of the individuals suffering are not significantly underweight but are rather of average weight or overweight. It's the misconceptions surrounding what an eating disorder sufferer looks like that so often allows those who are suffering to suffer in silence.
It's the kind of misrepresentation of what sufferers — and survivors — of eating disorders look like that contribute to feelings of invalidation. Feelings of not being "sick enough" or "deserving enough" of help.
Let me echo what experts and survivors alike know to be so true: there is no such thing as "sick enough." You will not be "sick enough" until you are dead. You are a human being deserving of health and wellness with the right to recovery. Regardless of what you look like.
There is so much that we can do to fight the growing trend of eating disorders in our society and get those who are suffering the help that they so desperately deserve. One of these things is as simple as dropping our stereotypes and opening our eyes to those who might be crying out for help right in front of us. A complete and comprehensive list of signs and symptoms most commonly associated with eating disorders can be found here. Read them. Read them again. And ask your friends how they're doing. This week and the next.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, contact the NEDA helpline at (800) 931-2237, text "NEDA" to 741741, or visit the official NEDA website at www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.