“Well, you look great though”: Changing perceptions – The pitfalls of stereotyping how eating disorders “look”

“Well, you look great though”: Changing perceptions – The pitfalls of stereotyping how eating disorders “look”

DianaBy Diana, USA

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when my eating disorder began. In first grade, I remember feeling embarrassingly fat standing next to my friends on our elementary school stage wearing a bright red tutu and tights. I remember, throughout my childhood, wanting desperately to look like my “skinny” friends. I was never comfortable in my own skin.

By the age of sixteen, I was entrenched in a pattern of restriction that I would use at times of loss, stress, or conflict. When life felt beyond my control, restricting what I ate was my tool to help me pull life back into my own hands. By the time I reached college, I added another tool: exercise. Habitual, intense, chronic exercise. Together, these tools made me feel like I was doing something to make my life better. I was giving my life value and worth, where I otherwise felt it didn’t have any.

The habits and compulsions I developed in my youth, I continued through to adulthood: first job, marriage, kids – restrict, restrict, restrict.

During all of this time though, I never saw what I was doing as disordered. I always thought of myself as disciplined, in control, and healthy. Restricting and all that exercise made me feel empowered and strong; it made me feel valid. So much so, that the line between when I was restricting and when I was not became blurred. I was always restricting to some degree and slowly, relentlessly, it became my identity; who I was.

At 41 years old, my body began to deteriorate
In a blink, I found myself at 41 years old, and my body had begun to deteriorate. I visited my gynecologist twice to talk about how I wasn’t feeling well and his answer was always the same, “Well, you look great though.”

When my body started to revolt by storing weight and urging binges, I visited my primary care who gave me advice on how I might be able to exercise even harder to lose more weight. I still felt sick and I was often in pain.

Frustrated, I sought out a new gynecologist for a second opinion. At our first appointment, we met and spoke, she reviewed my medical history, conducted an initial exam and said casually:

It is clear to see your anemia, amenorrhea, osteopenia, hair loss, and chronic stomach issues are due to anorexia.

I was completely taken off-guard.

It never occurred to me that I could have developed anorexia, and certainly didn’t believe it. No one had ever diagnosed me or even hinted that I had developed this serious illness. How did my old doctor, who had known me for over 20 years, not see the symptoms? How could my primary care doctor encourage me to lose more weight through more exercise? Why hadn’t even I noticed that I had a problem?

Because…I didn’t look like I had anorexia.

I was fit; toned muscles from years of slavish exercise. I was strong. I had endurance. I was in control.

It was a complete illusion.

For many years, the public and even medical community has been shown only one visual portrayal of what a person with anorexia must look like if they need help. I wasn’t the image of anorexia that is constantly portrayed in mainstream media.

In fact, many of us have never looked like that and never will. Despite the disorder being so advanced it is shutting your body down, you are told, “Hey, you look great.” How many of us are overlooking the truth and severity of our disorder for this very reason? And, how many of us are being overlooked by medical professionals as well?

My Hope for World Eating Disorders Action Day
My hope is that World Eating Disorders Action Day on June 2 will begin a discussion around some of the factors that negatively affect the ability of those suffering from eating disorders to recognize, seek, and get the help and support they need in order to recover. And, that it will begin the process of converting and overcoming the notion of a “type”; a singular image as representative of those with eating disorders.

We are not a stereotype. We are individuals with an eating disorder and we come in all shapes and sizes. To continue to exclusively assert imagery and a narrative that says otherwise is damaging to public and personal perceptions of what it looks like to have an eating disorder, to need help, and to deserve support.

About Diana
A mother of two young girls, Diana is focused on recovery and finding a voice that will help use her experience and story as a way of making a difference in how the world perceives and supports those with eating disorders in the future.

Join Diana in supporting World Eating Disorders Action Day. Be sure to follow along on Twitter @WorldEDDay and hashtag #WeDoAct, #WorldEDActionDay, @WorldEatingDisordersAction on Instagram and World Eating Disorders Action Day on Facebook.