Will the Stigma About Eating Disorders Ever End?

This week, February 26 – March 3, is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.

This guest post is by Rosemarie Driscoll, a sophomore majoring in English at Saint Peter’s College. She is working as an intern for the National Eating Disorders Association.

When I left for college, my sister became largely responsible for the care of our disabled father and five younger siblings. When I came home to visit, I watched her dump cinnamon into her black coffee, telling me that it’s “negative calories.” She took pills in the morning to boost her metabolism and laxatives before bed.

My sister had always been very concerned with her food, choosing to munch on spinach leaves while the rest of us had potato chips, or drinking so much water that she passed out at a cross country meet.

Facts About Eating Disorders
Young women are more likely to develop and report eating disorders than any other demographic because of the media’s increased influence on their appearance and of incredible pressure to succeed. Young men are also affected but because of the stigma surrounding eating disorders, they are less likely to report it: in the US, 10 million women and 1 million men are reported to be suffering from an eating disorder.

Across the gender divide, perfectionists are the most susceptible to developing eating disorders. Trouble arises in times of heavy stress and extreme change. At a time when an individual feels little control, obsessively regulating the food that goes into and out of your body can seem like a way to have some control amid chaos.

My sister left for college last fall planning to major in biology. Not long into the semester, she started receiving failing grades. She told me about trouble sleeping, not having enough time to exercise and the awful selection in the cafeteria.

When we were both home for Thanksgiving, we were talking over the black, cinnamon-spiced coffee when my sister told me she was bulimic and anorexic. I felt guilty that I hadn’t stepped in before — as though I could have grabbed her shoulders and shook her until she ate something besides a laxative — but with the flood of research I did directly after this conversation I learned that while I could do a few things to help, my sister needed to come to terms with her eating disorder first.

The Particular Problems of Eating Disorders For College Students
College students are constantly encouraged to compare themselves to others. We’re ranked by grades, extra curricular involvement, and our projected income. We rank ourselves by the numbers of admirers we can attract, the money we spend on our clothes, or our bodies’ weights and measurements.

Education, students know, is far too precious a commodity to waste. For female students, the pressure to succeed is doubled: we have to work twice as hard for the recognition that comes more easily to our male counterparts, who have been attending universities for a century longer. In view of this, perhaps it is not so surprising that one in five college women struggles with an eating disorder.

In our modern, image-centered culture, success is not complete, especially for women, if it is “merely” professional or intellectual. A successful person must also be perfect in appearance.

Helping Someone With an Eating Disorder

The best thing you can do for someone with an eating disorder is provide an understanding, nonjudgmental environment. Therapy often helps, but an eating disorders is an internal, psychological problem that can really only be fixed internally; the only way that can happen is through acceptance.

Much of the movement to help those with eating disorders focuses on having a positive body image. While the promotion of this message is important, it’s not the cure-all for those who struggle with anorexia and bulimia. We won’t be able to eradicate eating disorders without first eradicating the stigma our culture attaches to them. Misunderstanding about eating disorders only perpetuates feelings of inadequacy and failure, which are too often behind the development of the disorder. There have to be other ways to express discontent with yourself than starving yourself, or binging and purging.

My sister, like 60% of those afflicted with an eating disorder, may never fully recover. To eat regularly will be a daily struggle. She will have to learn, as we all should learn, that she can make a mistake and still be a decent, worthy, capable person.

If we could replace the negativity and judgement that we see so often in our society with that hopeful, forgiving and understanding attitude, if we can think of everyone we meet — and ourselves — that way, we will be on the way to eliminate eating disorders.


Related Care2 Coverage

Chicken Nugget Diet Lands 17-Year-Old Girl in Hospital

Disney Show Jokes About Eating Disorders

What Does a Real Woman Look Like?


Photo by tobias fotografiert


Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson5 years ago

no. mainly because most of the labels are true. the girls need help.

Lucy H.
Lucy E5 years ago

I hear people saying that mental health issues will always carry a stigma. Yes, they will so long as people give up and don't try to eliminate the stigma. Don't give up and be part of the problem. Refuse to accept the stigmatization of mental health issues!

Lydia Price

It is true that oftentimes food is the only aspect of their lives that some people have control over. It's not so much about achieving perfection as it is achieving control over oneself. People need to allow themselves to be human. This is your life to live and no one else's. Eating does not mean that you are out of control any more than breathing does. Love yourself enough to realize that you don't need to master your life, simply live it.

Angela H.
Angela Hunter6 years ago

Until we make society stop worshipping stick insects in magazines we will never see a change to female perception of how they should look. Let's not make this into an "I'm a natural size 4 and can't help it" rant. That's not what I mean and you know it. Look back over the years, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Munroe et al were beautiful women, now they would be labelled as fat, purely because they actually posses the breasts and hips women should have. Ever tried buying a pair of Jeans in the UK to fit a woman that comes up to your waist as opposed to being cut on the hip? Good luck to you! This is why people have terrible body images of ourselves, even programmes like Supersize vs Superskinny seem to suggest that it is far more acceptable to be desperately underweight than obese, yet both can cause heart attacks.

Byron M.
Byron M.6 years ago

Healthcare is not subject to normal market forces! Anything that you have to buy at any random moment in order not to die is not something to which a rational supply/demand calculus can apply. Check out "Penny Health" articles on how to reduce the cost of insurance.

Byron M.
Byron M.6 years ago

Healthcare is not subject to normal market forces! Anything that you have to buy at any random moment in order not to die is not something to which a rational supply/demand calculus can apply. Check out "Penny Health" articles on how to reduce the cost of insurance.

Ra Sc
Ra Sc6 years ago

Part of the problem is that mental health is generally stigmatized and undervalued in the US, and pretty much everywhere else too. Mental health is a part of health, but we split it off and treat it very separately. It is often harder to get coverage to afford mental health care, and we don't encourage people to get annual check-ups to make sure they don't have a developing mental health problem. So, such problems tend to grow, and they don't get treatment until they have become far more severe. We need to recognize mental health as an important part of health, and recognize people who have mental health problems as people who have health problems - people who need medical help, not people who should be blamed or stigmatized.

Evelina Zaharieva

I was 7-8 years bulimic. I took so many laxatives that sometimes they didn't even work. I may not eat anything during the day, but the state of my intestines was so bad, that I HAD to take the laxatives, purely because my guts were already sick and malfunctioning. It turned from psychological to physical illness. At some point I thought I would never come out of this, that it will get worse and worse. My mother tried to talk to me sometimes, but we always ended in a fight. Of course she was very understanding and in fact her not involving in my 'business' helped me. At some point I thought 'Ok, let's try and lower the amount of laxatives today, for one week.' Next week I would lower the amount more. And so on. I still had food issues ( I used to eat a lot, or starve myself), but they gradually changed too. I wanted to be healthy, to be myself, to love myself, to see my body and perfect, and to realise that I don't want to hurt it. All these thougths helped me a lot! After a year (of not struggling, it was all a fluent process, I didn;t have to torture myself and ban myself certain foods, I just understood WHY I want to care about my body, love it), so after a year, I went out clean of this. During this year I ate a lot of fruits and veggies, which helped me better to go to the toilet with lower amount of laxatives. I didn't change much about my life, besides food and the laxatives.
Now I'm clean for over 2 years, go to the toilet minimum once a day (without the laxatives' h

Joan Mcallister
6 years ago

I am afraid that eating disorders will always carry a stigma, but it is more through ignorance because what people don't understand they label.

Sue H.
Sue H6 years ago

Mental health issues will always carry stigma. Sad.