Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, and while people need to meet certain criteria to be diagnosed with a particular eating disorder, not everyone’s disorder will look the same. One of the most persistent and dangerous eating disorder stigmas is that a person with an eating disorder must appear extremely thin. Various phrases are notoriously and insidiously used to describe how a person with an eating disorder like bulimia nervosa should look to appear as if they have a legitimate disorder. Our Philadelphia eating disorder clinic is addressing bulimia stigma and eradicating these harmful misconceptions.
What Is Bulimia Nervosa?
Bulimia nervosa is a serious eating disorder characterized by binge eating, followed by methods to avoid weight gain, otherwise referred to as compensatory methods. Bulimia is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder.
Bulimia is linked to a distorted perception of body image, otherwise known as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). People with bulimia may secretly binge – eating large amounts of food with a loss of control over how much they’re eating – and then purge, which are ways they use to try to get rid of the extra calories to prevent weight gain.
People with bulimia nervosa may use various methods to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting and misusing laxatives, weight-loss supplements, diuretics, or enemas after binge eating. Other methods may also include excessive exercise, fasting, and strict dieting when not binge eating.
Common symptoms of bulimia nervosa include:
- Being preoccupied with body shape and weight
- Fear of gaining weight
- Repeated episodes of eating abnormally large amounts of food in one sitting
- Feeling like you can’t stop or control your eating
- Forcing yourself to vomit or exercising too much to keep from gaining weight after binge eating
- Using laxatives, diuretics, or enemas after eating to prevent weight gain
- Fasting, restricting calories, or avoiding certain foods between binge eating episodes
- Misusing dietary supplements or herbal products to lose weight
Professional eating disorder support can help individuals with bulimia nervosa recover from their symptoms and build healthy habits to support physical and mental well-being.
Bulimia Nervosa Stigma and Common Myths
Separating myth from fact is the first step toward helping people with bulimia seek the professional care they need. With its place in popular culture, the public has plenty of information about what bulimia nervosa is and the effect it has on people.
Unfortunately, for all of the facts and informative resources out there about this disorder, there are even more myths about bulimia nervosa that feed into the stigma. Bulimia nervosa stigma can cause misunderstandings concerning the nature of this disorder and its impact on people.
To stay safe and healthy, it’s important to debunk bulimia myths and highlight the facts. With that said, below are common points of bulimia stigma to watch out for.
Myth #1: Bulimia is all about food and weight gain.
Bulimia nervosa is not just about food and weight gain but is rather linked to underlying emotional and mental health problems. Many individuals with bulimia struggle with body dysmorphia, which is a mental illness marked by an obsessive focus on one’s perceived flaws in appearance.
BDD can lead to poor self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, and other negative effects on emotional and mental health. However, many people think that bulimia is centered on food, but it’s not.
They think that a person with bulimia nervosa is constantly obsessing over food and what and when they’re going to eat. Others believe that individuals with this eating disorder are just interested in losing weight and hitting a certain number on the scale.
This myth is especially dangerous as it perpetuates the belief that once a person with bulimia hits this number, their disordered eating will end. But that’s not the case.
It’s important to understand that the attention given to food and weight is only a symptom of the condition, and the real source of bulimia is a combination of biological, psychological, and social problems. Bulimia can be triggered by feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, low mood, and self-judgment based on one’s appearance.
A history of trauma and abuse can also lead to bulimia nervosa and other harmful behaviors as negative coping skills.
Myth #2: Bulimia is a woman’s disorder.
Bulimia nervosa can affect anyone of all ages. Mostly due to the media’s portrayal of young women with bulimia nervosa, many people are convinced this disorder is most common among females. [Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]This myth may even go a step further, with many people believing that only young, white women from upper-middle-class families have bulimia nervosa. While bulimia does affect young people and women primarily, all genders can develop this disorder.
Also, young people aren’t the only ones who can develop bulimia nervosa. In fact, the window of onset for symptoms ranges from puberty to age 40. Bulimia stigma concerning age and gender is damaging because a male, older person, or a person from a group that’s not associated with bulimia may struggle to find the support they need.
Myth #3: Bulimia is a choice.
This bulimia myth is similar to the myth that people with addictions could just stop anytime they want to. And like that myth, the one about bulimia being a choice is not true.
Most, if not all, people with bulimia nervosa would love to stop the damaging cycle of binge eating and purging if they could, but the thoughts and compulsions that lead them to engage in these behaviors are often too strong to control without professional support.
The power of a person’s hereditary disposition, mental illness, and previous life experience can keep them stuck in this cycle, regardless of how much they want to feel better. For this reason, it’s important that individuals with eating disorders find body dysmorphic disorder treatment and other resources to recover.
Myth #4: People with bulimia only purge by vomiting.
A person with bulimia may purge, prevent weight gain, or try to lose weight in many ways. Purging is a core symptom of bulimia nervosa.
After a person with bulimia experiences binge eating (eating large amounts of food), their fear of gaining weight will cause them to purge or get rid of those calories. While vomiting is the most well-known form of purging in people with bulimia nervosa, other ways of purging or preventing weight gain after binge eating include using laxatives, enemas, and diuretics, as well as excessively exercising.
No matter the method, however, purging in any form is dangerous and unhealthy.
Myth #5: Bulimia is easily recognizable.
This myth ties into the belief that people with eating disorders need to look a certain way to have an eating disorder. However, bulimia is harder to spot than you might think.
With eating disorders and other mental health conditions, appearances are not always what they seem, and it’s often difficult for someone to tell whether another individual has bulimia just by looking at them. As with other eating disorders, there’s a level of secrecy that comes with bulimia.
The person may become skilled at hiding their binge eating and compensatory behaviors while going out of their way to appear perfectly happy and unaffected. Someone who purges through self-induced vomiting, for instance, could learn to make excuses for their frequent trips to the bathroom after meals.
Someone with bulimia who excessively exercises may appear as someone interested in improving their fitness rather than someone who follows patterns of disordered eating. Shame and guilt about the disorder fuel this desire for secrecy, which can limit the individual’s access to support.
Get Bulimia Help Today
Bulimia stigma and myths can make it difficult for people to find the support they need to feel better. If you or someone you care about has an eating disorder, know that there’s no shame in asking for help or sharing your story.
Banyan Treatment Centers offers Philadelphia eating disorder treatment for all kinds of disorders that can help you or your loved one change their lives for the better. With the use of individual therapy, group counseling, and nutritional support, our specialists offer the guidance needed to make positive and permanent changes in disordered eating habits.