Are you aware that more than 10 million American women and more than 1 million American men suffer from an eating disorder? Once you add in binge eating disorder, eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS) and subclinical disordered eating, that figure shoots up alarmingly.
Are you aware that 40% of new anorexia cases are in girls between the ages of 15 and 19? Most eating disorders begin as diets – diets are good, right? Everybody diet to be skinny, er, I mean healthy! – and spiral out of control.
Are you aware that the vast majority of people who suffer from EDs don’t get adequate treatment? Treatment, when it is available, is frightfully expensive and often not covered by insurance. There is very little funding devoted to research on EDs, despite how many Americans suffer from them.
Every year, I think, we become a little more aware of the prevalence and seriousness of EDs. Last year, when Pretzel Thins ran an ad claiming that “you can never be too thin,” people in New York City fought back, reminding the company that yes, you really can, and when you are it’s called Anorexia Nervosa. This year, the death of French model and long-time ED sufferer Isabelle Caro has reminded people what “too thin” looks like – terrifying, and deadly.
But that’s anorexia, which is pretty easy to spot, even if it isn’t easy to overcome. Bulimia and binge eating disorder are much harder to recognize, because they involve eating normally and then purging secretly, or eating large amounts, usually in secret. Because of this, bulimia and binge eating disorder can go on unnoticed and untreated far more easily, and for far longer, than anorexia can. In fact, the National Eating Disorders Association estimates that only 6% of bulimics get mental healthcare.
Eating disorders not otherwise specified and subclinical disordered eating are even trickier, partly because they’re so normalized by our culture. It’s hard to spot the difference, sometimes, between a very strict diet and disordered eating – the difference being that one is done purely to lose weight and with a sense of being able to stop at any time, while the other is done for deeper psychological reasons and with a sense of compulsion. Unless you know someone extremely well or are observing them very, very closely, it can be close to impossible to spot the difference and to know when to be concerned.
Very strict diets are encouraged, mostly for women, in our culture. So too is a cycle of eating a large meal or “overindulging” over the holidays, then dieting and exercising to purge the overindulgence. This combination of overeating, purging and restricting is reinforced in the culture, but it can so easily slip over the line into an Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.
So my challenge to you this Eating Disorders Awareness Week is to go beyond the obvious. Go beyond “very skinny = eating disorder” and learn a little more about the eating disorders that don’t manifest in such a visible or noticeable way. And, as always, don’t just stop at awareness – spread awareness. Share what you learn, use it in your daily life, host an awareness event next week or next month or next year. Because once you’re aware of the prevalence and the danger of eating disorders, it’s important to act. In fact, once you really know the toll they can take on a person’s mind, body and soul, it’s hard not to.