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Beyond the Stereotypes of Eating Disorders

But you don’t look underweight.. You look… great.’
I stop dead in the centre of the pavement, almost knocking my friend over. My lovely, kind, thoughtful friend with the softest marshmallow heart, who I know only wants to make me feel better. But when it’s taken you years to summon up the courage to tell a good friend that you have an eating disorder, this is the last thing you want to hear.
If you haven’t experienced issues with food,  you probably – understandably – can’t see what the fuss is about. ‘You look great.’ It’s such a positive thing to say, right? Such an affirming thing. Everyone wants to feel they look great.

Eating Disorders and harmful thoughts

That’s without taking into account Eating Disorder Translate. If you haven’t encountered this before, it’s like Google Translate, but far more harmful. Tell someone who struggles with food and their body image that they look ‘Great’, and EDT offers some punishing translations.

Depending on the nature of your friend’s relationship with food, take your pick from:

‘You look bigger. You’ve lost control.”
Or: ‘You’re succeeding with controlling the bingeing. Well, that won’t last. You’re bound to screw it up. Why not get it over with?’
Or: ‘You obviously aren’t ill any longer. So why are you still feeling so scared of food? There must be something wrong with you.’
Or: ‘You obviously aren’t ill any longer. So why are you taking up valuable therapy when someone else could do it?’
There are, in fact, as many versions of Eating Disorder Translate as there are individuals who live with issues around food.
It’s not your fault. You haven’t been stupid or insensitive, you were just trying to be a good friend. You just don’t know about or underestimate the power of ED translate. This algorithm acts as a gatekeeper between the person living with the disorder and the world. Whatever is said, whatever is offered, is weaponised by the algorithm as further evidence to keep the disorder alive and kicking.

Blast through those stereotypes

A good start is to do a bit of reading about Eating Disorders. The Dorset Mind website is an excellent place to start – they offer Restored mentoring and an online support group. Another brilliant organisation is BEAT, the UK eating disorders charity.
They’ll help deconstruct some common assumptions about the kind of person who lives with this condition.
Think eating disorder and you probably think of a frail, young white, straight, middle class woman on a hospital bed. Anorexia in young women is certainly, heartbreakingly, on the rise. However, anorexia accounts for just 8% of people with eating disorders – but it’s also the most deadly. More than twice as many people experience binge eating disorder (22%) and bulimia (19%). Even more live with the clumsily named other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED) 47%.

And at least 25% of those people will be male; What’s more, despite the white stereotype, it’s estimated that eating disorders are at least as common amongst BAME people. More research is urgently needed into prevalence amongst these communities and people from less affluent and LGBT+ backgrounds.

It’s not about the numbers

Moreover, the scales tell you nothing. Someone can have a BMI in the ‘healthy’ range, but achieving this by a daily torturous ritual of over exercising and restriction. Maybe they are also still plagued by what some people call ‘the eating disorders voice.’
Older women who kick ass at their day jobs get it; women and men who care for others, as parents, carers or by profession get it. And as we’ve seen from his incredibly brave appearances on screen and on radio, sportspeople like Freddie Flintoff get it. If your daily life is dominated by worries about how much you’re eating; you second guess yourself each time you eat something; if you feel out of control sometimes around food, or you feel you need to ‘pay’ for eating by getting rid of it through exercise or making yourself sick; you might have an eating disorder.

How can you help a friend who’s struggling?

So you’re reading this, and you recognise this behaviour in a friend, and you want to reach out to them, but how can you reduce the risk that whatever you say doesn’t get distorted by ED translate?

Sometimes the simplest things are the best.

You can start with ‘Thank you for telling me’
Or: ‘Do you want to talk about it?’
‘How can I help you?’
Or just ‘That must be really hard.’
Any of these suggestions are better than statements about the person’s appearance, because they tell your friend that you’re right by their side.  They create a tiny crack between the ED and your friend. With support, it’s a crack that can widen and let the sunlight and fresh air flood in.
And if you’re reading this and you recognise yourself, please get help.
Talk to your GP. And if you’re not happy with the answer you get, keep trying. You don’t have to live with the ED translate.

Huge thanks to our blogger…

Thanks to our guest blogger Sarah, who’s shared her experience with us recently and ‘outed’ herself to us (Sarah’s own words). Sarah is nearly 50 and it’s only last year that she’s felt comfortable enough to start to open up about her eating disorder.
Dorset Mind’s Restored Eating Disorder service supports people from 16+ by providing mentoring and an online support group. Follow this link to find out more or email Romy at for an initial talk and assessment.

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