I hear it when I’m out with friends. “Do you think that person has an eating disorder?” Sometimes they’re pointing to a very thin woman. Sometimes they’re pointing to a man with a large belly. But no matter who they are talking about, the answer is always, “I have no idea.”
You see, just because I’m an eating disorders expert, that doesn’t mean I have some superpower of eating disorder detection. I can’t see people’s brittle bones or failing kidneys. I have no idea if someone’s heart is functioning well or brain shows signs of malnutrition. None of us can. But we stereotype bodies left and right, and it’s flat out disrespectful.
Some people have more curves. Some people are meant to have very little body fat. I was always taught my male body was only attractive if it looked ripped like Matthew McConaughey’s in Magic Mike. It never dawned on me that my Russian Jewish ancestry precluded that possibility and I was meant to look like Topol in Fiddler on the Roof. When I lost a lot of weight during my senior year in high school, I was a practicing anorexic though never would have been diagnosed as I didn’t look it. I was a heavy kid turned average sized kid. Plus, I was a guy! You only looked at girls and thought of eating disorders at the time. You can’t tell by looking.
Many times I’ve seen large individuals identified as having an eating disorder because so many of us are now conditioned to think of obesity as an eating disorder. And it’s not. There is nothing to be ashamed of if you’re living in a bigger body. There are plenty of very healthy folks across the body size and shape spectrum. But the shame and stigma perpetrated on both larger and smaller folks is often what drives the start of disordered eating that can become an eating disorder.
What you can pay attention to are changes in people’s behavior and body, such as if your friend or loved one has:
- lost a significant amount of weight in a short period of time
- gained a significant amount in a short period
- lost interest in social gatherings
- become isolated, depressed, or more anxious especially around food-related events
- started spending hours a day in the gym
- become more focused or fixated on their weight or musculature
If so, you can talk to them about these signs and others. Tell them you love them, that you want them to seek help, and that you’ll be there for them through the journey.
But don’t just assume from looking at them there’s a problem. You have to talk to really know.
By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, LICSW, CEDS - Founder and CEO at The Body Image Therapy Center. If you would like to get in touch with Andrew please call 877-674-2843 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.