A few weeks ago, the woman whose womb I once inhabited for 9 months (otherwise known as my mother), was chatting to a fellow human, and during the conversation my mother mentioned the fact that her offspring, aka me, has anorexia. The first response to be uttered (after the obligatory “Oh dear that is sad”), was the question “what size is she?”.
Has a more irrelevant question ever been asked? The answer is no. It is a question equivalent to asking someone with a broken leg “what colour is your cast?”, as if that will tell you about whatever funny business the bones are doing inside. Honestly I do not know what size I was before I heard of this incident, but right now I can assure you I am well and truly FURIOUS sized (like fun size chocolate bars only less fun, more rage.)
Unfortunately, this ridiculousness is a common response or question when someone hears that another person has an eating disorder, so I want to clarify one vital piece of information that everyone needs to know:
The weight or size of a person will never tell you how ill or how well someone is with an eating disorder.
Eating disorders (though obviously having implications in the “real world” in terms of behaviour around food/affect on physical composition of the body), are mental illnesses, the severity of which will never be judged by a number on the scales or a size on a pair of jeans. People with eating disorders can be underweight, a healthy weight or they can be overweight, but no matter what size, you will not be able to tell from their appearance what is going on inside their heads. Not only can you not tell the mental strain from appearance, you cannot tell the physical strain and the effect the illness is having on the body either. People with eating disorders die with bones popping out all over the place at a BMI of 2, but they also die whilst looking healthy or overweight because the physical complications caused by these illnesses are so much deeper and more complex than “weight loss”. Heart attacks caused by the body eating heart muscle for energy, electrolyte imbalances caused by purging and insufficient nutrition, and multiple organ failure caused by the general strain of eating disorders on the body are but three of the many ways people lose their lives in the fight and all of these things are invisible on surface level.
It isn’t even as if this misconception that eating disorders can be seen benefits anyone, as it is a dangerous belief for all involved. Sufferers may feel they aren’t really ill because they don’t look like the stereotypical skeletal pictures of people with eating disorders in the media, parents may not take their child’s issues to food seriously because they “look alright”, and medical professionals might deny input or treatment because the weight of the patient isn’t “too low” so they “can’t be that bad”. It is also an idea that even damages people who are trying to recover from an eating disorder, as sometimes help is withdrawn once weight is no longer “low” which is exactly the time that people need to be supported most.
Many people have even been refused treatment at all until the number on the scales is seen as corresponding to being “anorexic”, and until May 2013, there was actually a BMI criteria that had to be met in order to officially be diagnosed. Thankfully, the new DSM (basically a massive book that gives the lists of symptoms one needs to be diagnosed with any mental disorder) has revised this issue and anorexia can now be diagnosed in people of any weight, but despite this, the misconception still remains. It isn’t exactly unusual to hear the word “anorexic” used as an adjective to describe someone’s frail appearance, a casual turn of phase that further perpetuates the issue. Unless you have insanely magical x-ray vision and can see the thoughts and fears someone is harbouring about food (and if you do have such vision please go to a doctor as you are a medical marvel and could potentially help a lot of people with unseen medical conditions…or find buried treasure…but more importantly help people), you will never see a person “looking anorexic”.
The myth that eating disorders can be seen or measured is a dangerous, stigma inducing and potentially fatal story that needs to stop being told. If you really like myths, maybe give Theseus and the minotaur a go (it’s actually rather good, there is a maze with string, monsters and everything), but whatever you do please don’t believe the one I have attempted to debunk in this post.