The last week in February serves as National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. The Mayo Clinic defines Eating Disorders as; "a preoccupation with an ideal body type, disordered thinking about weight and weight loss, and unsafe eating and dieting habits," and it is among the top 5 most common mental health challenges in America. In order to better understand the breadth and impact that disordered eating has on children, young adults, and their parents it is helpful to take a look at some of the statistics, as well as hear from a mom who has lived experiences raising a child who struggled with disordered eating.
Eating disorders are broken down into different "types" and here you can see the three most common as well as the "other" section that encompasses some of the other types of disordered eating that people can experience. Anorexia Nervosa is not only the most common eating disorder, but it is also the deadliest mental health challenge in America. Every fifty-two minutes 1 person dies from an eating disorder. These deaths are not only caused by malnutrition or starvation but also about 26% of people with an eating disorder attempt suicide, according to ANAD.
Like many mental health challenges disordered eating, and the treatment associated with it is often not the same for everybody. According to ANAD, BIPOC individuals with eating disorders are half as likely to be diagnosed or receive treatment for their eating disorder, and Asian American college students report "higher levels of body image issues and negative attitudes towards obesity than non-Asian American BIPOC" peers. Boys and young adult males who are gay are 7 times more likely to report binge-eating, and 12 times more likely to report purging than their straight peers. The transgender community is also disproportionately affected and transgender youth and young adults have reported eating disorders at 4 times the rate of their cisgender peers. "Less than 6% of people with eating disorders are medically diagnosed as 'underweight,'" according to ANAD. Their website features a section that takes a look at how people in larger bodies are impacted by eating disorders, and how they are half as likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder.
To find more information about how different groups of individuals are impacted differently click here.
Society plays heavily into the stigmas surrounding eating disorders. Not only does society help to cause disordered eating by continuing to push "the thin ideal" on people (especially women) at a very young age, but it also has made people think that skinny = healthy and fat = unhealthy. This dangerous idea contributes to disordered eating, fatphobia, and takes a massive toll on the mental health and body image of everyone, especially children and young adults.
For information on how to improve your own body image, what affects it, and symptoms of someone having a bad body image click here.
Few things are as powerful as lived experiences. That is why we not only wanted to highlight some facts and statistics to bring attention to National Eating Disorder Awareness Week but also speak to a mom who has experience raising a child who struggled with disordered eating. Beth Orr shared with us her insight on raising her daughter Riley, looked back on what she would have done differently, and gave us advice for how she feels parents can best support their child throughout their recovery process.
Riley was 13 when her father suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. "Initially there was no reaction from her. The disordered eating started a year after he passed away. She went to outpatient and inpatient treatment her freshman year of high school and Riley was not in recovery until college." Beth has worked in the mental health field for 30 years but had little experience working with disordered eating. "I thought with my career and experience I should be able to help but I felt so lost. I didn't know how to help her myself."
"I would advise trying to catch it as early as possible. I saw signs and I was in denial. The worse it got it became obvious I needed to help. Stay very supportive of your child and keep letting them know how much you love them. Stay strong, and trust me I know that is much easier said than done, it can be really devastating to watch. It is such a tough and sensitive topic to bring up, especially in the very beginning, but address it early because it will be so much better for your child in the long run," said Beth.
"If I had to do this all over again I would have never had a scale in my house, and I would only talk positively about myself and my body. Now my daughter is 22 and engaged and she plans to never talk about her body negatively with her children. We do talk about health, and that is great, but you need to remember that size does not equal health, and a lot of people think it does," said Beth. For more information on how to keep a body-positive atmosphere in your house click here to hear from an Eating Disorder Specialist on how she handles conversations about weight and food with her own children, as well as how she celebrates the diversity of beauty.
Beth encourages any parent raising a child who is struggling with disordered eating to have an honest conversation with the family and family friends who are in your child's life. "My family was very supportive when I told them they should not be talking about eating or weight with Riley. Once she got into a recovery phase where she had gained an appropriate amount of weight they got less sensitive. Encourage them to continue to be sensitive well after recovery."
When asked about how she thinks social media plays a role in a young person's self-esteem and body image Beth said; "Ugh we have conversations about this all the time. Social media is toxic. So many people make jokes about it, like when I see people joking about gaining weight in quarantine. People don't always realize how insensitive they are being. A lot of people still look at disordered eating as a diet or wanting to lose weight and not as a mental health challenge. Even throughout the pandemic, I am astonished by how many advertisements I see about weightloss and thinness being the ultimate goal in life," said Beth. "There is some good to it, follow the positive accounts like NEDA and other ones with a similar message. There is a good side that can help people," said Beth.
Riley, now 22, has become an advocate for body positivity and eating disorder awareness. She was a student at West Chester University and used her lived experiences to be one of those positive forces on social media. Her senior project was called #Banbodybashing and its social media presence served as a reminder to anybody who came across its posts that their body is beautiful and talking about it negatively and should be avoided.
Resources to get help or further your research on disordered eating:
Some body-positive accounts to follow: