Breaking the Social Stigmas of Bulimia

Contributor: Kirsten Haglund, Community Relations Representative for Timberline Knolls and Founder and President of the Kirsten Haglund Foundation

Eating Disorders come in all shapes and sizes. One of the most persistent and dangerous myths about eating disorders is that the one suffering must appear extremely thin. The phrase “holocaust survivor” is notoriously and insidiously used to describe what the culture assumes someone with an eating disorder should look like.

The reason this lie is so damaging is that many people (some clinicians would go so far as to say most people) that struggle with eating disorders, especially bulimia, are not necessarily underweight. They may be at a normal weight, their weight may fluctuate drastically, or they may be overweight.

The truth is, you simply cannot diagnose someone with an eating disorder, especially if it is characterized by the binge purge cycle, by what you see on the outside.

Why This Myth Is so Dangerous

This myth is also dangerous, because it keeps those that struggle from getting the treatment that they need. Bulimia sufferers deal with intense preoccupation with weight and body shape. This can lead them to believe (incorrectly) that they aren’t “thin enough” or “sick enough” for treatment, even though they possibly engage in binge-purge cycles multiple times per week, or even per day.

In fact, one of my preeminent role models in the field of eating disorders says that “…just one day struggling in the darkness of an eating disorder, is enough to deserve proper treatment.” Sickness and the need for proper care are not determined by a weight or a body size.

Perpetuating the Isolation of an Eating Disorder

sun-339618_640These myths help perpetuate the isolation of those struggling to recover from bulimia. In fact, the social stigma and shame surrounding the binge purge cycle is incredibly detrimental to recovery.

However, recognizing and fighting some of the social stigmas surrounding the illness can create a more fertile environment for the openness and surrender that is necessary for recovery.

So, a few points:

Stigma is a Problem for Eating Disorders in General:

It is important to recognize that all those who struggle with eating disorders suffer from the social stigma associated with mental health issues, including anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder and EDNOS. That is why recovered individuals speaking out about their struggles is so helpful in humanizing the illness and showing that full recovery is possible.

Culture Plays a Big Role in Perpetuating the Binge-Purge Cycle:

We constantly get conflicting messages from the media and advertising: be in control, have it all together, make it to the top, be the best you can be at all times. Simultaneously, we hear: be the life of the party, indulge your pleasures, satisfy yourself, let it all go. It is enough to drive anyone into a disordered, unhealthy relationship with food, alcohol, or other destructive tendencies, because how can you have both?

You can’t have your cake and eat it too (forgive the pun, but it works very well here). Simultaneous messages of extreme self-control and self-gratifying abandonment help create the confusion and black-and-white thinking that dominate the minds of those battling bulimia.

Differentiators of Bulimia:

Since bulimia is not always associated with weight loss, often the behaviors can be hidden well. Also, purging comes in many forms: culture usually correlates bulimia with vomiting, but fasting, exercise and laxative abuse are also considered purging behaviors.

Intense Shame and Guilt Keeps People in the Dark:

Woman painterThese emotions can consume the one struggling, leaving them with feelings of hopelessness and despair. This is why treatment is so important. Bulimia is not a phase, contrary to popular belief. It is not a cycle someone is able to break on their own.

Bulimic behaviors can provide a “high,” seemingly the only way to deal with difficult feelings or circumstances. The next minute, food is the source of all problems. Furthermore, stigma and stereotypes about dieting and weight can lead some medical professionals to overlook these symptoms as not being serious.

The Power of Openness and Vulnerability Brings People into the Light:

Putting a face on bulimia helps the public come to grips with the realities of the illness and view sufferers as people first. Thankfully, with good treatment and support, people can and do recover from bulimia and they do escape the binge-purge cycle. When individuals recover and speak about their story in a healthy way, it helps combat the social stigma and shame.

Increasing Attention and Awareness of this Stigma

As is the case with any illness, increased attention, awareness, and putting a face on the issue helps with public understanding immensely. Sometimes it takes years to change social stigma, sometimes decades. But with increasing treatment options, resources, and celebrities and public figures coming out about their struggles, the tide is turning from glamorizing these illnesses.

Myths are being debunked. Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes – so does recovery. The bottom line is that no amount of social stigma or shame can keep the individual dedicated to healing, out of the light.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

Have you or your loved one struggled with the social stigmas of bulimia? What advice do you have to share from your recovery?

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on April 18th, 2015
Published on