Article Contributor: Catherine Stuart, writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope
Unless we have lived it ourselves, bulimia may seem clouded in mystery. Without the facts, misinformation circulates. If we want to be part of the solution, we do well to become more informed about this troubling psychological disorder. Here are a few common misunderstandings.
MYTH #1: It’s all about weight.
Yes, bulimics do tend to become focused on their weight, but to a certain extent that’s incidental.
And yes, our culture—and especially the media—do inform our idea of beauty, creating an unhealthy pressure to conform to an unrealistic ideal. But those are external factors that we all face, and most of us will not have an eating disorder in our lifetimes.
The truth is, eating disorders don’t show up in otherwise emotionally healthy individuals. Bulimia develops out of a complicated mixture of biological, psychological, and social factors.
Underlying issues typically include:
- Feelings of inadequacy
Bulimic women tend to be eager to please, avoiding conflict and hiding their negative emotions. They may feel powerless over their hidden anguish and lack the skills to cope with negative feelings constructively. For some, the tendency to develop an eating disorder is stimulated by a stressful life transition such as moving or going off to college.
Abuse and Traumatic Events
Some bulimics have suffered abuse or a traumatic event. Others may be involved in an activity or a job that sets a high bar for how they look or perform.
The eating disorder, then, becomes an outward way to solve interior distress. Bulimics use food intake and weight control to find respite from everyday emotional conflicts.
Episodes of bingeing provide a way to emotionally “check out.” And by purging, or using laxatives, or exercising excessively, bulimics regain a sense of personal power, however fleeting.
They feel they’ve won a victory over food and over their bodies.
Erasing Evidence of Struggle
These dangerous attempts to avoid weight gain are also motivated by a felt need to “erase” any evidence of their inner and external struggles. If no one knows, they can continue to appear like they are on top of things. They can continue to pursue the world’s approval.
In fact, most bulimics report that they care a great deal what other people think. This desire to keep up appearances, and a tendency toward perfectionism, are common personality traits found in those who fall prey to this destructive compulsive behavior.(1)
MYTH #2: It’s their parents’ fault
The idea that eating disorders most likely point to a dysfunctional home life is outdated and false. The exact cause is unknown, but studies point to a range of factors. We know that genetics play a significant role, as well as:
- Other biological factors
- Psychological traits
- Cultural experiences
The most constructive thing family members of bulimics can do is to become educated and involved in the treatment process themselves. Eating disorders wreak havoc on a family unit, but loving families play a vital role in recovery. (1)
MYTH #3: It’s about food.
Most of us enjoy eating a variety of foods, and occasionally we overindulge. It’s easy to assume that those who binge simply enjoy and obsess about food too much, or lack will power. But that’s not the case.
Bulimia is a serious psychological disorder.
Bulimics report that their enjoyment of the food during a bingeing episode is momentary at best. As they consume abnormally large quantities of food at a time, it’s often with little concern for what kind of foods they’re eating. Any enjoyment is quickly followed by a sense of utter powerlessness and disgust with themselves.
That disgust leads to lower self esteem and even depression, which in turn fuels the vicious cycle of disordered eating.
Bulimics come to feel they can’t be trusted around food; food makes them feel anxious, shameful, and out of control. Yet they must interact with food every day of their lives. That’s one reason a successful recovery program requires guidance from professionals well-versed in eating disorders and includes nutritional rehabilitation.(1)
MYTH #4: It’s easy to spot.
A variation of this myth is “I would know if my child was bulimic.”
It’s not possible to determine for certain whether someone has an eating disorder by judging their weight. In most bulimia cases, the sufferer is not noticeably overweight or underweight, although they may display some weight fluctuations.
Outside Appearances Are Deceiving
It is possible for someone to appear physically fit and yet struggle with bulimia. In addition to the purging type of bulimia, there’s a second type in which other methods are used to compensate for binge episodes. Rather than purge, they may fast or use exercise to counteract weight gain.
The person who exercises excessively out of commitment to their sport or physical health is hard to distinguish from the one who exercises excessively to eliminate the outward affects of a high-caloric binge episode.
Hiding the Disease Is Top Priority
Bulimics often hide their disorder behind a competent and confident façade. The shame-producing nature of the disease leads to a lifestyle of secrecy and deceit. For the one stuck in this behavior, hiding their episodes becomes a top concern. (1)
MYTH #5: Bulimia only affects young women.
While the majority of those seeking treatment for bulimia are young women, males are susceptible as well. The statistics for men are less reliable, because it’s believed that fewer men are comfortable seeking treatment.
In a worrisome trend, a growing number of women in their 30s, 40s and 50s are seeking treatment for eating disorders than in the past. (2)
- Brisman, Judith, Michele Siegel and Margot Weinshel. Surviving an Eating Disorder:Third Edition: Strategies for Family and Friends. Harper Perennial; 3 Rev Upd edition. 2009. Print.
- Someah, Kathleen L. “Studies and Statistics on Disordered Eating in Women Age 30 and Over.” http://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/treatment-for-eating-disorders/special-issues/older-women/statistics-rates. Accessed: September 30, 2014.