Eating disorders affect around 1.25 million people in the UK, a quarter of whom are male, and less than 10% of whom are affected by anorexia. Yet the most common image of an eating disorder sufferer that persists in many people’s minds is of a young, emaciated woman. It’s a stereotype that’s not just misleading, but also perpetuates harmful weight stigma and could prevent many people living with eating disorders from accessing the support they need.
According to national eating disorder charity Beat, anorexia makes up just 8% of all eating disorder cases in the UK, while binge eating disorder is actually the most common – accounting for 22% of cases.
“You cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them,” Beat states. “While it is true that some sufferers of anorexia are severely emaciated, some are not, and the majority of eating disorder sufferers do not have anorexia. Those suffering from bulimia may be within the normal weight range or may be overweight, while those with binge eating disorder are often overweight.”
The problem with weight stigma, explains Beat spokesperson Jamie Osborn, is that “certain people don’t fit the stereotype of what people think an eating disorder is, so they may not realise they have an eating disorder themselves, or may not realise that’s actually something they can get treatment for”.
Equally, he adds, they may try to seek help and be sent away on the grounds that they’re either ‘too fat’ or ‘not thin enough’ to have an eating disorder – which can lead to eating disorder behaviours becoming more and more entrenched. “The sooner someone gets help, the better their chances of recovery. The longer you delay getting help, the more entrenched those behaviours become, and the harder recovery can be.”