Introduction to Eating Disorders, and Associated Stigma

By: Joseph Jacob

Products of one’s undue negative self-image, eating disorders are severe and complex conditions prevalent both in the United States and abroad. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), currently 24 million Americans struggle with an eating disorder (“Eating Disorders Statistics”). Another source determines that in the United States (home to about 323 million) approximately 20 million females and 10 million males will encounter eating disorders at some time during their lives (“Get the Facts on Eating Disorders”). These individuals face a certain range of conditions including anorexia—characterized by starvation, bulimia—characterized by binging and subsequent purging, binge eating—characterized by overeating, and Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (a.k.a. EDNOS). Because of their differences, each specific eating disorder should be approached uniquely (“Eating Disorders Statistics”). While difficult and perhaps misleading to generalize, eating disorders often stem from feelings of inadequacy, bullying, and the media’s ever-shrinking definition of beauty—all of which are harmful to an individual’s self-perception (“Factors That May Contribute to Eating Disorders”).

The Role of Stigma

When we consider the sensitivity that comes with anxiety disorders, even the term we use to identify these illnesses —eating disorder— may isolate an individual by suggesting that he or she is “disordered” or dysfunctional. So, even though individuals who suffer from eating disorders may be concerned primarily with their illness, they may also begin to fear an equally intrusive symptom—stigma. Stigma is defined as “a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something, “usually by way of misinformation” (“Stigma”). Stigma is notorious for creating negative stereotypes that attach easily to mental illnesses, and can be considerably dangerous when surrounding eating disorders as it can accentuate a sufferer’s present issues (e.g. guilt). So, stigma may keep a sufferer silent for fear that they will be associated with any unfair stereotypes.

Unfortunately, the most influential form of stigma is the self-inflicted stigma associated with weight and body shape that brings about unwarranted feelings of self-loathing. An individual will often morph their self-image into something they consider to be worse than reality. Thus, they may put themselves at great risk simply so that they may align with what they have been told by peers, media, and society as being “normal.” As French existentialist author, Albert Camus, puts it: “nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal” (Gluck).

Stigma and Depression

According to the ANAD, nearly half of the people with eating disorders meet the criteria for depression. This depression at least partially comes from the fear of being stigmatized. These individuals may encounter others who simply don’t understand the issue and dismiss it as a fad, a phase, or a lifestyle choice (“Get the Facts on Eating Disorders”). By extension, this can also apply to those struggling with other forms of mental conditions. Friends, family, and peers—even those who wish be supportive—may, due to misinformation, explain that their illness is imagined or temporary. This attitude may seem harmless even optimistic, however, its affect can be damaging. A person diagnosed with an eating disorder may become unconcerned with the reality of their illness. It becomes even more dangerous if an undiagnosed individual is indifferent and chooses not to seek help. However, eating disorders are extremely serious as they have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness (“Eating Disorders Statistics”). These high mortality rates, resulting from anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, indicate that they are multidimensional—having serious effects on a person’s emotional and physical health (“Eating Disorders Statistics”).


 “Eating Disorders Statistics.” ANAD. National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders, 2014. Web. 7 Sept. 2014.

“Get The Facts On Eating Disorders.” National Eating Disorders. NEDA, n.d. Web. 7 Sept. 2014.

 “Factors That May Contribute to Eating Disorders.” National Eating Disorders Association. NEDA, n.d. Web. 7 Sept. 2014.

“Stigma.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 7 Sept. 2014.

Gluck, Samantha. “Quotes on Mental Illness Stigma.” Healthy Place. Healthy Place, 29 Jan. 2013. Web. 7 Sept. 2014.

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