11/18/2013 01:34 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

6 Myths About Eating Disorders

When Karen Carpenter died of anorexia in 1983, it sparked a wave of campaigns designed to bring attention to what had been up until then a little-known eating disorder. Many of these initiatives focused on dispelling myths about anorexia--namely, that anorexics were superficial, rich white girls led astray by a warped fashion industry, or that they were demure ballerinas (also rich, white, and female) oppressed by a sadistic patriarchy. These myths weren't euhemeristic in nature, but grew almost in tandem with efforts to disprove them, which is almost enough to make one wonder if a preemptive cultural defense was being launched on behalf of anorexics everywhere. The truth is that we still know very little about eating disorders, and much of what we say we "know" is actually conventional wisdom adopted as fact by desperate parents, sufferers and uneducated bystanders. The following are not so much myths about eating disorders, but pieces of this conventional wisdom that I examine in my new book "How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia" [The Overlook Press, $26.95].

  • 1 You can never fully recover from an eating disorder.
    This idea probably arose from the 12-Step dogma, which says that one can never fully recover from an addiction but is always “in recovery.” There is no research––psychiatric or neurological––that confirms this. In fact, as recently as 2011, studies indicate that up to 60% of people with eating disorders fully recover. If you are someone who continues to struggle, you can fall into a cycle of blaming and furthering punishing yourself, so I can see how it would help to believe you aren’t responsible. However, I personally find the “forever recovering” aphorism fatalistic and disempowering, and I worry that when a person believes it, he or she can continue to endow anorexia with an unnecessary amount of allure and influence. Ultimately, what I object to the most is the constant presentation of this “always in recovery” idea as fact, when it really is in essence a cultural construct.
  • 2 Suffering from an eating disorder ultimately better prepares you to face hardships later in life.
    The idea that suffering makes one stronger is deeply embedded in our culture. Of course, sometimes suffering does help to strengthen an individual’s resolve, but it is dependent on the nature of the suffering and the person doing it. Anorexia is inherently infantilizing; it stalls emotional and physical growth, and when you begin to nourish yourself, you have to catch up to your peers both psychically and biologically. Focusing so much on the teleological value of hardship helps us to ignore the inherent value of self-care.
  • 3 One cannot make oneself become anorexic.
    Anyone familiar with anorexia knows about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, a post-WWI study in which conscientious objectors were monitored while they maintained a starvation diet. All the men in the study eventually began to exhibit classic anorexic behavior. They reported having diminished sex drives, obsessions with food and recipes, and overall listless, depressed affects. Despite their relative freedom, though, very few of the patients actually broke the diet, because they reported it taking on a nearly religious importance. There are numerous examples of people who have engaged in anorexic behavior in the name of a social cause, movie role or performance art piece. The counterargument to this is that these people don’t often require treatment to get better, but then again, neither do some diagnosable anorexics. Finally, I myself began as what is today known colloquially as a “wannarexic”––someone who finds anorexia glamorous and admirable––and, with determination and adherence to totally skewed views, ended up reaching my sad goal.
  • 4 In order to recover, an anorexic needs to find something that will take the place of his/her eating disorder.
    Throughout my early years in treatment, psychologists and counselors would tell patients that we ought to find something that satisfied us in the same way our eating disorder did. On my part, this led to dabble in collaging, writing bad poetry, and self-mutilation. While some of these endeavors were pleasant distractions, none were as compelling as anorexia, and I figured it must be some deficiency within me, or perhaps proof that anorexia was the most special, interesting, worthwhile gift I had been given. It was years later that a therapist told me nothing was going to make me feel that way, because in a sense, I was getting high off my eating disorder! It was an unnatural way to feel and instead off finding another way to feel it, I was going to have to learn to live without it.
  • 5 Anorexics are, contrary to popular belief, not superficial wannabe models. They are very intelligent perfectionists.
    This is kind of a debunking of a debunking of a myth. Anorexia is becoming more common amongst Hispanics, Asians, men, young children and older people, sure. It also happens to still be most prevalent amongst upper middle class white women between the ages of 12 and 25. Anorexics are human, too, despite their intense desire to prove they’re not, and they run the gamut in terms of intelligence, ambition and likability.
  • 6 It is more important to treat the mind than it is to treat the body.
    A lot of people decry heavy re-feeding regimens as “cruel” and claim that it’s necessary to treat the origins of the illness first so that the anorexic feels stable and motivated enough to begin eating again. The reality is that once a person is sufficiently malnourished––we know this invisible line exists, but are not sure exactly how to determine one has crossed it––his or her brain just isn’t as capable of rational thought, and therefore no amount of psychological counseling is going to convince the patient to eat. It is imperative that someone in medical distress be diligently re-nourished under the care of a physician, and that therapy be brought into the equation as early as possible.