What is the impact of the stereotypical image of an individual with an eating disorder?

Adrienne Rennie has recently conducted a postgraduate research study at Swansea University as part of the Masters programme in Abnormal and Clinical Psychology. With help from eating disorder charity B-eat, she explored stereotypes within eating disorders and their effects on non-stereotypical individuals. Here, she gives us a summary of her findings…

Previous research has understood the stereotype to be a young, white female. However, it has been indicated, in recent years, that eating disorders in more atypical demographics including men (LGBTQ+ men in particular), ethnic minorities, and working classes etc., were on the increase. Evidence also pointed to eating disorders like binge eating disorder and bulimia having a relation to such demographics, which triggered debate of whether certain demographics and certain eating disorders more stereotypically portrayed and considered than others.

The study carried out interviews with eight people who had a history with eating disorders and self-identified as non-stereotypical. Stereotypes were not specified, which allowed for greater diversity within the sample. Participants discussed what they believed the eating disorder stereotype to be and how it interacted and affected their experience with an eating disorder. Overall, participants viewed the stereotype as young, white and female with some specifications of affluent backgrounds. Some participants acknowledged their alignment with this stereotype but remained to feel excluded because of the overall presentation of their eating disorder.

In other words, participants expressed such feelings because of their weight and their type of eating disorder. They felt they didn’t match the criteria: very skinny and a restrictive eating pattern that aligned with anorexia nervosa. As a result, participants were either denied or delayed help. They believed this was due to a misinformation within mental and physical healthcare, particularly within GP surgeries. Participants believed this was due to education within healthcare primarily focusing on the aforementioned stereotype. Therefore, there is a need for further education and research that fully incorporates the continuum within eating disorders. Moreover, participants voiced support for mental health specialisation within primary care. Both further education and specialisation may result in a higher chance of early intervention.

Adding to the effect the stereotype has on healthcare, collectively participants struggled to recognise their own illness. Some didn’t recognise their illness because if it was atypical in presentation and appearance. Similar to healthcare professionals, participants delayed seeking help because they didn’t think they were ill. Therefore, the eating disorder was allowed to worsen. For those aware they had an eating disorder, they felt unworthy of receiving help. They said that an unwritten hierarchy forms within eating disorders so more stereotypical cases rank higher. This results in a competitive nature to climb higher in the rankings. As such, it enables disordered eating with the rationale to prove they have an eating disorder to both society and healthcare.

This again reiterates the benefit of earlier intervention to prevent manifestation of symptoms. Additionally, individuals may recognise their symptoms quicker if the educational materials are more inclusive in eating disorder presentation and demographics.

Hopefully, with this year’s EDAW theme being ‘Breaking Barriers’, we can explore the diversity of disordered eating presentations, and raise awareness around the ones which are lesser known to ensure that everyone can access appropriate and timely treatment.

Twitter: @AdrienneRennie

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