Stigmas Surrounding Eating Disorders


Elizabeth Thornton Cronin and Anne

Reprinted from "Stigma" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2(5), p. 27

stock photoElizabeth: In the past you've hesitated about sharing your story. This time, you agreed right away. Why?

Anne: I feel I've been 'in the closet.' I know this analogy doesn't have anything to do with mental health, but I feel I suffer the same stigma as gays did in the past. We hide our 'true lives.' We have come a long way in understanding gender differences. I want to help us to come out of the closet and for the public to understand the bulimics and anorexics.

E: Do you believe other mental illnesses are better understood and more 'accepted' than eating disorders?

A: Yes. Absolutely. My personal experience has to do with my mother who suffered from depression and anxiety, when it was 'not talked about.' Many moons ago, she was prescribed tranquillizers that were 'not talked about' in our family. Later on she received therapy and took antidepressants. Today, as an older person, she can speak openly about her medication and her support systems. In fact, many of her friends have similar treatments, and so she feels safe in speaking out. This has made her stronger and more confident, and we joke about the "old days" of her "secret" pills. I think if I were to ask everyone I worked with over a week, there would be many who would come forth about suffering from depression. I think that they feel safe in talking about it. No one talks about eating disorders.

E: In your opinion, why are eating disorders-in your words-still "in the closet"?

A: On most of my attempts to 'come clean' and speak to my friends and family about my eating disorder, they turn it into me dieting. They talk about food and how I'm trying to be skinny. They don't listen. They just don't get it. It's easier to hide in the closet and stop talking to them about it. None of my family members want to know why I have had this illness.

Do you know what it's like? I go to a family function, and I get, "Oh, you are way too thin! You need meat on your bones." And, "You look pale. I better show you how to make a good meal." Everyone watches what I eat. No one asks about, or wants to listen to, the causes. It would be easier for me to say that I lose weight because I am depressed. That they could understand.

E: After the stigmas she went through, does your mother better understand your stigma?

A: My mother is elderly now. She cannot comprehend the concept of purging. The less she knows, the better.

E: You have shared with me what you believe to be the triggers that contributed to your eating disorders. When you've shared this with your friends and family, have they better understood your illness?

A: No. No one wants to take responsibility for my problems. They find it repulsive that I'm a bulimic. I've had a relative say that they can picture me vomiting in the bathroom, and that I should be ashamed of myself. I think she sees it as a 'spoiled kid's rebellion.'

E: You've met others with eating disorders. Do you think they feel the same way about the stigma?

A: Yes, I meet people all the time who had disordered eating and experimented with diets that went too far. But they stopped. Eating disorders are something else. I felt like I was in an AA meeting when I went to my first support group about 18 months ago. It was the best thing I have done. We could be open with each other.

I think it was best put in context when one woman in the support group-a high school teacher-said that she tried to document her need for a leave of absence due to her anorexia. When she honestly submitted her forms and supporting documents, she was urged to qualify her leave of absence as being for her 'depression,' because her colleagues and the administration would fully understand this due to classroom stress levels. She interpreted this as: if her colleagues knew she was anorexic, they would have seen her as being 'irresponsible' and 'out of control.' So she decided to stay in the closet and document her absence as depression.

E: How should we address these stigmas?

A: Time will take its course, like it did with gender issues, depression and anxiety. I've decided to train with ANAD for their community outreach presentations. After completing their program, I will be able to deliver positive body image presentations to schools, businesses and others. By doing this, time and time again, we will break down the stigma wall.

About the authors

Elizabeth Thornton Cronin is a former Executive Director of Awareness and Networking Around Disordered Eating (ANAD)

Anne, now a 33-year-old high school teacher, reflects on the stigmas of having bulimia. From age 8 to 16, she was bullied by her male cousins; her scars were shown in her bulimia. Anne has not purged for 30 months and is confident in her current support systems