Stereotypes around eating disorders keep people from seeking the treatment they need

Amanda Loudin

Lauren Chan has been in the fashion industry long enough to have a strong opinion about how it contributes to disordered eating. The 29-year old is a former plus-size model and editor at Glamour magazine and says that fashion, entertainment and the media perpetuate the myth of an idealized body type that for most people, is unattainable. “We see 5,000 ads a day, all featuring the same kind of image,” she says. “The message we receive is clear, but if you look around at the people in your life, very few look like that.”

The fall out, says Chan, is that people end up with low self-esteem, life threatening eating disorders, and a widespread, unhealthy diet culture. “It’s hard to find women who are unscathed from this,” she says.

In response to a fashion industry that doesn’t design much for larger sizes, Chan has created Henning, luxury garments for women size 12 and up. “I’ve been the one in a meeting or an interview where I’m covering up a split in my pants,” she says. “Only about 17 percent of the clothing available is for plus-sized women.”

While being more inclusive to all body types is one piece of the puzzle in helping to eliminate the desire for a certain look, there’s much work to be done. February 24 to March 1 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and the theme is “Come as You Are.”

Eating disorders don't discriminate

Just as the entertainment and fashion industries idealize a certain look, when it comes to eating disorders, most people think of that same thin, white woman as victim. The truth is, the impact goes well beyond that demographic. Eating disorders don’t pick and choose.

A few stats, provided by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA): Black teenagers are 50 percent more likely than white teenagers to exhibit bulimic behaviors, such as binging and purging; lifetime prevalence estimates for bulimia and binge eating disorder among Latinas is 1.9 percent and 2.0 percent, respectively; Asian, Black, Hispanic and Caucasian youth all reported attempting to lose weight at similar rates.

Males, too, fall victim to eating disorders, at higher rates than most people realize. Depending on the source, statistics estimate that males represent between 10 and 25 percent of all eating disorder cases.

Ryan Sheldon, a 32-year old plus-size model living in Los Angeles, spent years seeking a diagnosis and treatment for his binge eating disorder. “I always hated my body, even as a kid,” he says. “I tried my first diet at age 12.”

By the time he entered college, Sheldon was in a regular routine of binging, restricting and exercising, leaving him with an average-sized weight. “Most people wouldn’t have any idea that I had disordered eating,” he says.

When he sought treatment, Sheldon was prescribed diet pills, which did nothing to help. “The issue wasn’t appetite,” he says. “I then asked for a sleeping pill prescription so that I could sleep all day and not eat.”

The result was a drastic, unhealthy weight loss in just the span of a month. “My eating disorder just blew up,” Sheldon says. “I felt unworthy and unlovable.”

More education and policy change is needed

Chevese Turner, chief policy and strategy officer at NEDA, says that the organization is putting more focus on marginalized communities. “We’re asking those outside the stereotype to share their stories in order to educate the public,” she says. “The truth is that low-weight anorexia represents the smallest percentage of eating disorders. It gets all the attention, however, because it’s so dangerous.”

Binge eating disorder, on the other hand, is the most prevalent, affecting some 15 million people over their lifetime, split evenly among men and women. “Two thirds of the population is higher weight,” says Turner. “By far, middle- to high-weight men and women are the most likely to have an eating disorder.”

The frightening truth is that all types of eating disorders are associated with high rates of suicide, and all involve some sort of restriction. This results in myriad health issues.

With the “Come as You Are” theme, NEDA hopes to encourage those dealing with eating disorders to celebrate where they are in their journey and reflect back on how far they have come. It also represents a shift in where the organization is putting its efforts, says Turner. “We’re focusing more on grassroots advocacy and policy work,” she explains. “In the past we were a resource for those afflicted. We continue to be that, but we’re also building on it.”

To that end, NEDA is advocating for more research, both in the private and public sectors, like National Institutes of Health (NIH). “We’d like to see more understanding and more/better treatments emerging,” says Turner. “Awareness of the diet culture and disordered eating is growing, but the public still largely thinks of the extreme cases we hear about in the media. We still have a long way to go.”

Sheldon finally got the treatment he needed to make progress and today, he says he can celebrate his body. After a national television appearance to discuss his journey, Sheldon was overwhelmed by support, and also, the feedback from men affected by eating disorders. “It’s important that I advocate for bigger men,” he says. “It’s my mission to do what I can to help others who otherwise fall through the cracks.”

Know the signs

If you suspect a loved one may have an eating disorder, here are the signs to look for, according to the National Eating Disorders Association:

If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.

Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Image: Lauren Chan.
Ryan Sheldon, a 32-year old plus-size model living in Los Angeles, spent years seeking a diagnosis and treatment for his binge eating disorder.
  • Preoccupation with weight, food and/or body image
  • Development of abnormal, secretive, extreme or ritualized food or eating habits.
  • Withdrawal from usual friends and activities
  • Evidence of binge eating, such as the disappearance of a large amount of food
  • Evidence of purging behaviors, including frequent trips to the bathroom after meals, self-induced vomiting, periods of fasting, laxative, diet pill or diuretic abuse
  • Compulsive or excessive exercising
  • Discoloration or staining of teeth
  • Feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety or irritability