Atypical Anorexia is In No Way Atypical by Camille Williams, MA, LCPC
Even the diagnosis makes the disorder sound strange, uncommon, and not normal; this could not be farther from the truth.
Atypical anorexia is very common and the misleading label continues to reinforce the idea that an individual is not truly anorexic unless they are significantly underweight. This is a dangerous and life-threatening stigma and judgement that results in people engaging even more in the eating disorder (ED) to finally fit the category of “anorexic.” It is invalidating and perpetuates the belief many with EDs have that they are “not sick enough” or that their eating disorder is “not that bad”. It also promotes and maintains the false belief that you can assess someone’s ED by their weight.
The message has been stated over and over again in so many ways: EDs come in all shapes and sizes and we cannot determine if or what type of eating disorder someone has by looking at their body. Yet, people still struggle to accept this truth and uphold the false belief that weight and size defines an ED.
The only accurate way to assess this type of illness is to evaluate the relationship and behaviors with food. This can be done through assessing whether there is any restricting, bingeing, purging and what patterns occur throughout the day, week, and even months. It also includes evaluating the emotional connection and thought processes associated with food. This gives a more accurate picture of what the disease looks like and what a diagnosis would be. Continuing to put importance on weight for diagnostic purposes will most likely result in invalidating the individual and reinforcing the unhealthy behaviors. This is the opposite of what is needed for treatment and recovery.
Continuing to mislabel and judge those with EDs that don’t fit the stereotypical and uncommon emaciated look only keeps people sick and makes it even more difficult to treat food-related disorders. Our society needs to let go of the belief that someone who is severely thin or has a low BMI is the most common type of ED because this is just inaccurate. Many of those with these disorders are at or above their ideal weight range. The National Eating Disorder Association (2015)*, points this out in their nine truths about eating disorders. In fact, it is number one on the list. Accepting this truth would help in taking away the power of the number and using the body as the primary tool for assessing and evaluating an ED. This would open the door to greater availability for discussions about the relationship with food and taking those conversations seriously regardless of what someone looks like.
It pleases me to see that this is a stance and topic that has become increasingly discussed and advocated for through recent articles, stories, and posts designed to educate the public. There is still a need to spread awareness and stop weight stigma that significantly impacts the maintenance of the most deadly mental health disorder in our world today.
*Reference: National Eating Disorder Association. (2015). Nine Truths about Eating Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/nine-truths-about-eating-disorders
TK Contributor: As the Timberline Knolls Eating Disorder Program Coordinator, Camille Williams MA, NCC, LCPC, supports the development of curriculum, supervises the eating disorder specialists, and provides group therapy. She also educates and trains all staff on campus and advocates for eating disorder awareness through publications. Timberline Knolls serves as an iaedp™Presidents Council Member.
*The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders and not intended as endorsement by iaedp Foundation, Inc. or its Board of Directors.*