There are so many stigmas and stereotypes that influence how we think and talk about eating disorders. Misconceptions range from thinking someone looks a certain way if they have an eating disorder, assuming only girls have them, to thinking they're a choice. All of these ideas are harmful to people who have eating disorders, and can influence them to think they should be embarrassed, that they aren't sick enough to get help, or that they shouldn't need help at all. And even though these ideas are pervasive, they're also incorrect. Research has shown that eating disorders may not be a choice — in fact, they could be caused by genetics.
Researchers had known for years that eating disorders run in families, but a 2013 study from the University of Iowa and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center pinpointed mutations on two genes that make people who have them much more likely to have an eating disorder. According to US News & World Report, the study found people with mutations on the genes ESRRA and HDAC4 have a respectively 90% and 85% chance of developing an eating disorder. Research from 2002 backed up this claim, with its discovery of the first-ever genetic link to eating disorders. With mounting evidence that genetics is at least in part responsible for eating disorders, Leslie Sim, a clinical child psychologist at the Mayo Clinic, told US News & World Report it could help reduce stigma around eating disorders.
"We're really starting to see this as a true biological illness, where essentially we're seeing these kids sharing these temperament predispositions that likely places them at risk," she told US News & World Report. "So often parents are really looking for what they did to cause the eating disorder. And I think now we can pretty much definitively say the only thing they did was provide their genetic contributions."
In an op-ed for Teen Vogue, writer Seamus Kirst said stigma and stereotypes around eating disorders are actually preventing us from making progress and supporting people with them to get help.
"We’re not going to get any closer to knowing the truth about who truly suffers from eating disorders until we dispel the stereotypes and stigmas that are so often attached," Seamus wrote.
According to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre in Canada, stigma is a barrier to people with eating disorders accessing help.
"One of the most harmful consequences of stigma is that it may act as a barrier to people with eating disorders disclosing their problem to others and stop them from looking for and getting help," the Centre writes.
Since the National Eating Disorder Association called eating disorders a "complex medical and psychiatric illnesses that patients don’t choose," that should be how we talk and think about them, instead of using the stereotypes and stigmas that Seamus points out often accompany eating disorders. That way, as he says, we might get closer to breaking down those barriers and getting to a place where anyone who wants help feels comfortable and empowered to get it.
This story originally appeared on Teen Vogue.
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