When Penn State University kicker Joey Julius came forward as having an eating disorder last fall, he shed light on what so many teens already know through painful personal experience: These complex mental illnesses strike people of both sexes and of every shape and size. “There are a lot of myths out there,” says Claire Mysko, head of the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA).“A person could be really struggling, and you wouldn’t necessarily know it by looking at them.” Here, three survivors are speaking out about those myths in the hope that every teen who is suffering will get the help he or she needs.
I Am Enough: Recovering From an Eating Disorder
This is a video story of a teenage girl who struggled for years with an eating disorder, without even realizing what she was doing to her body.
More than half of girls and nearly one-third of boys use unhealthy weight-control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, or vomiting.
Source: The National Eating Disorders Association
Chris is an anorexia survivor diagnosed at 16. “I think boys don’t feel comfortable talking about it.”
Ayanna started skipping meals at 17. “People of color get eating disorders too.”
Sara's battle with binge-eating began in eighth grade. “People with eating disorders come in all sizes.”
THE MYTH: Boys don’t get eating disorders.
THE TRUTH: Up to one-third of all eating disorder sufferers are male, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
THE CONTROL CONNECTION
Many teens develop rigid rules and rituals around food because they feel bad about other areas of their life and want to have control over something.
“All my life, I’ve been a picky eater and have been underweight. That’s why when I started skipping meals in middle school, no one noticed. At first, it was a coping mechanism. I was getting picked on at school, and focusing on food distracted me from what was happening.
When I started fresh at a new high school, my eating went back to normal—for a while. But then sophomore year, things got chaotic at home and my first relationship ended, which felt horrible. I couldn’t control any of that, but I could control what I ate, so that’s what I did.
Over time, it started to affect my health. I couldn’t concentrate, and I remember not learning a thing in class. I’d feel dizzy and barely had energy to move. I wasn’t really living—just walking around like a ghost. I knew it wasn’t normal, but I couldn’t make myself eat. I thought, ‘I’m going to die if I don’t get help.’
Is This Normal?
IT CAN BE TOUGH TO SPOT AN EATING DISORDER—BUT HERE ARE SOME WARNING SIGNS.
Intense fear of gaining weight or big weight changes (up or down)
Negative or distorted self-image, like talking about “feeling fat” all the time
Pinning self-worth or self-esteem on body shape and weight
Fear of eating in public or with others, to the point of withdrawing from relationships
Outsized anxiety about missing exercise or changes in eating plans
Unusual eating rituals, such as cutting food into tiny bites, hiding it, or chewing very slowly
Following new food rules (like cutting out entire food groups) or fad diets
Wearing bulky clothes in an attempt to to hide the body
So I went to my mom and said, ‘I’ve been starving myself.’ At first, she didn’t even know what an eating disorder was or what to do. It took three weeks to find me a therapist, who—at my very first session—told my parents to send me to a hospital immediately. My blood pressure was scary low. I left for an in-patient program for anorexia the next day.
Before I went, I’d been watching YouTube videos of people describing their treatment, and they were all girls, so I’d expected to be the only boy. But in the two months I was at the hospital, there were four other boys there, and there were older men too. Since getting released, I’ve focused on my recovery: eating healthy, learning to cook. I’ve also started my own YouTube channel, and I hear from boys who feel pressured to have the ripped abs, the perfect male body. I tell them: Get professional help. You can’t get better by yourself. Believe me, you can’t.”
THE MYTH: “I heard, ‘Black people don’t get eating disorders.’ ”
THE TRUTH: Research shows that people of every race and ethnicity suffer from eating disorders.
“When I was little, I was known to be bubbly. But sophomore year of high school, something changed. I withdrew from friends and stopped participating in class. I didn’t understand it immediately, but I was struggling with depression and anxiety.
By senior year, I started having crying jags and began skipping meals. Starving myself was my form of self-harm—a way to punish myself and act out the negative thoughts I was having. After a while, I started feeling weak. I knew I should see a therapist, but my parents were against it. They’d say, ‘You’re too young to be depressed,’ or ‘Black people don’t get eating disorders.’ They thought I was just being dramatic. So I tried to deal with it myself: I did a lot of online research, used recovery apps, and even went to see a therapist without telling them, though I had to stop when I couldn’t afford the $20 co-pays.
THE MENTAL HEALTH CONNECTION
Eating disorders are affected by the brain’s chemistry and can run in families. They often appear with other mental health conditions.
Finally, in August, I decided it was time to get real help. I wrote my parents a letter to describe what I was going through, and they got it. They both cried. They said, ‘We’ll help you.’ I started seeing a psychiatrist, not just a counselor, and eventually I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood and energy) and OSFED, or other specified feeding or eating disorder. I was put on medication to manage my illness, and while I still struggle, I’m happy. I’m finally enjoying my life again.”
THE MYTH: Eating disorders always make you dangerously skinny.
THE TRUTH: People with eating disorders may be underweight, normal weight, or overweight.
“When I was in eighth grade, a boy I liked at school came up to me and said, ‘Your sister got fat.’ My older sister had gone through a breakup that year and put on weight. I was mortified. I remember thinking, ‘I never want that to be me.’ I’d always been athletic, but now I got really strict about what and how much I could eat—and even at what times. I weighed myself constantly. But in my head, it was no big deal. I was just on a ‘diet.’
By the time I went away to soccer camp that summer, I’d forgotten how to eat normally. My first binge happened the day I got back, when my family went out to eat. I just inhaled the food, thinking, ‘I’ll cut back again tomorrow.’ And I did, but soon I got into a pattern of restricting during the week and eating anything I could get my hands on come Friday: granola bars, peanut butter, chips. I’d eat past feeling full, but it never entered my mind that I was sick. In the media, you only see really thin women with eating disorders. I was always normal weight, even heavy. I thought I was just bad at dieting.
THE DIETING CONNECTION
Girls who diet are 12 times as likely to binge as those who don’t, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.
I was gaining weight, so in sophomore year, I started throwing up after eating. The first time, I remember thinking, ‘I’ll just do it once and that’s it.’ But that’s not how bulimia works. And one night, my sister unlocked the bathroom door and caught me. My parents were horrified, but I promised I’d stop. I didn’t. For the next few years, food was all I could think about. There were so many horrible days of me just feeling hopeless and helpless.
Finally, last summer, I just decided I was done. I was exhausted. I went to my mom, and she got a recommendation for a really good therapist and dietitian, who diagnosed me with binge-eating disorder. Slowly, I’m making progress. I know I still tend to overthink food—I’ll be dealing with that the rest of my life—but I’m definitely better than I was before. And I’ve been so much happier. It’s amazing not to be ruled by my eating anymore.”
Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that experts think are rooted in both biology (your genes might make you more susceptible) and environment (influences like illness, bullying, and other stressors). Patients show extreme, unusual behaviors and thoughts that focus on weight and appearance. A few of the most common:
involves the relentless pursuit of thinness and extremely disturbed eating behaviors, such as starvation.
is characterized by repeatedly eating unusually large amounts of food and feeling a lack of control while doing so.
involves frequent binge-eating followed by purging behaviors, such as vomiting or excessive exercise.
or other specified feeding or eating disorder, doesn’t meet the criteria for the other disorders, but it still causes significant distress.
HOW EATING DISORDERS ATTACK YOUR BODY
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Here’s just a sampling of the serious health consequences that may be happening.
ANOREXIA: Head hair often falls out, but fuzz may grow elsewhere—even on the face—in an attempt to keep the body warm.
ANOREXIA: The heart loses muscle tissue, which eventually leads to heart failure.
BULIMIA: Stomach acid can decay your teeth, and the esophagus can rupture from repeated vomiting.
BULIMIA: Imbalances in electrolytes—the salts and minerals that carry electrical impulses in the body—can lead to irregular heartbeats or even a heart attack.
BINGE-EATING: You can develop obesity-related diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
Do you suspect an eating disorder in yourself or a friend? Go to an adult, experts say. Aside from talking to a parent, you can approach a school counselor or coach, or visit the National Eating Disorders Association at nationaleatingdisorders.org to chat with a helpline volunteer.