What a Mental Health Professional Got Wrong About My Eating Disorder

My sister recently told me about an encounter she had with her school counselor a few years ago, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

My sister saw our school counselor for her own mental health issues, but she had also mentioned I had an eating disorder. The counselor stopped my sister in the hall one day and said, “I think I just met your sister, is that the one with bulimia?” My sister responded, “Yes.” She replied, “Are you sure? She looks perfectly healthy to me; she doesn’t look sick at all.”

This broke my heart.

Not because she trivialized the severity of my eating disorder based on my appearance. I’m used to that. I have been told countless times I don’t look skinny enough to have a “real” eating disorder. Just a few months after this conversation took place, my bulimia took a life-threatening turn, and I was admitted to hospital. Yet leading up to that point, very few people took my condition seriously because I always maintained a “healthy” physique. This worked in my favor because I refused help and refused to admit I was unwell, which was only reinforced by people saying they weren’t worried because I wasn’t that thin.

Hearing about this conversation broke my heart because, as a mental health professional, she should know better. She should know that eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. And she should know that the stereotypes surrounding “what an eating disorder looks like” are exactly what prevent people from getting the help that they need. And yet, she embodied the stigma that mental health professionals should be fighting to negate.

I know of girls like me who feel like they shouldn’t seek help because they feel they are “too fat” to have an eating disorder. That internalized stigma is a battle to overcome in itself.

When I was in treatment, I told my psychologist that I was wasting her time because I had a healthy-looking body, so I must be fine. She told me that of all the eating disorder patients she had seen, it was those who appeared healthy who usually didn’t make it, because their cases were rarely given the attention they needed until it was too late. That conversation helped me to recognize that it was still important for me to get better, even though I didn’t meet the emaciated caricature of a girl with an eating disorder.

The difference between the way my eating disorder was validated by my psychologist, and the way it was invalidated by my sister’s counselor is the difference between people like me having a chance at recovery, or perpetuating the belief that they don’t need help. And that difference can save a life.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Thinkstock photo via KatarzynaBialasiewicz

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