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'You Don’t Look Like You Have an Eating Disorder'

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“You don’t look like you have an eating disorder,” a well-respected (supposed) expert once said to me.

He was the first doctor I sought help from — at 22 — when I realized I really did have a problem with food.

Since the age of 4, I had battled eating-disordered thoughts. You can imagine how difficult it was for me to push past the denial, stigma and shame I felt at the time — to walk into his office and say those five distressing, difficult words:

“I have an eating disorder.”

Getting to this point — having the insight that I needed professional help — had taken nearly 20 years to develop. Finding the courage to walk into his office had taken even longer.

Since I didn’t look sick enough to have an eating disorder (to him), I was dismissed. I felt confused. I started to wonder, “Do I really even have a problem? Do I deserve to get help?” I felt more ashamed than ever.

Today, I know there is no shame in having an eating disorder and that anyone who struggles deserves help. I also know this key point:

Eating disorders don’t “look” a certain way.

You can’t tell just by looking at someone if they have an eating disorder. People of all shapes and sizes, all ages and all backgrounds struggle with body image issues and disordered eating behaviors.

So, why would a doctor say something so unprofessional and dangerous?

Unfortunately, stigmas surrounding eating disorders abound, even in the doctor’s office. Unless healthcare professionals seek out specialized training on how to treat eating disorders, many will never learn the facts.

Doctors have said many other unhelpful things to me over the years. I’m not saying that these doctors were cruel; they were probably doing what they thought was right. But, as far as my illness was concerned, they really got it wrong.

Here are other things doctors shouldn’t have said to me concerning my eating disorder:

“You’re fine.”

My friends worried about me in college; many believed I might have an eating disorder. I surely didn’t think I had a problem, but I went to the college doctor to get them off my back. I didn’t know anything about eating disorders at the time, but, looking back, I can see that I basically shared all of the symptoms of anorexia nervosa with this doctor. Because she probably didn’t know any better, she only asked me one “diagnostic” question, “Do you eat?” Based on my fake smile, nearly perfect resume and my response, “Yes, of course, I eat!” — she said I was fine. But, I surely wasn’t fine.

I walked out of her office and into the hands of Ed, my “eating disorder;” I didn’t get help for another five years.

“You will never get better.”

In early recovery, my doctor explained that an eating disorder is like diabetes. According to her, an eating disorder never goes away, but we can learn how to “manage” it. She let me know, that even after years of experiencing freedom, my eating disorder might come back at anytime, in a moment’s notice, in both difficult times and good ones. She said that I might expect a visit from Ed when I got married, had my first baby and was otherwise doing great. When she said those words to me, I felt liked I’d been kicked in the stomach.

I am better. I got married — and, unfortunately, divorced — without a visit from Ed, and I even beat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You can, too.

“Your weight is ___.”

I asked my gynecologist, during a routine appointment, not to share my weight with me. My treatment team had explained that this information, from doctors that are not eating disorder specialists, could be triggering in my still-fragile state of recovery.

Even though the number on the scale had nothing to do with a pap smear, the doctor blurted it out. I was devastated. I cried. I ran into a pole in the parking garage. And to top it off, she demeaned me for having such a reaction. I think that’s what hurt the most.

Today, fully recovered, learning my weight in a doctor’s appointment is no longer a trigger, but it took years for me to reach this point.

“Stop eating cheese.”

One doctor said this to me in response to a high cholesterol reading. What? I thought. I worked for over five years in my personal recovery to add cheese back into to my diet! Yes, I struggle with high cholesterol, the hereditary kind. And I have figured out how to manage my cholesterol in ways that don’t involve eliminating pizza or entire food groups from my diet.

I’ll make that a cheeseburger, please.

“I just started a new diet. I think it might help you, too.”

 So many doctors shared their diets with me over the years to help me deal with issues from osteoporosis to PTSD. The truth was that I developed weakened bones because of extreme dieting! And, to heal from PTSD and many other illnesses, we require solid nutrition — not fad diets. Both osteoporosis and PTSD got better for me — without restricting food.

Try your diet? No, thank you.

“You don’t look like you have an eating disorder.”

Ugh. Doctors say this to people with eating disorders so often that it is even the title of a section in my first book, “Life Without Ed.” Over the years, countless people have written to me in response to that section, saying, “Me, too.” A tragic and key point is that many of my friends have died from eating disorders.

At the time of their death, many looked normal in terms of weight.

Spread awareness; save a life

This blog is not a mindless rant. This blog is not meant to put down doctors. This blog is meant to help the millions of people out there who will struggle with an eating disorder during their lifetime.

People die from eating disorders.

If someone with an eating disorder has the courage to walk into a doctor’s office for help, they desperately need quality care. For these patients, every moment, every word and every interaction counts.

If you are reading this, I ask you to please send this to any healthcare professionals that you know. Print the article and share with your doctor at your next appointment. Post this article on your social media accounts, and, if you are feeling strong enough, I encourage you to share your personal experiences on social media — along with mine.

To be clear: doctors — the ones who really knew how to treat eating disorders — helped me save my life. For that, I am deeply grateful. There really are some great, informed doctors out there. And the phrase I found to be most helpful from these amazing doctors was this:

People can and do fully recover from eating disorders.

Healing happens. Never stop seeking help. Never stop fighting. Choose life. Choose recovery.

Jenni Schaefer is a bestselling author, popular speaker, and a National Recovery Advocate for Eating Recovery Center’s Family Institute. In partnership with Insight Behavioral Health Centers (877-737-7391), Eating Recovery Center (877-957-6575) provides specialized treatment for eating disorders as well as related disorders, including PTSD.

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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Getty image via Fug4s

Originally published: February 27, 2018
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