Eating disorder stereotypes are preventing minority groups from seeking the medical help and support they need, new research suggests.
The UK’s eating disorder charity Beat commissioned a YouGov poll which found that nearly four in 10 (39 per cent) people believed that eating disorders were more common among white people than other ethnic groups.
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The research, which has been published to coincide with Eating Disorders Awareness Week (26 February-4 March), warns that the delay in seeking treatment these groups face could make it more difficult for these groups to recover.
Ballari, 25, suffered from anorexia and bulimia and said that her mixed race South Asian ethnicity played a large role in her illness.
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“My father spent a lot of time learning you do not need to be a white, privileged teenage girl to have an eating disorder. The harsh reality is eating disorders do not discriminate,” she said.
Beat’s research found that Bame groups were more reluctant to seek help from a health professional for an eating disorder than white people, with just over half (54 per cent) of Bame respondents stating they would feel confident to do so, in comparison with almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of white respondents.
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Priyesh, who suffered from bulimia, described facing “two strong stereotypes” when seeking help for his illness. For him, it was assumed that, “being male and from a Bame background, I would not be affected by an eating disorder.
“People like myself are not confident in seeking help for eating disorders because this is something not talked about in our communities,” he said.
Similarly, Beat’s research found that nearly 30 per cent of respondents believed that less affluent people were less likely to develop eating disorders than affluent people. In reality, eating disorders affect people at similar rates, regardless of income or education.
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Kate, 22, said that in her working-class background “there was an element of disbelief” about her eating disorder.
“Someone like me shouldn’t have an eating disorder, because it wasn’t common in such an environment,” she said.
“It wasn’t something I felt my school had had to deal with before so aside from a therapist I saw once a week or fortnight there was no support put in place to keep me on track or even to help my family.”
LGBT+ people actually experience significantly higher rates of eating disorders than their heterosexual counterparts, according to research conducted by Stonewall last year, but are less inclined to seek help.
Beat’s research found that 37 per cent of lesbian, gay or bisexual respondents said they would not feeling confident seeking medical help, compared with 24 per cent of heterosexual people.
Andy, 37, said that when he tried to explain the fact that he had binge eating disorder, he found that people thought of gay men as “all muscle or thin”.
“I wanted people to understand, but they didn’t take my illness seriously. It took years to explain that I wasn’t just greedy and my problems were emotional,” he said.
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Despite more adults suffering from eating disorders than young people, 60 per cent of respondents believed that the illnesses predominantly affect young people, meaning that older sufferers can often be overlooked.
Lee, 44, has struggled with bulimia and other mental health issues since her twenties.
Now, she says she can “go out for a meal with my family, but other days are still so hard.
“I am with a new partner and she is very supportive, but most folks don’t get it. There’s definitely a stereotype, that it’s young women who get eating disorders, when anyone, of any age or gender, and from any walk of life can get one.”
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Beat’s chief executive Andrew Radford said of the findings: “Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that affect people of all ages, genders and backgrounds. We have to challenge the stereotypes and raise awareness so that everyone who needs help can get it quickly.”
For information and support about eating disorders, go to the Beat website