Calling eating disorders a 'women’s problem' is more than a statement of statistics: it reflects both a casual dismissal of life-threatening mental illness and a cruel stereotype about women.
A recent Yahoo! Health article on the dangers of binge eating states that this is one of the few eating disorders that afflict women and men equally. However, the article asserts—and the American Psychological Association confirms—that men seek treatment for this disorder far less often than women do, because they’re ashamed of having a “woman’s disease.”
I was startled when I heard that epithet. It’s true that eating disorders in general affect women more commonly than men, but is it a good idea to call eating disorders a “lady problem”?
Identifying eating disorders as “women’s diseases” creates the perception that eating disorders are just a thing that women do, a consequence of being female, instead of a life-threatening illness that needs to be treated seriously.
The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, Inc. (ANAD) says that of the 24 million people with eating disorders, 85-90 percent of people with anorexia or bulimia are female. Over half of teenage girls show unhealthy weight control behaviors. The fact is that eating disorders do affect women disproportionately.
However, there’s a right way and a wrong way to address this problem, and the wrong way is in full effect. Identifying eating disorders as “women’s diseases” creates the perception that eating disorders are just a thing that women do, a consequence of being female, instead of a life-threatening illness that needs to be treated seriously. When eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, but only one in ten people receive treatment, the problem is definitely being ignored.
A big share of the blame rests with insurance companies. The treatment for many eating disorders is not covered by insurance, and many people forgo treatment because it’s so expensive. According to ThinkProgress.org, some insurance companies offer treatment for anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, but not the more common diagnosis, “eating disorder not otherwise specified” (EDNOS). If a woman meets all the diagnostic criteria for anorexia but is still having her period, she may be diagnosed with EDNOS instead of anorexia and receive no coverage at all.
Insurance companies apparently think that it’s perfectly normal for women to struggle with body image issues and that treatment is only necessary in very extreme cases. Some companies refuse coverage if a patient’s body mass index (BMI) is not “low enough.” The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) says that a BMI of 17.5 is a “strict indicator” of anorexia, but some providers require a BMI of 16 or even 15 before they’ll pay for treatment. A 5’6” tall woman would be considered anorexic by SAMHSA if she weighed 108.5 pounds, but insurance provider Anthem Blue Cross would only qualify her for treatment if she weighed 93 pounds. It’s sad that insurance companies—like the media—think that bone-skinny is the new normal.
Speaking of the media, it’s as much to blame as the insurance industry for the under-treatment of eating disorders. Legitimate body image issues are often dismissed with jokes that women are just shallow and overly concerned with their appearances, and the media fuels that stereotype daily. On top of that, when girls hear that women are traditionally diet fiends who want to fit into tiny dresses, they may feel even more anxiety about their own weight.
Even as the media dismisses women’s weight concerns, it propagates the unrealistic image of a “perfect body” that drives women to extreme weight loss in the first place. ANAD reports that 91 percent of female college students try to control their weight with dieting, and 25 percent of college-age women binge and purge. Forty-seven percent of girls between fifth and twelfth grade want to be skinnier, and 69 percent of girls in those grades say that magazines influence their idea of a perfect body type.
Note: that “ideal” body type portrayed in advertising? Only five percent of American women match it.
Between apathetic insurance companies and the media’s one-two punch of “be skinnier” and “anorexia’s no big deal,” it’s no wonder that 20 percent of people with anorexia die from health complications or suicide. Eating disorders are indeed a women’s concern: a sign that women are disproportionately attacked by the media, disregarded by insurance providers and left to endure their illnesses alone.
The right way to address eating disorders as “women’s diseases” is to work that much harder to protect women from their influence.