What Does Someone Struggling with an Eating Disorder Look Like?

When many people think of someone struggling with an eating disorder, often they automatically picture an emaciated, Caucasian, upper-middle class, teen girl. There are certainly people struggling with eating disorders who meet that specific criteria. However, the myth that someone who is struggling with an eating disorder always presents as an emaciated, Caucasian, teenage girl, is both damaging and deadly.

As a therapist in private practice in Rockville, MD, specializing in helping teens and adults struggling with eating disorders and body image issues, I’ve witnessed firsthand how damaging these stereotypes can be. First off, they can prevent individuals who are struggling from seeking life-saving treatment.

Additionally, misinformation and a lack of education can cause providers (including therapists, doctors, dietitians, etc.) to fail to recognize that someone is struggling or even the severity of an individual’s eating disorder.

Eating Disorders Do Not Discriminate

It’s crucial to note that eating disorders do not discriminate. Eating disorders can impact people of all genders, ethnicities, ages and socioeconomic statuses.

Eating disorders are mental illnesses, which are caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Thus, it makes sense that they impact a wide variety of people, regardless of gender, ethnicity or age.

As a therapist, I’ve worked with clients struggling with eating disorders from age 13 to 60. I’ve worked with females, males, and non-binary individuals. I’ve worked with people struggling with eating disorders across a variety of ethnic backgrounds and races.

Unfortunately, many individuals who do not fit within the narrow mold of what our culture perceives someone with an eating disorder to “look like,” may not recognize that they have a problem or feel too ashamed to seek treatment. Like addiction, eating disorders are illnesses that thrive on a sense of denial and these stereotypes only serve to perpetuate an individual’s belief that they are not ill.

Eating Disorders Are Not Size-Specific

The belief that someone struggling with an eating disorder is always emaciated or “thin” by societal standards is dangerous. People can be struggling with life-threatening eating disorders at a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

It’s important to note that eating disorders are mental illnesses, and you cannot determine someone’s level of suffering on the basis of their physical appearance. Someone can be intensely struggling with an eating disorder at any point across the weight spectrum.

For instance, an individual in a genetically larger-body could develop anorexia and might never actually get to a weight that is considered “underweight” via BMI (which is a flawed measure anyway). You simply cannot tell who is struggling based on their weight. Instead, it’s important to look at an individual’s behaviors and thoughts around food, exercise and their bodies.

When to Refer Out

 If you suspect that a client could be struggling with an eating disorder and this area is not your specialty, it’s important to refer out (or seek consultation) from someone who does specialize in eating disorders.

Eating disorders are the deadliest mental illness, and it’s important that individuals who are struggling receive treatment from professionals who have been trained in evidence-based approaches.

Additionally, it’s important to note that individuals with eating disorders greatly benefit from a treatment team approach, which can consist of a therapist, dietitian, psychiatrist, doctor, recovery coach, etc. It’s important that members of the treatment team have specialized training in eating disorders and ideally, that they practice from a health at every size perspective (as treating eating disorders within a weight-biased framework is paradoxical and can be highly detrimental to those who are struggling).

There is Hope

With access to appropriate treatment and support, individuals with eating disorders can recover and go on to lead meaningful and productive lives.



What Does Someone Struggling with an Eating Disorder Look Like?

Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C

Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C is a therapist in private practice in Rockville, Maryland, specializing in working with teens and adults struggling with eating disorders, body-image issues, anxiety, and depression. She writes for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today. Connect with Jennifer at


APA Reference
Rollin, J. (2017). What Does Someone Struggling with an Eating Disorder Look Like?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 10 Apr 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 10 Apr 2017
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