I have a confession to make: I used to have an eating disorder.
Although my family and friends know this about me, after starting my PhD at Maastricht University in 2011, I told only a few colleagues about my history. This is striking, considering I work in the Eating Disorders Research Group.
I’ve always feared that colleagues would judge me if they knew I used to have an eating disorder: that they would think I was less professional, more biased, only in it for myself. Unfortunately, some of my experiences have confirmed these fears. For example, at a conference, one attendee whispered, mockingly, “I bet most of these presenters had an eating disorder.” After one of my lectures, a colleague told me, “You sounded like a woman on a mission,” and suggested I use a more objective tone.
Though I was unable to find research on perceptions towards people who have (had) a mental illness and work in psychology, a wealth of research demonstrates stigma toward people with an eating disorder, including assumptions that they are self-centered, unstable, and the illness is a choice (“just eat”).
Interestingly, with my students I have always been open about having had an eating disorder. They say it is refreshing to see someone who has had an eating disorder and has recovered. They tell me (and the research supports this) there is a lack of positive examples of eating disorder recovery. We only see examples of people who suffer their entire lives, or die from the illness. Students also tell me they perceive my work to be more impactful, because I “walk the talk.”
Last week was World Eating Disorders Action Day (WEDAD). Although sharing this piece scares me, we need to break the taboo of eating disorders. To do so, we need more examples of people who have them, and of people who have recovered. If you are reading this and you have an eating disorder, know that things can get better. As impossible as it might seem, your life does not have to be ruled by calories, kilos, and anxiety.
I shouldn’t have used the word 'confession' at the start of this piece, because it implies there is something to be ashamed of. The fact that I used this word shows that I have, to some extent, internalized eating disorder stigma. It also signals that we have a long way to go. Having (had) an eating disorder shouldn’t be a secret and people shouldn’t have to fear how others will judge them. So, I’m claiming it: I am a woman on a mission. Are you with me?
Jessica Alleva, Assistant Professor at fhe faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience