You’ve likely heard of bulimia before. A certain image may even come to mind when you hear the word “bulimia.” You might think about a thin, white female stuck in a vicious binge-purge cycle. You might even think about this individual vomiting. The truth, however, is much more complex.
We’ve all seen the Lifetime movies: a young, white high schooler walks into the bathroom stall after eating lunch in the school cafeteria. We hear retching and then the girl comes out of the stall to clean out her mouth with some water from the sink. In just a few minutes, we are shown the classic perception of what someone with bulimia looks like. But is this really what the disorder is all about?
Bulimia nervosa is a mental disorder that is extremely dangerous, both physically and mentally. And if we are to prevent and treat bulimia — reducing the harm that so many people are experiencing, we must recognize both the classic signs of bulimia — as seen in the Lifetime movie vignette — and the behaviors and circumstances that do not receive as much attention.
One way to ensure that we are pushing past our own biases and creating a space where affirming care can occur for people of all ways, shapes, and forms, is to dispel common rumors around this disorder.
Myths and Facts about Bulimia
MYTH: Bulimia nervosa only impacts women.
FACT: Bulimia nervosa affects people of all genders. In fact, studies show us that the population most at risk for eating disorders in general are those in the transgender community (2). Cisgender men are also increasingly at risk for eating disorders like bulimia and gay men are also disproportionately impacted by these illnesses (3).
MYTH: Self-induced vomiting is the only compensatory behavior that clinicians and family members should be on the lookout for when diagnosing someone with bulimia nervosa.
FACT: Those struggling with bulimia may engage in compensatory behaviors of many kinds, including excessive exercise, using laxatives or diet pills and more (7). It’s important to know about the various causes and symptoms of bulimia.
MYTH: Someone struggling with bulimia nervosa is likely to be in a small body.
FACT: People with bulimia come in all shapes and sizes, and it is important that we remember that ALL eating disorders are mental illnesses that cannot be detected by looking at someone’s body size. Eating disorders do not have a body type!
MYTH: Bulimia is not as dangerous as anorexia.
FACT: Bulimia is extremely physically and mentally dangerous. Those who are engaging in repeated purging behaviors can impact their electrolyte levels to the point that the body can give out and have a heart attack. As explained by NEDA, “purging by vomiting or laxatives depletes your body of important chemicals called electrolytes. The electrolyte potassium plays an important role in helping the heart beat and muscles contract but is often depleted by purging. Other electrolytes, such as sodium and chloride, can also become imbalanced by purging or by drinking excessive amounts of water. Electrolyte imbalances can lead to irregular heartbeats and possibly heart failure and death.” (4)
Less extreme — though still serious — physical consequences from purging include damage to the esophagus, IBS, eroded tooth enamel and more (4).
MYTH: Bulimia is untreatable.
FACT: As with all eating disorders, bulimia nervosa is treatable with the right team and the right treatment approach. Research shows us that cognitive-behavioral-therapy (CBT), when administered by a competent and compassionate recovery team, offers someone the best chance for recovery (6).
Know the Facts about Bulimia
There are many more myths about bulimia out there. Though we have only covered a handful, these misconceptions have real-life consequences. The misconceptions, when unchecked, can determine who gains access to treatment, who is considered deserving of treatment and more. If we hope to treat and prevent eating disorders in the long-term, it is important that we recognize these myths and provide the facts that disprove them.
Get Help for Bulimia
The consequences of bulimia can be devastating or even fatal. If you or someone you care about is struggling with bulimia or any other eating disorder, help is available. Reach out to us today to learn more about our effective treatment options for bulimia and other eating disorders that are changing lives every day.
Ashley M. Seruya is a social work student, virtual assistant, and content creator specializing in eating disorder recovery, Health at Every Size, and weight stigma. Learn more about her work at ashleymseruya.com or on her Instagram at @cozibae.
Related Articles at Center for Discovery
- Fast Facts on Eating Disorders, Academy for Eating Disorders (AED)
- Shining a Light on Gender Identity and Eating Disorders by Allegra R. Gordon
- Eating Disorders in LGBTQ+ Populations, NEDA
- Health Consequences, NEDA
- Bulimia Nervosa, NEDA
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Eating Disorders
- What Are Compensatory Behaviors in People with Eating Disorders? by Susan Cowden