What Does an Eating Disorder Look Like?

DISCLAIMER: The following post outlines the writer’s personal journey with an eating disorder. It is not intended to act as medical advice. As always, please consult your doctor with any questions about your health.

February 26-March 3, 2024 marks Eating Disorders Awareness Week. When thinking about awareness, I wonder: what does an eating disorder look like? The answer is . . . me. When imagining a person with an eating disorder, you might picture someone like me in my late teens or twenties.

As a young college student studying dance, I spent mornings in class and evenings in rehearsals. I exercised for hours each day, eating very little and constantly obsessing over my weight. This girl–with bones protruding from her collar bone, down her sternum–is the stereotype of this disease. But what might be harder to imagine, are all the other types of people–including other versions of myself–that struggle with eating disorders.

There was the chubby little girl, no older than 10, eating less and less as she learned about “calories” and “diets.” A teenage version of myself purged anytime she ate too much or ate the “wrong” foods. The woman in her twenties grew obsessed with fitness, diets, cleanses, and detoxes.

I was a mother in my early thirties before I finally got tired of the obsession with food and weight. For nearly 20 years, at different ages and a variety of body sizes, I struggled with an eating disorder. Rather than a single stereotype, this array of sizes and situations is a more accurate depiction of what an eating disorder looks like.

A thin white female with anorexia is likely the first thing that comes to mind. This is likely due to the representation of eating disorders in pop culture and media. The reality is, eating disorders know no bounds. These issues exist across all ages, races, genders, and body types. Even less well known, there are a number of different types of eating disorders and these issues can last from weeks to decades.

The Reality

The National Eating Disorder Association reported that as of 2020, almost 10% of the U.S. population, or almost 30 million people, would have an eating disorder during their lifetime. Even more alarming: behind opiate addiction, eating disorders have the second highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. With these issues being so prevalent and potentially lethal, it is important to acknowledge that there is no one type of person that might deal with an eating disorder–and anyone might be suffering.


Data from the Cambridge Eating Disorder Center suggests that 95% of people with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25. Although the majority of eating disorders occur in teens and young adults, The Journal of Pediatrics has reported that there is an increase in the occurrence of eating disorders in children. They also reported that in the US, from 2018 to 2022, health-related visits for children relating to eating disorders doubled from previous years. The rates of eating disorders in women over 35 is also on the rise.

Body Type

Not one body type, weight, or size is necessarily indicative of an eating disorder. Although you might assume that most people dealing with these issues would be underweight, less than 6% of people with an eating disorder are medically underweight, according to ANAD.


According to the National Eating Disorders Association, in the US, around 4% of males have experienced an eating disorder at some point. Also, the rate of eating disorders in men is rising faster than in women. And worst of all, because of the misconception that eating disorders are only experienced by women, men are less likely to receive treatment.


It is easy to assume that eating disorders are less common among minority populations. Part of that misconception is that people of color are half as likely as Caucasian people to be diagnosed with or receive treatment for an eating disorder. Minority populations may be just as likely to experience eating disorders. In some cases, these populations may be at a higher risk; for example, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, Black teens are 50% more likely than white teens to exhibit bulimic behavior, like binging and purging.

Awareness is Key

Do not be fooled by the myths and misconceptions about eating disorders. This is a serious, potentially deadly disease. Raising awareness and understanding is the best way to prevent and treat these issues. Even if someone doesn’t look like the stereotypical idea of someone dealing with an eating disorder, it could impact your friend or family member–or even you.

If you are looking for mental health support for your kids, we have a guide just for you. Check out our local guide for finding mental health support for kids.


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