National Eating Disorders Association

Strategies for Recovery: Defeating Stigma

Loretta Jay, Executive Director of B Stigma-Free

The challenge to overcome an eating disorder persists. It’s no wonder. Shame and embarrassment permeate our language and feelings, and hinder treatment. Stigma. Whether imparted by others, or self-inflicted, it sticks – but only if we let it. To get out of this mindset let’s explore the underpinnings of its existence.

Attribution Theory

Social scientists explain the motivation behind some people’s negative behavior with attribution theory. It means that we disparage those who we think can control their circumstances – including ourselves. Like other mental illnesses, many people falsely believe that eating disorders are lifestyle choices, or personal preferences. Too often, we also believe it.

“It’s her own fault,” quickly becomes “I deserve this.”

In reality, we know that eating disorders are serious, and sometimes deadly diseases. Looking for a cause and effect relationship is pointless. Blame is detrimental, and keeps the cycle going. We can, and must, shun such distortions.

It takes courage to recognize and accept the challenges that we face. We are not alone, as none of us walk about immune to hardship or free of a difference. Everyone has something. It may not be the same thing, but it is some thing. Identifying and sharing these commonalities builds understanding and relatedness. This will help us overcome stigma. 

Can You Relate?

Other identities also experience unwarranted blame and shame. It happens when someone doesn’t quite understand who that person is and they other them. This means that they treat a group of people as different from oneself, justifying negative attitudes.

  • People who have obesity
  • Those living with HIV/AIDS
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people
  • Older people

Think about the bias or discrimination experienced by these identities. Not very different than what you may experience, right? None of these are lifestyle choices either, but they often experience othering, resulting in unfair treatment, just like people with eating disorders and other mental illnesses. 

No matter to whom we are referring, no one deserves our judgment. Recognizing how we all have some characteristic that sets us apart may help break down barriers and better enable us to relate to one another. This is critical, because to make our society kinder and more inclusive we need to look beyond our own identity.

Getting outside of our comfort zones will help end social stigma. Science is on our side; researchers have proven that when we share our experiences we are better understood and our story gets amplified. Using others’ identities to help tell your story may help. Here are some ways that we can accomplish this:

  • Letting the people who already know and love us hear about our struggles. This is a personal decision, and only you know when it is safe to take this risk. But it is a big step to overcoming stigma’s hold and achieving recovery.
  • Sharing our personal experience with people who are outside of our inner-circle. For some this may feel like a safer place to start. Letting them get to know us, and our story, creates understanding. Not only can this be empowering for you, it can also help debunk the myths about eating disorders.
  • Sharing our newfound relatedness of other identities with our friends and family who are in our inner circles. If we talk about how we’ve experienced shaming or othering, our loved ones will be supportive. Using that empathy can benefit other identities too. This will put us on a path to a kinder society for all.  

About the Author

Loretta Jay, MA, is the Executive Director of B Stigma-Free. With more than twenty-five years experience consulting and working for non-profits and government organizations, she has published, spoken and testified extensively on complex issues regarding stigma, mental health and specialized healthcare populations. 

B Stigma-Free is a national non-profit committed to reducing bias and discrimination by addressing the root causes of stigma. By fostering relatedness through storytelling and collaboration, we help people overcome their fears and increase understanding of differences. We are on a mission to make society a more courageous place where diversity is valued. Join our exciting project, B Brave, where you can share your story and b a part of making change happen.