5 Things You Need to Know About Eating Disorders in Muslim Communities

This post was written for the National Eating Disorders Association in honor of the 2018 NEDA Awareness Week.

When I first started writing this post, my intention was to highlight how eating disorders affect the Muslim community in ways that differ from people of other faiths (or no faith). However, the more I looked into it and the more I thought about what I’ve been through, I realized that I would be doing you, the reader, a disservice. Instead, I want to delve deeper into the Muslim community (a rare occurrence in this context) and explain how Muslims deal with facets of eating disorders that we don’t think that they do.

For example, people often assume that dressing modestly (a staple for many Muslim women) is the cure for body image issues. I’m here to argue the contrary—we know that a sign of potentially disordered eating may present by people wearing larger clothes.

Should we really be rewarding Muslim men and women for dressing more “modestly” all of a sudden if it’s in response to an eating disorder? No, we shouldn’t. There’s nothing wrong with modest dress and everyone is entitled to their own fashion sense, but it should be their choice, not the disorder’s.

There’s no way for me to comprehensively explain the Muslim-eating disorder experience because there is no one experience. Every Muslim is different not only in the way their ED manifests, but also in the way their faith interacts with that diagnosis.

You probably already know that, but to avoid an overgeneralization I have to clarify. I became vocal about my eating disorder pretty early on in my recovery, starting a blog to both cope with and educate others regarding my experience. Shortly after, I received some wonderful support—people reaching out to tell me that they were there for me when I needed them, other survivors who could identify with my story, and even professors I highly respect telling me that they were proud of the ways I chose to use my voice.

However, I also received some unwarranted comments about how I don’t look like I have an eating disorder, how I should just “read more Quran and everything will be better,” and a bit of “thank God you have to dress modestly, that way you won’t worry about your weight.” You get the idea.

It doesn’t matter if you dress a certain way, believe in one, many, or no holy books, or don’t date. Eating disorders do not discriminate.

Here are some things that I want you to know now, and to accept, about eating disorders in Muslim communities. Eating disorders can affect any Muslim who:

1. IS NOT A WOMAN

Men have their own culture of food and body image. I’ve heard many of the same things from my male-identifying friends as I have my female friends who struggle with disordered eating. Body shaming is okay amongst men because they’re not supposed to be as self-conscious about those things, right? That’s how you’re supposed to rag on each other at the gym, right? Wrong.

2. IS, OR WAS, IN AN ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP 

There is a spectrum of ideas on the allowance of dating or being friends with the opposite sex. I’m not here to comment on that. What I can say is that despite what might be seen as “right,” Muslim men and women do end up in abusive relationships that can manifest or exacerbate an eating disorder.

3. DRESSES IN LOOSE CLOTHING

If you’ve started to notice that someone is wearing looser and looser clothing, paired with other signs of disordered eating, that might be something to look into.

4. IS CONFIDENT AND UNAFRAID TO VOICE HIS OR HER OPINIONS

After reading Life Without Ed by Jenni Schafer, that’s how I came to see my own eating disorder. As an abuser. A manipulator. And, even as someone who has long been unafraid to speak her mind, I know that I am not immune to the self-doubt that the eating disorder can exacerbate.

5. DOES/DOES NOT CONSIDER THEMSELVES “RELIGIOUS”

Faith allows for many great coping strategies. The Muslim communities I have been part of have been very active in including others and making sure that everyone felt at home around the others. Additionally, the Quran (Islamic holy book) offers a multitude of ways to overcome many of life’s hurdles. Even listening to its recitation can be soothing in ways that a self-help podcast just can’t quite match. That being said, simply subscribing to a particular level of Islam is not a foolproof guard against mental illness. To reference my own Islamic beliefs: I view my eating disorder as a test from God and a way to strengthen my relationship with Him and with myself.

Suffering from, speaking about, and addressing mental illness is not a sin in Islam. In fact, the people who are supportive and compassionate towards those who are suffering are to be held in high regard according to the faith. Muslim or not, it is our duty to work towards a more receptive society that can first acknowledge the legitimacy of mental illness and then work together towards recovery.

Eating disorders do affect Muslims in unique ways. I do believe it is valuable to highlight the differences between Islam and other faiths in terms of culture and teachings so that we can then get a bigger picture of how to proceed with recovery. However, I found it imperative to first explain the different populations within the Muslim community who can be affected by eating disorders; those same people often go ignored. Sometimes, Muslims are “othered” because there’s this idea that Muslims can’t have eating disorders. Or be depressed. Or maybe they can, and that’s just what the religion teaches (hard no).

Please: when someone confides in you about their disorder, do not suggest “umbrella solutions” like “just eat more” and definitely do not guilt someone about their faith, which could potentially make their condition worse (ex. “Maybe you’re not praying enough.”)

Above all: when someone tells you that they’re struggling, believe them.

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