February 21st kicked off this year’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. As a newly minted remission patient, this is my first time in the past 7 years that I have observed this week without disordered eating ruling my life. It has taken a long time to get to this point, not just for remission but being unafraid to talk about my eating disorders.
My toxic relationship with food began in middle school when I was thrust back into mainstream schooling after being homeschooled the prior year. The societal and cultural aspects of wanting to fit a certain mold certainly contributed to my burgeoning habits, but once I started it morphed. I was no longer carrying on these destructive habits to fit a mold or a look. It got to a point I didn’t care if I reached my weight milestone or fit into the trousers that I had hanging in my closet for that special occasion when I lost the weight. For the first time in my tumultuous teenage life, I had control over something. And it did not stop when I got older. It was a comfort to feel hungry or purge after binging. My social anxiety was in part soothed when I didn’t eat around others because I felt like I was demonstrating the poise and self-control I never felt internally. Even when I received my official diagnosis of anorexia and bulimia, I couldn’t and wouldn’t stop. In hating and destroying aspects of myself, I thought I finally found peace.
For years the stigma and the harsh judgement that surrounds eating disorders and mental illness in general made it difficult for me to seek help. Many times, I didn’t even feel as if I deserved the effort of help or remission. I thought I was happy and in control of my life. When my health started deteriorating I saw the ‘control’ slip and realized I never exercised control over my life, my eating disorders did. Even in that epiphany, though, I felt I couldn’t say anything. I already felt ostracized at college, with some particularly cruel peers calling me a freak and disgusting for my disorders as the weight dropped off drastically. How could I ask for help without confirming the disorders that others had already deemed as repulsive? It wasn’t until I removed myself from college for a semester and retreated to my hometown with my family surrounding me that I was finally able to take the first step to remission while addressing other health issues. I am forever grateful to my friends and family who supported me, but I am still upset it took me physically removing myself from an environment to feel safe enough to seek help.
The stigma around eating disorders is multi-faceted and dangerous on all levels. There is the cultural stigma that centers on the ideal body type. In a pushback to these often unrealistic images, body positivity has blossomed and helped people feel comfortable how they are. Addressing and encouraging body positivity is a fantastic step to helping others to feel comfortable in their own skin, but offering it up as the main/only solution to eating disorders is reductive and reduces a complex disorder to a diet-gone-wrong, which is dangerous. I am not saying body positivity is bad. It is brilliant, needed, and wonderful, but it is only part of the cure.
Eating disorders are unique to the person. You can fall into a larger category based on the patterns of your actions, but even then those are often blended and a myriad of behaviors. Studies as early as the 1990’s have demonstrated that eating disorders are inheritable disorders as well, much like other mental illnesses. Diagnosis begins with what your emotions and thoughts are in regards to food, not holding up a poster of a supermodel and asking, “Do you want to look like her? Is this why you do this?” Even if part of the disorder is fed by wanting to look a certain way, that desire is in turn fed from a lack of internal validation, self-worth, and self-esteem. When you are in the throes of an eating disorder, you don’t think “Oh I shouldn’t eat that”, you think “I cannot physically bring myself to put that in my mouth because if I do I am a failure and worthless.” That is not an external pressure; that is something much more deeply rooted. When people internalize and understand eating disorders as stemming from genetics, cultural pressures, and inherently internal struggles, it should become apparent this isn’t something that is just grounded in the superficial.
I can go on and on for days discussing this topic, but for the sake of brevity I will wrap up here. Overcoming an eating disorder is an enormous challenge, but so still struggling with one. Learning to help and be helped is not a straightforward process and should always start with a conversation and understanding that the road is long but worth the walk.
For more information, here are a few helpful sites: