So, in the USA and UK it’s currently National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. In the spirit of that, rather than my usual ranting about body struggles, feeling fat/thin, laziness and food, here is my experience with disordered eating and 6 thoughts about eating disorders. Unlike similar posts I’ve done, I haven’t managed to keep this post very short, so this time I would really like you to go through it well and, if you or someone you know is affected by disordered eating or a clinical eating disorder, think about how these things affect you or them.
I don’t usually do trigger warnings, but if you’re still in the early stages of recovering from an eating disorder, either give this a miss or put on a brave face and be prepared to see words relating to eating disorders. There will be no images.
Like pretty much every human in the Western world, I have often had access to too much food. Like around 9/10 of us, I have had to actively control my food intake to look after my weight and health. Like 20-35% of dieters, I went from just exercising a little bit of control over what I ate into proper disordered eating. To this day I’m not sure whether at the time I was meeting the requirements for an early stage eating disorder or just a normal teenager eating in a disordered manner under the mistaken impression it was good for me. Currently I meet the criteria for ED mentality, even if I am keeping healthy.
I have been unhealthily underweight and overweight in my life. At a couple of points I have had visible ribs even when bent over, some visible spine and heavily protruding hipbones. Likewise, at 5’4″ I have weighed around 80kg and possibly up to 90kg when I was not weighing myself.
Both these situations came about from disordered eating and a pretty shoddy perception of my own body. Most people experience slight fluctuations in our perception of the world. For some of us it’s a little more extreme. Some days I will think I look big, or tall, or broad, or short, or skinny. But at the time I started eating in a disordered manner, even when I felt I looked skinny it wasn’t enough. Not only was I not seeing things properly, when I was seeing them properly I wanted to see more. I was absolutely fascinated with bones and leanness. I somehow knew that I was a little broader than the typical Mediterranean girls I lived around, but it entranced me to see how broad and large my ribs, hips, collarbones, etc were compared to theirs.
Ultimately, the only way to push back was to ignore it. When I say I don’t know how I got fat, I seriously don’t know. I know I ate too much. But I can’t remember much of it. Just looking in the mirror one day and saying “Hey, I’m actually fat now. Not just tubby or deluded. I’m actually fat.” I made sure to keep covered up. I didn’t like the way I looked but I didn’t want to undereat again.
I did eventually get my weight and health under control, but I do still deal with distortions close to BDD, confusion about my actual appearance some days and the odd cycle of wanting to overeat, to starve or to purge. Just because I resist these thoughts and drives doesn’t mean they’re not there. It just means I don’t really need help any more.
So, with that said, here are 6 things about eating disorders and disordered eating that you might not be aware of.
1: There’s An Eating Disorder, Then There’s Disordered Eating.
Eating disorders and disordered eating are two separate things, though often disordered eating will become an eating disorder and most people with eating disorders eat in a disordered manner. If that makes any sense.
Disordered eating is probably the norm in the West. Pathological dieting, overeating, binge eating, comfort eating… These are all disordered from the natural state. Sure, overeating one day and fasting the next is natural to your body and natural in the wild. And eating when you’re hungry and not eating when you’re full is also natural. But when we live in a state of permanent abundance with all sorts of unnatural foods around us, very few will eat naturally.
An eating disorder is something different. There’s an element of compulsion, of a mental state to it. At the extreme end, it can take five or six healthy nurses to force-feed a 40kg teenage girl because she’s that afraid of food. At the mild end you see people eating kilos of leafy salad to keep full, or rewarding themselves with candy and food. The line between a habit and pathology is very fine and we don’t really have much of an idea what a healthy human eats like because we aren’t living in a natural state. Giving in and eating what we want isn’t natural any more. Even trying to copy the diets of healthy hunter-gatherers can become pathological.
2: There Isn’t A Reason.
Everyone has their own reason. Some people get depressed and forget to eat, leading to a habit that becomes impossible to break. Some people fast to be thin. Some people binge eat to be huge. Some people binge and purge because they love food and love being thin. Some people don’t realize what size they are. Some people think they’re being healthy.
Mentally, there is no one reason for being a certain weight or for having an eating disorder. Not everyone is a delusional teen brainwashed by the media into seeing themselves as 400lbs when they look in the mirror.
3: It’s As Much Habit As Desire.
A desire to recover is the first step, but never enough.
Often, an eating disorder born of self-punishment, fear, mental health issues or confusion can persist even after the root cause is gone. The reason for this is, as far as I’ve experienced and seen, twofold.
Firstly, habits that form are very hard to break. When you eat something that makes you sick, next time you smell it you may feel sick. Likewise, someone who associates eating with purging may automatically feel the urge to purge or even do so when they eat. Someone who has got in the habit of turning down food may feel awkward accepting meals, or even forget to. Someone used to binging may not think twice at a buffet until they see the five plates in front of them. Even when you’re not thinking about it, your habits can creep back in.
Secondly, giving in or not giving in to the habits can cause a mental relapse. It can depend on the person, the day, anything. One moment you’re having dinner at your parents, the next you feel a bit sick and thoughts of inadequacy start rushing back. Or you’re just eating a little less to lose your Winter pouch and your depression kicks in hard.
So not everyone with an eating disorder wants to have it or is currently battling every aspect of it. Someone may want to recover and just be trying to get out of the habit of having an eating disorder.
4: BDD Is Probably More Common Than You Think.
Again, when most people picture BDD they tend to think of the skin-and-bones teenage girl looking in the mirror and seeing a 400lb version of herself. In reality, it’s more subtle and less specific than that.
The two sides to BDD are:
1: Excessive worry or shame about your appearance despite being seen as normal by others and
2: excessive preoccupation with improving your appearance, hiding your flaws and trying to look “as you should”.
So, obviously someone who is very underweight or overweight, disfigured or similar, whilst suffering poor confidence about their state isn’t healthy, wouldn’t qualify as having BDD. But these same people becoming obsessed with a trivial mark on their skin, or a particular piece of their fat or bones? Or someone who at a healthy weight thinks her arms look too fat, even though nobody else can see it? Or someone who is convinced they’d look better at a certain weight, maybe a weight they’ve never been at before? These people are likely to have BDD.
It more often manifests as obsession with little details about yourself rather than all round loathing your body. It’s more a visual distortion than schizophrenia. A sufferer isn’t looking in the mirror and thinking they’re 400lbs. More likely, they’re looking in the mirror and choosing to look at that tiny pocket of fat on their thigh than at their visible ribs. The ribs are fine. Or too thin, even. But they want to keep losing weight until that tiny bit of fat is gone.
Again, everyone’s experience will differ. But I’m sure how you can see that BDD is not actually as extreme or, probably, as uncommon as many people would like it to be.
5: Everyone Needs Help.
Here’s my bit of tough love. Ignore all the nonsense about skinny shaming or fat shaming. If someone is all skin and bones and scared of food, they need help. If someone eats 2000kcal a meal and then rushes to be sick, or exercise, or fast, or take a laxative to “compensate”, they need help. If someone is 400lbs with a goal weight of 800lbs, they need help. If someone is convinced they eat enough and are bony and malnourished, they need help. If someone is convinced they don’t eat and morbidly obese, they need help. If someone lives off lettuce and spinach thinking it’s a recipe for longevity, they need help.
You can’t recover from an eating disorder without realizing you have one. And sometimes, often in fact, people will not know. It isn’t kind to let someone starve or eat themselves to death because you don’t want to offend them. It’s cruel. I’m not saying you should approach anyone who’s over or underweight and tell them. Just that if you have a friend or relative who is eating in a disordered manner, obviously not healthy and not dealing with their size or diet, they are suffering. And they don’t need to be ignored or left to sort it out. They need a friendly nudge or twenty in the right direction.
6: Good Diet Education Helps.
Now, you can’t exactly play the part of diet counselor, therapist or nutritionist in anyone’s life. But being well educated about diet, health, energy, fitness, etc can help you and anyone around you. Firstly because you will understand whether someone’s habits are actually problematic or whether you’re making a rash judgement.
Secondly, because people with eating disorders often seek a sense of control and stability. That stability isn’t found in a disordered eating habit, but in actually understanding your body. How many calories it really needs, what sorts of foods make you energized and happy, what sort of foods make you lethargic, etc. Learning about healthy diet was something that helped me regain control over my eating and start eating to properly feed my body, rather than as a reward, for the sake of it or as a punishment.
And I haven’t any more of vital importance to say.
I’m happy to answer any questions or hear about your experiences in the comments.
TTFN and Happy Hunting!