I’d dealt with pain for much of my life — fibromyalgia and its associated constellation of syndromes and conditions. But in 2011, my pain condition worsened. My digestive symptoms, with a flare-up of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), was by far the worst loss of control I’d ever experienced.
I was often sick to my stomach every time I ate, often for eight hours a day. And somewhere in the middle of it all, at age 21, I developed an eating disorder.
My doctors said to keep eating as often as possible; my body was digesting the food, however painful it was, and I just needed to do the best I could. After months of trying treatments to no avail, I latched on to the easiest possible way to avoid the pain.
I couldn’t control what my body did with food, but I could control when I fed it, what I fed it, and how much I fed it; I decided on “once a day,” “six healthy foods,” and “very little,” respectively. I also exercised no less than two hours every night. I lost 40 pounds in mere months.
One night on my way to work out, my parents stopped me. I remember sitting in the leather recliner in my childhood home, feeling small and cold. They told me one time that my “new habits” were wrecking my life. That was all I needed to stop starving myself and finally latch on to the facts: My preoccupation with food wasn’t helping my health condition. My eating continued to be disordered, but I started feeding myself enough calories to stop the bleed of weight loss.
For years, I was in denial about my disordered eating; it was so mixed with one of the worst bouts of my medical condition that it was hard to parcel out what had happened and even harder to accept. Even with my parents and friends, who did comment on my weight, the term eating disorder was never explicitly discussed, and I maintained that plausible deniability. Even though it was provoked by a real fear of food and desperation for control, there is so much shame attached to eating disorders and body image. I didn’t want to be labeled as the crazy, rigid, type-A appearance monster.
A few years later, I finally wrote an essay about my struggles with food. It was cathartic to crystallize part of what had happened to me in black and white. This admission also seemed to give me permission to talk about it more openly with others — and with women, food always comes up. It comes up when the dessert menu arrives at the dinner table. It comes up when you think of ordering another cocktail at the bar. It comes up when someone shames herself for eating poorly two nights in a row.
I still remember the first night I opened up to one of my closest friends about restricting (the first person to which I ever acknowledged my eating disorder), and she told me about her overexercising. We did this over a shared lava cake we didn’t finish. Recovering from your sins is a lifelong process, and we were still working on it.
Some three years later, we were back discussing our eating habits over German chocolate cake in a downtown lounge. This time, we were both under extreme stress in our work lives and binge eating as a form of self-soothing. I told her about the uncontrollable urge to eat peanut butter and chocolate in the afternoon; she told me about an onslaught of minicupcakes at 2 p.m. After letting the words float out into the air, we agreed to support each other in developing healthier eating habits. We were finally able to laugh by the end of dessert.
Since that moment, I’ve opened up more and more with friends about disordered eating habits — and in that, I’ve realized that I am not alone. Although my history with eating disorders felt isolating for years, more of my friends have dealt with eating issues than have not. We’re just not openly talking about it.
This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. This year’s theme is “It’s time to talk about it.” We are long overdue, says Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Although it seems that “everyone knows someone” who has been affected, there’s still so much shame attached to it, which inspired this year’s campaign. “When you open up about it yourself, you make it safer for others to open up,” she tells Yahoo Beauty. “For something this widespread, the amount of silence around eating disorders is remarkable.”
So, let’s talk about it. Statistics on exact prevalence are hard to measure, since there is still so much stigma involved, but eating issues are pervasive. According to the NEDA, 30 million Americans will suffer from clinically significant EDs at some point in their lives.
In addition to commonly discussed eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, in the age of social media others are starting to take on a larger profile, including orthorexia, exercise disorders, and binge eating disorder. Although we purport to embrace body positivity as a culture, with body-positive role models like Ashley Graham entering the mainstream, we still idealize the thinnest frames — as seen on the vast majority of models and celebrities, often airbrushed and splashed in front of us 24/7.
A 2016 Dove report showed female body image has actually been on the decline since 2010; 85 percent of women opt out of certain activities when they don’t feel they look their best, and nine out of 10 women with low self-esteem will avoid eating when they feel upset about their bodies. If not a full-blown clinically significant condition, the gateway drug of disordered eating is still prevalent among women (and men). In a survey conducted in partnership with University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 65 percent of women reported disordered eating behaviors.
As the media is “integrated into every facet of our day,” a subconscious “hyperfocus on having the perfect body” can silently take hold, because what we discuss and what we see don’t necessarily match, says Karla Ivankovich, PhD, an adjunct instructor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Springfield. “It has created a death spiral where weight and image are at the forefront of most every female’s thoughts,” she tells Yahoo Beauty. “It’s a dangerous culture we live in.”
While it’s great to have social media campaigns promoting body love and healthy eating behaviors, it’s even better to have social support in real life. Although I am significantly improved, I have opened up with a few close friends about the struggles that plague me to this day. I do not always like my body. I do not always feed it the way I should. But I do now have friends who hold me accountable and check in on my emotional well-being when they notice a change in my eating patterns.
One friend and I check in with each other a few times a week to make sure we’re making healthy behavioral decisions. Another friend of mine sends me positive posts on Instagram to feed both my self-image and spirit. Still a third gave me recommendations on books that have helped her develop a better skill set to eat mindfully and healthfully. I’ve had in-depth discussions about disordered eating or EDs with all of them.
Your tribe is all around you. If you’ve ever struggled with eating issues, chances are a few other women you know have stories quite similar to yours. As women, we’re also uniquely tuned in to behaviors and commentaries that encourage negativity: skipping meals, avoiding opportunities to enjoy food, preoccupation with exercising or restrictive diets, putting down our bodies.
It just takes courage to change the actions and discourse surrounding food and body image. “Start with where these anxieties and stressors bubble to the surface,” NEDA’s Mysko says. “It can be the moment when the dessert menu arrives at the table and someone says ‘I shouldn’t’ or ‘I’ve been so bad.’ Or it can be in the dressing room, when someone criticizes her body and everyone else chimes in about theirs. It’s just this downward spiral.”
Mysko says to try calling it out. In the dressing room, it could be, “Isn’t it a shame we do this to ourselves?” Across the quiet dinner table, it could be, “Eating has been a real source of stress in my life, and I’m working to create a healthier relationship with my body and food.” These small conversational pivots can often open the door to honest discussions.
As for me, that first essay about my relationship with food and body image was my turning point. I stopped silently beating myself up about eating and started talking to others in these moments of self-criticism when dialogue tends to flow naturally. If more women would simply realize the power in telling their own story, Ivankovich says, we could create a stronger force against disordered behaviors. “Start with a story of something you experienced or went through and how it made you feel,” she says. “That way, your friend sees you can join her where she’s at in that moment because you understand.”
When my best friends and I check in with each other, we hold ourselves more accountable for healthy behaviors, and we remember to practice what we preach. Most importantly, we remind each other of our self-worth whenever our internal dialogues threaten to drown it out. That empowerment transcends all our individual stories to connect us, reminding us that we’re imperfect yet wonderfully human.
This Woman Is Bravely Sharing Her Body Transformation in Combating Anorexia
The Accidental Eating Disorder That’s Powered by Social Media: Orthorexia
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