For the past two and a half years I’ve been in recovery for an eating disorder. In that time, I’ve been constantly torn between whether or not I’m actually doing the right thing. My therapist and dietitian are the professionals, I know. But sometimes I can't help but find myself looking for guidance elsewhere—whether from friends, or from that internal voice that suggests gaining weight might mean losing the love and friendship of everyone in my life.
While many of my 20-something peers have chosen to take on lifestyle changes for the sake of physical health (which is, of course, important), I face different choices. I have to make the daily decision to rediscover my mental health and disassociate terms like “quesadilla,” “rest day,” or “dessert” with “bad,” “lazy,” or “unworthy.” Naturally, some days are easier than others.
But lately I've found I can hear just as discouraging words from friends as from the voice of mental illness: Both seem to dysfunctionally associate our identity with our food.
I surround myself with remarkably accomplished and confident women. Yet I've noticed even they are not impervious to talking negatively about food. And not just my 20-something peers but also the older and wiser women in my life. Women who had worked their asses off to get through college, who raised families and established careers for themselves. Women who were finally going back to school to make that dream they always had finally come true. Women who left unhealthy relationships, had their hearts broken, had built tough skin, and attained decades worth of wisdom.
Yes, even these women are not impervious to the negative food talk that I find so poisonous—dissecting our worth among one another based on a set of caloric intakes, numbers on a scale, and stretch marks. I’ve heard comments upon comments about the numerous things they’re doing to alter their figures and then watch as a Socratic seminar on low-carb diets unfolded before me.
Consider how, once we reach a certain age, we’re told to stop trusting our bodies and to start over-analyzing them. To control them. The messages are pushed at us again and again: Your body will betray you. Don’t let yourself go. Your metabolism isn’t what it used to be. You can’t keep the pounds off. And above all else, you’ll be happier if you just lose a little.
These sort of discussions are saddening at best and triggering at worst, but the saddest thing to me is the fact that if any of these women actually had an eating disorder, it would be completely overlooked. The negative associations with food are so common in casual females conversations that a person suffering from an actual eating disorder might easily be as unnoticed as a ghost in their presence.
It doesn't help that we often forget that eating disorders affect adults too, not just teens. More often than not, we associate eating disorders with an emaciated girl slumped over a toilet. She’s typically Caucasian, of a higher socioeconomic status, and well under the age of 20. This image is a stereotype for a reason; research shows many of those with an eating disorder are in fact young, white women.
But did you know 24 million Americans, of all ages and genders, suffer from an eating disorder? Or that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, yet only 1 in 10 sufferers get help?
The tiny 15-year-old who goes out to eat with her friends and orders nothing but a dry salad will probably evoke concerned glances from her friends. Take the same girl, however, and add 10 to 20 years and a few pounds, and her battle is often dismissed. Her decision to order a salad may still be driven by anxiety, but now she’s older and looks “normal” and her new friends are hardly concerned. They may openly admire her “self-control” and ability to turn down the appetizers or dessert.
What we view as a clear eating-disorder problem in young girls, we end up celebrating as an accomplishment when she grows up.
While her peers discuss their plans to work on their post-pregnancy body or start yet another diet for the sake of feeling more comfortable in their skin, the woman picking at her salad can’t help but wonder when her unending fear of food went from a pressing concern to an accomplishment in the eyes of those around her.
As women age there comes a point when adopting a self-loathing mentality is expected. And for the women who already possess the biological or psychological underpinnings that contribute to eating disorders, this can be a time when speaking up and getting the help they need is more difficult than ever before. If the problem is deeply rooted—and it often is—it can be hard to understand that there’s nothing praiseworthy about feeling shame at every bite.
There’s nothing admirable about having a hostile relationship with food, no matter what the world is telling you.
For all these reasons and more, I encourage women to resist the urge to identify so heavily with their food and exercise habits. Stop the apologies and stream of self-inflicted insults from rolling off your tongue and onto the clean plate before you. Honor yourself for the souls you’ve touched rather than the office candy you didn’t. Love yourself through every bit of flesh that glows in your mirror’s reflection. Strive to be healthy, not skinny. The struggle of self-acceptance may never entirely cease, but it can become easier when you spend more time calling your unwavering strengths to attention instead of all the trite aspects of yourself that you consider to be flaws.
February is National Eating Disorders Awareness Month, and February 22 through 28 is Eating Disorder Awareness Week. The National Eating Disorder Association aims to educate the public on the seriousness of this disease and to crush the many stigmas and myths surrounding it. If you are suffering, you are not alone and there are many people and resources that can help. Check out nationaleatingdisorders.org, anad.org, and nedawareness.org for more information.