Unfortunately, I think every woman struggles with her body at some point in her life. It’s like some rite of passage that we all have to hate ourselves, especially for young women. Remember that scene in Mean Girls where they go around and all say something they hate about their bodies? It’s like a competition of who can be crueler to themselves. TBH, I’m not down for it anymore.
My constant anger with society and its body norms for women aside, I also have a pretty extensive history with my body image. I can recall being in second grade and learning about eating disorders from my mom. The way they spoke about family and friends who struggled with this type of bodily destruction would scare any eight year old. She explained how my aunt struggled with bulimia for a lot of her life and how much it hurt my grandma and the rest of our family. My aunt was in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation centers, the enamel on her teeth was basically shot, and even when she tried to eat normally, her stomach lining wouldn’t allow her to keep much food down. Instead of being grossed out or scared of what my aunt went through, I was intrigued. I’d been made fun of for my (TOTALLY NORMAL!) weight starting at about seven years old, so it just seemed like a natural progression for my young mind. People call you fat? You should do whatever you can to change it, and if that means engaging in binging and purging behaviors, I guess that’s what I’d have to do.
That negative self talk and worry about my weight turned into a terrible relationship with food and my body by the time I was about 11. I told my mom I was old enough to pack my own lunches, but instead, I stopped eating lunch at school altogether. Once that stopped being enough, I started skipping breakfast, too.
That negative self talk and worry about my weight turned into a terrible relationship with food and my body by the time I was about 11.
Later, when the stress of school, my relationship with friends, my home life, and still being bullied for my weight all got to be too much to handle, I turned to bulimia as a way to control something in my life. I used my eating disorder as a way to stay in control of my life when it felt like I had none elsewhere. However, I left my eating disorder untreated for years. I assumed everything I was doing was to better myself; I wasn’t being destructive. Movies, TV shows, books, magazines — they all told me that women with eating disorders are dangerously underweight. That wasn’t me, so I didn’t feel the need to address the problem.
At the time, I was on the cusp of overweight and normal for my BMI chart, but I was overall pretty healthy. I spent my days writing articles for my school newspaper and spending time with friends like a typical teenager. What didn’t come across to my family and friends though was the immeasurable suffering and self-loathing I put myself through on the inside. And as for the outside, I found ways to keep everything a secret. I knew something was wrong with me, that my relationship with food was NOT normal. Just because my body didn’t look like it on the outside, I was malnourished and lacking so many of the vitamins and minerals I needed. This went beyond my “distaste for vegetables,” as my family knew it.
I was on the cusp of overweight and normal for my BMI chart. What didn’t come across to my family and friends though was the immeasurable suffering and self-loathing I put myself through on the inside.
Once I finally entered treatment, I realized how wrong my view of eating disorders had been. I’d been in therapy and saw my doctors regularly, but because I didn’t fit that status quo of being underweight, I went undiagnosed for years. Usually, my doctor wouldn’t even comment on my health, other than to tell me to eat more veggies of course. Not only did I put myself through hell physically and emotionally, I wouldn’t even allow myself to admit I had a problem. I’d punished myself for my weight for so long that when it came time to fix it, I punished myself even more.
How do we stop this? Well, first, it starts with our discourse. The common “she looks anorexic” when you mean to say someone looks thin or petite (my word of choice!) is an easy fix that works to end the stereotypes of individuals who suffer from eating disorders. If someone tells you he or she is struggling with disordered eating, don’t invalidate their experience by telling them they “look healthy.” While these comments are usually well intentioned, they perpetuate the idea that you must look unhealthy to struggle with this. Honestly, by now, I think we shouldn’t even really be commenting on anyone else’s bodies in general. What you can do though is pay attention to how you talk to people about your own body. While we can all have our days, being positive can go a long way in making someone feel more comfortable in their own skin. Instead of talking about something you dislike about yourself, speak with your loved ones about what you do like and what makes you special. Not only does this help your own image of yourself, it encourages others around you to think about themselves positively.
Staying educated is also important. There is more to eating disorders than anorexia and bulimia, such as Binge Eating Disorder (BED), Orthorexia, Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED), Compulsive Exercise, and Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), BED is the most common eating disorder in the United States and is more common in women who are a “normal” weight. Not every single eating disorder involves trying to stay thin, and it’s necessary to understand that. We’ve seen time and time again that people can seem happy when they’re not, and the same ideology goes for disordered eating.
I’ll save you the gory details, but let me tell you, eating disorders are not glamorous or sexy. The way it’s portrayed by our media is very unlike reality, and the media tends to forget the feelings that consume someone who struggles at this capacity. The number on the scale is not what diagnoses a problem. A number (such as BMI) cannot define just how healthy or unhealthy you are. Six months after I left treatment, I ended up tattooing a quote from The Scarlet Letter on my left arm. “She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom.” Anyone who has struggled with disordered eating or any mental health issue and has undergone treatment can understand just how strong the relief is once you can lift away that burden. While I don’t always feel the freedom from my eating disorder, through treatment and being open about my struggles, I’ve begun focusing more on my values and what makes me excited for the future, and that is way more important than looking a certain way.
Anyone who has struggled with disordered eating or any mental health issue and has undergone treatment can understand just how strong the relief is once you can lift away that burden.
If you or anyone you know exhibits harmful symptoms of disordered eating, there are options regardless of your weight or size. Someone with anorexia might skip meals regularly or hide food to look like they were eating it. A bulimic might eat large amounts of food and spend a lot of time in the bathroom afterward. Binge Eating Disorder can cause people to spend a lot of money on food and go through it very quickly. Compulsive overexercise causes someone to obsess over exercising all the time, just as someone with orthorexia will obsess over only eating foods that are considered healthy. Being aware of these signs and symptoms can not only help yourself if you’re struggling, but it can help you recognize if someone else needs to get help.
The NEDA helpline is available Monday through Friday at (800) 931-2237. If you’re not able to chat over the phone, NEDA offers a “click to chat” service on their website, which puts you in contact with a trained volunteer who can discuss what you’re going through and the treatment options available to you. You can also text “NEDA” to 741741 to speak with a trained volunteer in any situation that feels more urgent. Also, seeking treatment is a lot less terrifying than you think. Yeah, it’s not easy, but the end result is beyond worth it. You can use the NEDA’s treatment database to find a healthcare provider in your area that meets your needs and specializes in eating disorder treatment. Body image issues don’t discriminate based on weight, race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, and neither do the effects going through treatment can have.