In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week Feb. 21-27, 2010 Paradigm Shift is seeking blog, graphic art, and video submissions related to eating disorder recovery. Please let us know how you would like to be credited (by name or anonymous)- deadline, Friday March 5th.
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by Jennifer Potter
I have never been diagnosed with anorexia or hospitalized for bulimia. Whenever eating disorders are discussed these extreme illnesses are at the forefront. I do, however, struggle every day due to my horrible relationship with food and my body. The Mayo Clinic defines eating disorders as, “a group of serious conditions in which you’re so preoccupied with food and weight that you can often focus on little else.” Extreme cases of eating disorders manifest as the diagnosable mental illnesses anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. This is not to say that if you do not have one of those illnesses you do not have some kind of preoccupation with food and weight. While there is no medical term for people who do not have a healthy relationship with food, these people are affected by the same biological, emotional, and societal issues that can lead to anorexia or bulimia.
There are many people living in the grey area between a healthy relationship with their bodies and the food they eat, and those struggling with disorders. For me it’s an endless cycle of eating and beating myself up. Each day I say today I will be “good”. I usually start out strong with yogurt and oatmeal. As the day progresses the temptation gets harder to deal with. There always seems to be “bad” food everywhere. Whether in the form of cookies someone brought to work to share or going for a quick drink with friends which results in chicken wings and nachos on the table. Just one can’t hurt right? Don’t starve yourself or deny yourself of food. That’s no way to live and not a healthy diet. So I eat. On the subway ride home my mind starts going. Why did I eat all those wings? Why couldn’t I resist half that chocolate bar? I’m never going to reach my fitness goals and never going to have the body I want. I then resolve to try again tomorrow. Each time I look at myself in the mirror I feel disgusted by my inability to only eat “good” foods. On days I manage to do that, I feel like I shouldn’t have eaten so much of it.
One fundamental problem with the concept of “good” versus “bad” food is that it sets me up for a mental beating later. I’ve already labeled what I’m eating as “bad” and therefore should be punished for not being strong enough to resist eating it. This seems to be a commonly overheard conversation: “Should I be “good” and get salad or “bad” and get that cheese burger I really want?” So how can this mentality be combated? The first step is to stop labeling everything I eat as “good” or “bad”. Yes, there are horribly unhealthy foods out there, such as deep-fried pizza, but a healthy diet includes having a bit of chocolate in my daily routine without beating myself up for it later. In this sense knowledge is power. The more you know about food and what daily requirements your body needs ,the easier it is to be “good” all day even while incorporating supposedly “bad” food.
The problem is that this knowledge is not easily derived for every individual. Everyone’s bodies are unique and the healthy caloric intake of food varies based on age, gender, height, weight, daily physical activity. Even internet research can only go so far. With personal nutritionists beyond of the economic reach of so many, myself included, we are left with few options but our own research and hope we’re doing it right. This leaves too much room for error for many. Also the results of improved diet and exercise can take months to make a noticeable difference. This is not very conducive to a culture of instant gratification and “Lose 5 pounds in 5 days” weight loss products. The simplest solution becomes “I just won’t eat.!” More accessibility to complete and accurate nutritional information will help people in the grey gain a better understanding of foods and develop a healthy relationship with what they eat.
Besides my unhealthy relationship with food, I find that I exhibit the same kind of mental anguish over my body’s appearance. Every time I look in the mirror, change my clothes or take a shower I feel more and more frustrated by what I see. In the last six months I have made improvements. I’ve gone to the gym two to three times a week and am starting to see muscles develop. This is not enough to quiet the voice in my head. No matter how much weight I lose or how toned my arms look I’m never satisfied. If one aspect of my appearance is acceptable I immediately find something wrong with another body part. At the gym I can never do enough. Similar to my behavior with food, no matter how hard I workout I still punish myself afterward for not doing more. So why do I feel this way? I am aware that there are improvements and if nothing else I am healthier for working up a sweat and getting blood flowing a few times a week. Why am I not satisfied with the effort I put in and the results I have seen?
A large part of my body hate comes from constant bombardment of media and social ideals of unrealistic body expectations. The media’s influence is considered so substantial that libraries of books, articles, and documentaries have been created to explain exactly how and why it’s damaging. Most recently in the UK The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ (RCPsychs’) Eating Disorders Section called for the media to portray images of more diverse body shapes to help people feel positive about their bodies. Not having to stare at so called “perfect” bodies at every turn would be helpful, however the issue is not strictly external. There is an internal struggle with perfection that would be there with or without the external images. Low self-esteem, perfectionism, and impulsive behaviors are all linked to eating disorders. While media standards can be misleading and dangerous, our own personal standards can be damaging as well.
There is nothing inherently wrong with having lofty expectations for yourself. The desire to do better and be better is important for people to push themselves and not be content with whatever their current situation is. It is far too easy for this perfectionist drive to become self-destructive. Physical appearance is an easy marker for perfection and ability to exhibit control. By being “thin” I am seen to demonstrate self-control by going to the gym and by not overindulging in food. There is a negative connotation associated with people who are not super thin and their perceived lack of control. The only reason they aren’t perfect, according to this outlook, is because they are too lazy. This is a very harmful attitude. In order to demonstrate we are not lazy we must be perfect in every aspect. Since such perfection is not attainable we are never comfortable in our own skin. For every goal I meet, a new one takes its place. The biggest obstacle in creating a positive relationship with my body and the food I eat is my mindset. I must learn to forgive myself and be comfortable with my flaws.
Despite my acknowledgment that I do in fact have a very unhealthy attitude towards food and my body, I continue to struggle every day. It is important to remember that eating disorders can affect everyone regardless of age, gender, or size, and the struggles come in all different sorts. I will continue to look for ways to overcome my destructive behavior and hope to one day really and truly feel comfortable in my own skin.
Mayo Clinic Website:
Medical News Today:
Martin, Courtney E. Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body. Berkley Group, 2008.
Jennifer- thanks so much for sharing your story, I can certainly identify. May the negative voice in your head get quieter every day 🙂