Body Dysmorphia / Anorexia / Bulimia / Dieting / Shame / Overweight / Underweight / Orthorexic
For many, dealing with ‘real world problems’ an eating disorder or unhealthy relationship with food or self-image, is going to seem vain, unnecessary, small-minded and petty. If you’re one of those people, reading this won’t be interesting.
For the rest of us who at some point or another have experienced one or more of the above and/or been close to someone who has, this has a real world relevance and to dismiss it as a ‘rich white girls disease’ is to ignore the many people who die indirectly or directly or get sicker, every year. What good is shaming someone if you perceive their ‘problem’ not to be worthy enough for inclusion?
Let’s assume for a moment, any eating disorder or body-image issue, IS taken seriously and isn’t derided, insulted, demeaned and made fun of. Let’s assume people feel they CAN talk about it without pretending they have no idea what it is, because of fear of being judged and told; ‘Get a REAL problem rather than a made-up one!’ Tell that to the kids who die in hospital EVERY DAY from issues related to body-image.
It’s easy isn’t it? To condemn someone and say they’re petty and vain for having any type of body image disorder. Do you imagine they chose that life? That they want to be held hostage by a strange madness that seizes their otherwise rational faculties and enslaves them?
I’m not going to say vanity cannot play a part, but the vast majority of kids and adults who experience this of both genders because it affects men and trans also, feel this way because of a build up of reasons not just self-consciousness about the way they physically look. We can prove this though we should not have to, by showing the relationship between parents with eating disorders and their off-spring and the increase in likelihood their off-spring will go on to develop some kind of eating disorder. Likewise this is true even when that off-spring is adopted away from their family. In other words, it’s not just socially learned – some of it is inherited/biological.
The most recent body-issue out there is Orthorexia, and it’s trending because it has formed around a phobic over-response to the ideals of health and the fears of ‘bad’ food that dominate our society. Orthorexics will literally fear eating certain types of food because of everything written about them. For example if we took the various guidance of health gurus we would not eat; Any gluten, any fried food, any sugar, any non-organic produce, any alcohol, any dairy. We’d be left with rice-crackers, seaweed, vegetables and apple puree. Yum.
It may seem absurd, or an over-reaction but if you take health seriously it is easy to develop without intending to, a phobia of eating most foods because of this. You feel everything you eat is bad for you, so why eat it? You only want to eat things that are good for you and if you cannot then you skip eating. You may not be able to afford to eat what you want to eat and that presents problems as well as finding it hard to socialize because of your restricted diet.
More people than ever before have ‘restricted’ diets. Maybe they are gluten-intolerant, allergic to dairy, celiac, have a peanut allergy, are on a diet, have diabetes etc. Many menus calorie count, some break down the fats and ingredients. It is easy to obsess more than ever, and social media fuels this. There are sites devoted to this and other extremes as well as an increase in hard-core fitness programs that exclude many foods.
When someone has a tendency toward obsessing over this, maybe due to a pre-existing condition like body-dysmorphia, it’s not hard to become Orthorexic and fear eating a lot of food. The hard part is because it’s based upon health, it’s hard to find a healthy way of quitting being Orthorexic. How can you tell someone, eat less healthy food sometimes! The jury is still out on the ‘cure’ for this, but usually it comes to a crisis point and the sufferer realizes they are being controlled and they either embrace that and continue or let it go a bit and become less fanatical about how and what they eat. But it is not easy.
Anorexia is the fear of eating and the equating of food with weight-gain and negative feelings/experiences. Anorexics may eat but they often avoid it and limit their intake. Some purge afterward. They usually lose weight sufficiently that people will begin to notice. At first they are praised for being so ‘beach body ready’ and later on when they begin to grow hair on their skin as an extreme response to starvation they are made fun of. Anorexics have the highest risk of dying due to the lower rates of a ‘cure’ and they are often hospitalized.
Bulimia is characterized by bingeing and purging or even simply throwing up after eating. Typically a bulimic has many of the attributes of an anorexic and may starve themselves also or be an anorexic who purges. Other times they may purge but not necessarily lose sufficient weight to be seen to be anorexic although health-wise they are at great risk because of the strain throwing up does to our heart. Combined with inadequate nutrition and the strain of throwing up typical side-effects include broken veins in the face and hands, digestive disease and scarring, tooth decay and stomach problems.
Many people with eating disorders are on a ‘spectrum’ that doesn’t fit the absolute diagnosis of one specific disease, they are considered to have an eating disorder and then it is characterized individually.
Over eaters / binge eaters – an eating disorder characterized by over-eating to cope with stress much like anorexia that is heightened by anxiety and stress. Over-eating can include periods of extreme denial and starvation, it can also include purging. Over-eating can cause fluctuations of weight that put pressure on vital organs, and also can be a very isolating disease with a higher risk for suicide for all types of eating disorders. Sufferers may also gain extreme amounts of weight and suffer the judgement and ridicule that many over-weight or large people suffer because of our societies obsession with lower weights and their stigmatization of ‘fat’
Working out – Sometimes people who work out to lose weight or become fit can become obsessed with it. Whilst not always connected to an eating disorder, this can relate closely to body dysmorphia and shares the ‘control’ factor crucial in all eating and body disorders because it is thought, they all seek to control their surroundings because they do not feel they are in control in other ways.
Body dysmorphia is not an eating disorder but it can lead to, cause or exacerbate an eating disorder. Body dysmorphia is the incorrect transmission of an image of oneself. You can see a photograph, a mirror reflection, a film, of your body and you will not see your body the way others do.
How is that possible?
I have no idea. It seems absolutely impossible. I would NEVER believe it IF I had not A. Experienced it directly and personally B. Known so many others who did C. Professionally worked with many who did. Just like those who are not raped cannot always understand how life-changing rape can be, we seem to struggle to empathize and understand unless we have directly experienced it, which is sad.
To some extent it seems like a delusional disorder, or type of madness. I mean if you think you look a certain way but do not, how can you see yourself physically that way? And yet you do.
People suffering from any of the above, often have other conditions such as anxiety, low self-esteem, they may be survivors of sexual abuse, they may have been raped, they may be being bullied. Depression Borderline Personality Disorder and Bipolar are other co-morbid conditions that often occur simultaneously. The secretive life of someone with this can be so secretive nobody ever knows they suffered.
Any type of eating disorder is pretty hard to ‘cure’ it was once thought Anorexia could never be cured it could be lived with. Nowadays anorexics and others, have access to treatment if they have the money for the often expensive treatment centers or if they are insured. Treatment can include hypnosis, group therapy, aversion and its opposite ‘exposure’ therapy, cognitive-behavioral and many other methods. Nobody knows the exact ‘cure’ rate but many go on to live healthy lives.
Then again like any addiction or disease, it is possible to switch one for the other. When someone who was say, formerly bulimic is ‘cured’ they may simply take their need for control and place it elsewhere. They may become obsessive-compulsive, they may generate more anxiety, they may take up smoking. It is important to look closely at this because some of the alternatives are as if not more dangerous.
Please note, this is the first time I have ever talked about my own experience in relation to eating disorders or body dysmorphia and my teeth are clenched because it’s like standing naked in public and goes against a history of being expert at hiding these things when they existed.
In my own case, I met a girl I thought was so beautiful around 14 years of age, she was bulimic and anorexic. I recall clearly that I wanted to be like her so I copied her, stupid, immature, but that’s what I did. At first it didn’t mean anything I was just copying her, until my grandmother said one day that I was thick around the waist and would never look good in 1950’s dresses (I was 14) and in the same week my dad told me I was ‘chunky’. Sometimes words have no effect, other times they do. When you are already insecure, and have had a rotten time, sometimes they have too much of an effect and it doesn’t go away.
My friend and I had a secret group where we would binge, purge, starve. Eventually we stuck with starving because we felt badly for wasting food. At 16 a gym teacher said I needed to drop a few pounds, a dance teacher said the same thing and so I entered the world of starving for the sport, which many can relate to. At 17 I began swimming four times a week and during this time of a year, I didn’t starve myself, I was simply too hungry to! It felt great, I was free of the demon.
Except that’s never what happens. The reason we know such things are mental disorders is because they are inherited (children of anorexics have a higher risk) they exist irrespective of culture or income (yes, Hispanics and Blacks have eating disorders too, they were just ignored by the main-stream who believed it to be an Anglo middle-class disease, likewise with boys and men) and it’s usually deeply hidden and never talked about and is a form of delusion-disorder, you SEE things that are NOT there. IE: You are skinny and you see fat.
I can remember being in a dance class and watching all the tan girls in their leotards with their long legs and necks, so graceful and then looking down and seeing my inner thighs all flabby and squishy. It wasn’t true, they weren’t, but that is what I SAW. I remember being at a dinner party and suddenly running to the bathroom and throwing up everything I ate, and covering it expertly with a breath mint, nobody knew and it seemed like a super-power, in fact it was a sickness, an invisible and terribly destructive sickness invading my every thought.
At 18 after my boyfriend had left me, the old demon returned (a need to control) and I began to throw up whenever I ate until I was a dangerous weight. Few people knew, including my parents because I was excellent at hiding things related to my eating disorder. I went to college and in that first year it was the worst it was ever. I realized I was going out of my mind and it controlled me completely, I sought help. I went to a therapist about it and how it related to being abused as a child and other things that had happened in my life. This helped.
The main ‘cure’ of my eating disorder though was not what the magazines would like me to say. It wasn’t that I saw the light, I got better, I’m a shining example. Oh no.
I was ‘cured’ because I was in a relationship and I had nowhere to purge, or throw up after eating and I couldn’t not eat because I lived with four people and they would have noticed. there was only one bathroom, the house was small the walls paper-thin. After a while I realized I just couldn’t hide my disorder and as I was also sharing my bed and happy in my relationship I stopped.
That seems a pretty pathetic reason huh? I thought so.
It also wasn’t true, it was another layer of the delusion.That’s like an alcoholic not drinking in public, doesn’t mean they are not an alcoholic. People say, if it’s a disease you cannot control it, but who said that? Of course you can! You think you can anyway, but really it controls you. When I was alone, even for one night, I would stuff things in my mouth until I nearly burst and then throw up, or I would eat absolutely nothing or I would stare at myself and see something hideous. I didn’t and couldn’t talk about it because we all know what others would say. You are vain. You are shallow. You are pathetic. You cause this. You waste food. You deserve what you get. But it wasn’t vanity it was self-hatred and self-loathing, a desire to be that eight year old again, free of everything. I didn’t know why, I didn’t connect it to sexual abuse and other things that so often are the triggers and markers for at-risk youth to develop eating disorders.
But years later when I was single again I began to starve off and on. I saw that the ONLY thing keeping me from having a full-blown eating disorder again was circumstance! I wasn’t cured at all! I was simply living with the secrecy like a double-agent, patting myself on the back for my success when really it was underneath the surface controlling me. For someone who was so open and honest I was a huge liar, nobody knew, and the more they didn’t know, the more I couldn’t say.
HOW can we have so much control that if we live with someone else it may help and if we are alone we immediately fall back to it? How serious and real can it be then? I think it’s very serious and very real, imagine looking in the mirror and seeing someone who isn’t there! I still do. I cannot see the ‘real’ me in the mirror but what I try to do is surround myself with people who eat healthily but normally, and ensure that I don’t let ‘the voices’ lure me back into bad habits.
I have slipped a few times, notably in times of high stress. I realize for some it is impossible to live with the disease relatively well, for some they are so sick they really do benefit from more intensive treatment and/or hospitalization. I was never as sick as some of the girls (and one boy) whom I knew with eating disorders but that doesn’t mean I was well either. After a very serious bad experience I fell back into starving myself the denial felt redemptive, in my twenties I felt I was far too old to be doing this, and yet I was (many anorexics are over forty, everyone assumes they are 18, the age-bias means many do not ever get treatment). That year I went to visit school friends back in Europe, they all told me how unhealthy I looked, how I had no chest, no flesh, and I felt like I lived with a chimera inside of me, dictating this awful tendency to reduce everything to controlling how much I ate.
In our society if we perceive a disease to be ‘chosen’ or ‘self-selected’ and the person had a choice, then we blame the person who has that disease. We say “I’m not going to understand this disease or empathize because I blame you for causing it, therefore it’s not like a disease you didn’t cause.” What we fail to understand is, while we judge, we judge a far wider number of people who witness that judgement and thus, never seek help, we also instill a sense in the disease-sufferer that their disease is a choice, a bad habit, and their fault. In other words we compound the problem all because we condemn people for something we don’t understand. How many times have you heard someone say; “Those damn anorexic models I have no sympathy for them” We believe that kind of illness is essentially a weakness of character or worse, enviable and thus, we resent them. Would we say that if someone disclosed they had ovarian cancer?
I use my own example because I have NEVER publically talked about having an eating disorder before. I would say it’s a lot like being an alcoholic, you are ALWAYS an alcoholic just like you are always someone with a potential for eating disorders. I did go down the road of Orthorexia and left to my own devices would be merrily heading down it now (except it’s not merry, it’s ridiculous and it’s crazy) and equally I still have body dysmorphia. I can only believe that by admitting this as I have here, I encourage others to get treatment. I personally found therapy very helpful and the other thing that helped was ensuring I took the right vitamins and minerals to balance myself and become less unhinged which I was exacerbating by poor nutrition. It is a vicious circle.
It is very hard for me to recount this, I have tried to delete this several times, feeling that if it gets ‘out there’ I will lose control and I realize, that’s what I have to do and what we all have to do if we experience these feelings. For a long time I could not hang out with people with eating disorders, they triggered me. I am such an independent person ask anyone but when it comes to eating I’m not at all I’m a complete follower and that baffles me. I still struggle to eat when I’m alone or at dinner parties, there are things I will always have and need to always remind myself I have, to face them and not deny them, because then they win.
The grand irony is, I have always been genetically thin, so even if I never had this, I would have been picked on for being underweight, and that’s the farce of it, you can look any way and nobody really knows what’s going on for you, they accuse you of being anorexic when you’re not, and commend you for having a good figure when you’re starving yourself, the mixed-messages of our society increase our propensity to be sick. For some they are genetically wired to not respond to those triggers, whilst others are genetically engineered to respond to them, recent studies show there is a definitive link between DNA and the development of any type of eating disorder. Therefore it’s not all in your head and it is all in your head. But for years we were told it was the spoilt princess syndrome, would that make anyone want to admit it?
It is a form of madness I am certain of it, and as such it belongs in the mental health category almost more than anything else. Society does not help, the continual bombardment of thin bodies really doesn’t help. I have been told I was thin my entire life, and I realize, thin doesn’t even MATTER it’s not IMPORTANT and I don’t even find really thin women attractive! Sometimes it’s not about wanting to be thin, in my case it never was, it was about seeking control and having a really bad relationship with food that was very love-hate. Personally I think bigger women are far more beautiful, proof that an eating disorder or body dysmorphia is not always about weight or thinness, although for some it is.
I had a fear of letting go of being a child, of growing up, of intimacy, of body-shame due to sexual abuse, of self-hate due to low-self-esteem. Those were my triggers, those were my things that led me to develop eating and body disorders. For others it may be the same or different. The thing we all share is a need to control what we feel we do not control – a feeling of being out of control. Sometimes people cut themselves, sometimes people do drugs, sometimes people control what they eat. Equally, if you do not see yourself accurately in the mirror this can be a manifestation of self-hate that was inculcated or indoctrinated and it can lead to a skewed self-image which is at the root of body dysmorphia.
I feel an intense embarrassment and shame at admitting this about myself. I know when I press ‘publish’ I will immediately regret this. And that’s why I’m doing it, because it’s time. Time to end the shame. If you read this and think I’m another white-middle-class-whiner who invents a disease, good day to you, but for those of you who ‘get’ what I’m saying here, I say to you, let’s talk about it, let’s get the monster out of the closet and get to the bottom of it, because the one thing that we hate most of all is admitting it and coming clean, that’s what we avoid at any cost, and that’s exactly why we must.
I’m sorry this is all about me, it was the only way I could find to truthfully tell the story.