*Disclaimer: I will preface this by saying I am not a doctor, or a medical professional, or a mental health professional. If you think you might have an eating disorder, or body dysmorphia, please seek professional help, and resources at the National Eating Disorder Organization*
*Trigger Warning: this post includes the following topics: body image, body dysmorphia, and disordered eating
From the time I was nine years old until about my mid twenties, I lived with an disordered eating, horrible body image, and generally spent an ungodly amount of time thinking about food and my weight. I tried every diet in the book (Atkins, South Beach, Vegan, Vegetarian, Raw, French, Paleo blah blah blah) gained and lost the same 15-20lbs, and wasted precious hours obsessing about food and my weight.
It wasn’t always the classic, eat-one-apple-a-day, run to the bathroom to throw up after every meal scenario you might imagine when you here “disordered eating,” but disordered eating was part of my every day life for longer than I care to admit. While I was never actually underweight, thoughts of food, my weight, and exercise took up an enormous part of my energy and life, as it does for many people who get sucked and locked into the diet culture.
At one point, I would even limit the number of social gatherings I would attend per week to avoid the temptation of extra calories in the form of food or alcohol, or to avoid the conversations about why I wasn’t partaking if I did go. My social life quickly diminished.
I would restrict certain foods, and then go off the deep end, eating enough ice cream to be uncomfortably full, as my body attempted to feed itself. Then I’d feel awful the next day and work out for four hours to try to undo the damage. It was fucked. It sucked up so much of my life. I regret it all, which is why I’m writing this, so that you can catch yourself sooner than I did, change course, and save time and energy.
The Worst of It
In my late teens, my eating disorder peaked, and I found myself eating around 700 calories a day, feeling bad if I ate more than 900. It was around this time that I would regularly do four or more hours of cardio a day. I distinctly remember on Fridays my “cheat” was having coffee with cream and sugar as opposed to zero calorie tea. One Friday night I served up a tiny scoop of Gelato, and immediately left the house to go run it off, not even so much as taking 2 minutes to put on a bra. Soon, I began losing hair, and was constantly cold no matter what I wore. No matter how many people told me I was thin, it was never thin enough for me.
When my body simply could not bare the stress of starvation any longer, I started binge eating. I had so much shame around this, as it “undid” all my hard work, but I realize now my body was in survival mode, and it was just trying to feed me. My body was like, “this bitch is crazy! I’m fucking hungry! We gotta turn off her self control for a sec and eat everything we can find as quickly as possible because she’s trying to starve us!”
That’s the thing about eating disorders. When you’re starving your body of necessary energy and nutrients, it’s convinced it’s starving, and does not trust you to properly feed it, so when it gets the chance to go to town on something, it will literally go into survival mode and annihilate that shit because it’s prepared to starve again, so it wants to load up on calories when it gets the chance to keep you alive!
We punish ourselves when this happens, and feel so much shame about it, but it’s really our bodies response to trying to protect us and literally keep us functioning.
Diet culture convinces us this is our fault, and it means we are lazy, undisciplined, and if only we follow THEIR DIET, we won’t have this problem any more. That’s just marketing. It never works.
The only diet that works is the one you can stick to forever.
Extreme diets, binging, overeating, or “undoing” eating with grueling workouts is normalized in our culture. Essentially, disordered eating is pretty common, but because disordered eating isn’t always cut-and-dry, many people don’t even realize they have a problem, but they do realize they are often miserable about and have issues with food.
You may have disordered eating if you:
- Can’t go to a restaurant without seeing and knowing exactly what is on the menu and “safe”
- Are preoccupied with thoughts of food, and constantly worried about your next meal
- Restrict or attempt to restrict entire food groups (food allergies and religious practices excluded)
- Exercise only to “burn off” food instead of exercising for health, pleasure, and general fitness
- Weigh or measure yourself obsessively
- Spend excessive time in the mirror critiquing your flaws
- You are always trying to lose weight, despite being at a healthy weight
- You label foods as “bad” and “good”
- You jump from one diet to the next
- You cannot have something decadent without devouring all of it– for instance, you can’t buy Oreos because you will eat the entire package in a day or two.
- You eat to the point of discomfort regularly
- You attempt to suppress your appetite with things like gum, excessive water, coffee
Eating Disorders Make You Boring. Seriously.
When I was stuck in disordered eating, most of my mental energy was zapped by thoughts of food and weight, and it really stunted my personal growth- I didn’t have the time or energy to read as many books, work on my creativity, give back, or nourish my friendships because I was consumed with disordered eating. I got kind of boring, to be honest, and didn’t have much to add to conversations. I lost a lot of my spark.
In retrospect, I see that I was wasting precious years of my life. I should have been nurturing my talents, going after my dreams, and enjoying my life, and so I write this in the hope that it falls in the right laps, and that others choose a different path. It is never too late to change the course of your life.
If I can overcome this, you can, too.
I got so fed up with myself, and I knew I had a a problem, but I was too ashamed to talk to anyone about it, so I decided to swap the toxic diet and eating disorder blogs I was consuming, for recovery and mental health resources on how to heal and get healthy. I spent time exploring the resources on the National Eating Disorder Organization website because I didn’t have the means to go to therapy and I couldn’t bring myself to talk to anyone about what I was going through, so I devoured all the information on healing online that I could. I made a recovery pen pal friend on a message board, and we wrote to each other about our struggles to get healthy. If you ever see this, hi Claire in Australia! I remember you!
I knew I had dreams for myself, and wanted more from my life, and I knew that if I stayed on this track, I would stunt myself, and waste my life away. So, here’s what I did, what I learned, and what I recommend if you want to stop obsessing about food and your weight, and say goodbye to toxic diet culture and find a way to eat sustainably:
Get Honest- and Fed Up With Yourself
They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. When I was eating 700 calories a day, I was convincing myself I was healthy, a light eater, and in total denial of how sick I was. It wasn’t until I hit my limit and the physical toll binging and purging was too much to handle, and I felt ashamed and like shit every day. I realized the amount of time, effort, and money I was wasting. I became fed up with how I was spending my life.
That’s the thing with eating disorders. One day, you’re on a diet, trying to slim down and get healthier, and then one day you wake up and your life has been taken over by your obsession with food, exercise, and weight. You can get your life back.
Take an honest look at yourself and your habits and ask yourself if you are healthy, being true to yourself, and if you want to live like this forever. If not, be honest, get fed up, and make a change.
Research, Research, Research
Yo, we can all be researchers in this day and age because we have Google at our fingertips and in our pockets at all times. Have a question about the universe or how to heal? Google that shit. No excuses.
A lot of people mistakenly think eating disorders are just about being thin, but eating disorders are often a response to trauma, a toxic home life, or other psychological issues
Read everything you can about eating disorders, the psychology behind them, and others experiences (especially their recovery experiences.) A lot of people mistakenly think eating disorders are just about being thin, but eating disorders are more often a response to trauma, a toxic home life, or other psychological issues. Eating disorders are a symptom. Digging deep and finding out what your eating disorder is really about is the real work that will heal you and your eating habits.
Please, please, please seek treatment with an eating disorder specialist, therapist, or doctor who can help you find resources to heal. If you can’t afford it, or aren’t sure where to start, first of all I highly recommend BetterHelp (a confidential and virtual therapy app that is more affordable than traditional therapy and offers financial aid)
There are also Pro Bono therapy options out there, which you can learn more about here.
If you’re not ready for therapy, put it on your to-do list, and follow @the.holistic.psychologist on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube as a starting point for learning about mental health.
Again, this is about digging deep and finding out what’s really going on. Remember, eating disorders are symptoms of bigger issues and rarely, if ever, are just about losing weight or food.
Journaling will help you track your progress, work through and face your emotions, and keep you accountable. It’s therapeutic to be able to have a safe place to release and heal, and will help you organize your thoughts and get to the root of what’s really going on.
I believe restricting foods is the root of all diet and eating disorder evil! It’s the forbidden fruit syndrome, when your brain thinks something is off limits, that thing becomes more desirable and can actually cause us to fixate on the very thing we try to avoid.
Obviously we’re not talking about food allergies here. When I went vegan for the first time in the height of my disordered eating is when my binging started, I believe not only because I wasn’t eating enough, but also because so many foods were “off limits.”
Ironically, I’m back to a mostly vegetarian diet these days because I feel best eating plant-based food, and want to eat a diet with a low carbon- footprint that is ethically sourced. WITH THAT SAID, I eat cheese sometimes. I have dessert that has dairy in it. I ate half a burger this month (though I actually prefer a veggie burger.) I eat mostly vegetarian out of preference and the way it makes me feel, but I allow myself to eat everything. Sometimes I eat chicken or fish. I eat whatever the F*** I want, and because I allow myself that freedom, I don’t binge. I actually want mostly whole foods, tons of fruits and vegetables, and protein. Sometimes I want pizza or sandwiches or chocolate. I eat those, too, and I trust my body.
Quit Diets Forever
Seriously. Diets can actually cause weight gain in the long run because dieters usually gain back more weight than they initially lost once they stop the diet.
Diets are effective in the short term because they often drastically reduce calories or water weight, but they are not sustainable in the long term, and most people end up re-gaining any weight they lost.
Vow to stop dieting, and figure out a way to eat forever. What nutritious foods can you incorporate on a daily basis, and how can you allow yourself to have treats/ fun foods without going off the deep end?
This “I’ll start Monday” mentality is essentially diet culture, and encourages binging on the weekends. What if you allowed yourself treats in moderation, seven days a week, and you just ate normally on the weekends because you discovered a way to eat that is actually satisfying? It’s possible.
Now, I understand limiting alcohol or take out to weekends and “celebrating” with food, but when you learn to eat in moderation there’s no need to eat everything in sight because you know you’re free to eat whatever, whenever.
Forget about being perfect on Monday and “imperfect” all weekend. Be a little imperfect all the time and it will balance out, and cause you less of a headache.
Build Your Self Esteem
“In order to build your self esteem, you have to do esteemable things.” -Whitney Cummings
It’s no shocker that people with eating disorders also suffer from low self esteem. They believe they are not good enough as they are, so they must diet down and change in order to be worthy. Or, they just plain don’t like themselves and they emotionally eat, which arguably is another way to “punish” oneself, or sometimes, hide from the world.
For a while, I mistakenly thought my body was my most valuable asset, and so I put all my time and energy into trying to make it “perfect.” Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that the people who loved me didn’t love me for my body (certainly not the right people, anyways) but they loved me for my mind, my kindness, my sense of humor, my wildness and my creativity. All of those aspects of myself started to dim when I stopped paying attention to them. The grass is green where you water it, as they say.
Here’s an article with six practical ways to improve your self esteem.
Practice Moderation and Make it a Superpower
I used to roll my eyes at moderation. I get it, it’s not EXTREME, and it’s probably not the way to six pack abs, either. I will take a four pack or a no pack any day in exchange for the greater quality of life. I had a six pack at one point. I was obsessed with everything I ate and when I was going to exercise next, I was tired all the time, and I lost my sparkle because all my energy was focused on being lean. Did it make me more lovable? No. Did it make me happier? Nope. Did it make me more beautiful? Nope. Did it improve my relationships? No, and actually I’d argue it strained them. I’ll take sparkly, happier, and softer any day of the week.
Moderation is the best of both worlds.
Moderation allows you to be fit and healthy, and enjoy your life. It does mean you can have excellent nutrition and eat for pleasure. It means you can still have a fabulous, capable, beautiful body, and have a social life and not think twice about going out to eat.
It does mean you can have a social life.
Most importantly, it means you can FREE UP YOUR LIFE AND MENTAL ENERGY TO DO OTHER THINGS.
Once you find a way of eating that works for you, you don’t have to think about it much, and it’s awesome!
Practice having small portions of “off limits” foods. Make your healthy meals more enjoyable with fats like butter, cheese, a piece of bread.
Allow yourself to have a few pieces of chocolate, one slice of pizza, a serving of mac n cheese. You might overeat. Don’t give up. It takes practice.
Pay attention to how your body feels after eating certain foods, and adjust accordingly. Make healthy foods fun and delicious with dressing, sauce, fat, carbs, etc. You don’t have to do it perfectly, you just have to do it well. If ranch dressing helps you eat your greens, use the ranch dressing! It’s not a sin. You won’t blow up. Your friends will still love you.
One of the first things I did when I decided I was fed up with my disordered eating was tape, “You are beautiful in every way,” to my full length mirror–a place I often went to asses my flaws, pinch my fat, and generally tell myself I wasn’t good enough. So sad. Not to say I don’t stiff have off days or occasionally get critical of myself, but I also I twerk in the mirror now, and often compliment myself, or notice my good qualities instead of just fixating on my flaws. It’s better this way.
Some affirmations you might want to try:
- I am beautiful in every way
- I am perfect/ok exactly as I am
- I accept myself
- I love myself
- I’m so grateful for my body
There is so much shame involved with disordered eating, and when you are in the thick of it, it’s impossible not to blame yourself. You might think you should be able to white knuckle your way through this, or that it means you are weak, damaged, or somehow less than. Like I said before, eating disorders are rarely about food and weight alone. Be gentle with yourself.
Disordered eating is typically the result of a trauma, emotional disturbances, or unhealthy/toxic family or relationship dynamics. Bad things happen to good people, and sometimes those bad things turn into unhealthy coping mechanisms. It’s not your fault that you have disordered eating, but it is your responsibility to learn about it, make the decision to heal, and take action.
Exercise for Pleasure, Not Punishment
This is a game changer because when you exercise in a way you actually enjoy you’ll A) Actually do it regularly and B) Disconnect from the idea that exercise is only for punishment, weight loss, or manipulating your body.
I do not go on long runs unless I feel like it (which is rare.) I started strength training because I loved feeling strong and powerful, and being able to track my progress, and I loved the way having muscle looks and feels. Life is just easier when you are stronger.
I started going on hikes or walks because I find them enjoyable and relaxing, and they are often how I clear my head and get my best ideas.
I’ve skiied, skateboarded, practiced yoga, taken dance classes, and most recently have taken up surfing and rollerskating. I often just dance it out in my living room.
Find things you enjoy and do them. It’s quite simple.
Prioritize other hobbies
It is no coincidence that around the time I started healing from my eating disorder I started nurturing other hobbies. I started reading voraciously, and writing more. I started singing in bands, went to college, volunteered my time as a tutor. I learned to ride a motorcycle, started hiking and doing yoga (and prioritizing fulfilling movement as opposed to punishing movement) learned to garden, and then I learned to surf, and now I write every single day. I’m making art again.
Eating disorders are like addictions, and bad habits or addictions often need to be replaced with better ones. Find your healthy habits, new obsessions, stuff that gets you jazzed, whether that’s blogging, reading, knitting, volunteering, creating, gardening, or business. Swap obsessions.
We often talk about feeding our bodies with healthy foods, but what you put in your brain effects you, too. Unfollow diet and fitness accounts that trigger you, and replace them with accounts that inspire and uplift you and encourage you to take care of and accept yourself.
What we don’t see with “fitspo” and “thinspo” is A) the retouching and editing that is involved, from body makeup to face tune to professional airbrushing. and B) The fact that these people often dehydrate themselves and go on strict diets leading up to photo shoots and so they don’t even look like their magazine cover selves 99% of the time. Every wonder why we see six packs and perfect figures all over the ‘gram, but rarely in real life or at the beach? It’s because they’re usually an optical or virtual illusion, sweets.
Check out the Google Image Search results for “Instagram vs Reality Fitness”
Remember you are not alone in your struggles, and that MANY people suffer silently when it comes to food and their weight. In fact, I’d argue, a majority of Western women struggle with body image and food issues.
Remember are not stuck, and that change happens with a series of small steps, and that you are capable of healing.
Remember that healing and progress are rarely linear, and that even though you will likely mess up as you learn to heal, it’s just part of learning, and it happens to all of us. I still have “off” days, nearly ten years later. We’re only human.
Remember that the images we see on Instagram and in magazines and on TV aren’t real life, and include teams of people behind the scene, fancy camera filters, and post-production editing.
Remember that you’re going to die one day. When you look back on your life, is having the perfect body what you want to see? Or is there something else?
Sending you all my love and support <3