First up – I’m really sorry. I’ve been a terrible blogger of late, thanks to a combination of long hours at work and a really gross winter bug. But I’m back, y’all – and while I’ve been lying around feeling sorry for myself, I’ve done a lot o’thinking… So prepare yourselves. There will be blogs.
So – let’s talk about Eating Disorders Awareness Week.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – we live in a cultural environment that seems to be perfectly engineered to cause women – and men – to have disordered relationships with their own bodies. We’re surrounded by magazine ideals of thinness as perfection, and taking extreme measures to lose weight is something that’s approached with praise and high-fives, rather than a consideration of the whys and hows of what is, to all intents and purposes, a form of disordered eating.
Ironically, it’s only as I get further from my own issues with binge eating (and one miserable, failed attempt at purging) that I’m comfortable enough to call it an eating disorder – but for a long time, I didn’t have a name for it. I’d buy enough cookies, ice cream and pizza to feed a family of four and eat it in secret on my own, before destroying all the evidence – but it wasn’t an eating disorder. It was just a thing I did, and tried to forget immediately afterwards.
Now, these aren’t normal eating practices.
But are they any less normal than subsisting to the verge of fainting on cabbage soup, after seeing it recommended in a magazine? Or how about cutting out carbs until that nagging pain in the kidneys means a trip to the doctor? Or creating an extreme calorie deficit by working out into the night, despite exhaustion from following a low-calorie diet for several days?
In years gone by, I’ve done all of the above in the name of weight loss – but because I was following the advice of certain diets, they weren’t seen as disordered. They were seen as ‘hardcore,’ or ‘brave,’ but not messed up, or the product of some deep rooted issued that needed to be dealt with far more urgently than the size of my waistline.
And while then, I’d proudly wear the ‘on a diet’ badge like a medal of honour, – because taking extreme measures to lose weight is viewed as a strength – these days, I find myself second-guessing pretty much everything I write about whether or not I’d call my relationship with food a disordered one.
But it is – and I think by not talking about it, I’ve probably done myself – and, in a way, you guys – a bit of a disservice. Because no matter how much you feel like you’ve it all together, this kind of thing is something that never really goes away – and facing up to it is not, in any way, shape or form, a sign of weakness.
I mean, 99% of the time, I’m the walking embodiment of body confidence. I work what I’ve got, and I know for a fact that I nail it. But that 1% of the time? That can be a real bitch.
Now, I’m not saying my experience applies to all dieters, and it certainly doesn’t apply to every kind of eating disorder – I’m fully and gratefully aware that I’m at the considerably less severe end of the spectrum. But I think by calling a spade a spade, and my relationship with food disordered, it’s easier to deal with it as something I not only have to be mindful of, but have to treat with the purpose and focus I’d treat anything else.
For me, that means taking care around foods I know ‘set me off’ (I’m looking at you, pizza.) It’s avoiding opening a pack of biscuits alone – ‘cause one thing leads to another, and the next thing you know, me and the empty packet are giving each other an awkward post-snarf side-eye. It’s making sure I’ve got one eye on how I’m feeling about my body at any given time – because god damn it, I love my booty, but a combination of a bad day at work, hormones, and an episode of Grey’s Anatomy can be hella fatal to a girl’s body confidence.
On the flip side, it also means being mindful of the fact that it’s something I do have the power to control – or at least, moderate – when I put my mind to it. Because when I first began to think of my own eating practices as beyond my control, my willpower went up in a puff of smoke. ‘I can’t help it,’ I’d think, whilst definitely using my own hands to grab a bag of cookies and a chocolate bar. ‘It’s not me, it’s the illness,’ I’d say, jumping feet first into a pot of Haagen Dasz.
Turns out you’ve gotta tread carefully around them thar justifications. ‘Cause in my case… There was a balance to be found. There are compulsions, and there are drives, that are going to be there no matter what you do – but the more you get used to talking yourself out of ‘em, the easier it gets.
What I’m getting at with this post, though, isn’t how you treat disordered eating, because frankly, that’s not for me to say. It’s a completely personal thing, and it varies enormously from one person to another. What I do think, though, is that things like Eating Disorders Awareness Week are a chance to do just that – to be more aware of what constitutes disordered eating.
It’s an opportunity to consider the vast spectrum of forms that eating disorders – like all mental health problems – can take. Y’all know we should be mindful when we’re falling into stereotypes, and the idea that to have an eating disorder you have to be a) anorexic or bulimic, and b) thin, is one that’s very pervasive indeed… And one we really ought to question.
Because the statistics around eating disorders are both terrifying, and – I think – misleading. The vast number of undiagnosed and untreated cases of people who feel out of control around food, or turn to either overeating or deprivation as an emotional crutch, suggests to me that we need to redefine our idea of what constitutes both an eating disorder, and an ED sufferer – and work together to fix it.
Trust me, y’all: I know many a strong woman – and man – who suffers with a disordered eating in some form or another. Some of the strongest people I know, for that matter, have had to overcome struggles with it, and continue to do so – so let’s not assume that disordered eating exists in a vacuum, or is only an issue for certain ‘types’ of people.
Instead, let’s be more compassionate, both to ourselves and each other – and we have to be critical of what we’re up against. Through a combination of savvy marketing and old cliches – be they comfort eating, dieting, fitspiration or the idea that ‘you can’t have just one’ – we’re conditioned to overlook the root causes of disordered food relationships, and the type of damage they can do. And while it’s tempting to show no weakness, believe me – by facing up to this type of issue, you’re showing a kind of strength that it’s taken even yours truly a long time to build up.
So this week – get involved with the discussion. Question things. And use the resources out there to get help, if you need it – because by doing so, you’re taking control.
And if that ain’t the definition of ‘strong,’ I don’t know what is.