For the longest time I have been afraid to share with those around me the harsh reality of my long struggle with an eating disorder. While I am often open about my struggle with mental illness, when it comes to my eating disorder I feel differently. I have learned to accept the stigma surrounding depression and anxiety, but it has taken years and then some for me to pinpoint why I carry so much shame when it comes to my eating disorder.
Many factors have since contributed to why I carry such a large fear when it comes to telling those around me what I am truly going through. I was and still am ashamed, and have continued to hide behind excuses such as, “I’m just losing a few pounds to get ready for track season” or “I’m fine, I already ate.”
When I told the few people in my life I trust about my diagnosis, I made sure to constantly assure them that I was doing better and even made a point to eat in front of them. I often found myself dismissing my issues, at times even denying them.
While it may not have been obvious until now, the reason I carried this shame was not solely because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, more specifically eating disorders, but because of the number on the scale.
According to my BMI and what one might say based on my physical appearance and outwardly portrayed habits, I am healthy. I have muscle definition, frequently work out, run cross country and eat a fairly whole food based diet. I avoid oil and foods high in carbs, avoid soda at all costs. I drink my coffee black and tea without any added “frills” and take care of myself mentally by meditating and making sure to do my best to keep my depression in check.
On top of all of that, I generally put out an image that I am thriving. At school, I put up a front. I laugh and crack jokes often, make a point to talk to my classmates and constantly make sure I am engaged in the material we are covering in class. I snack frequently and am always drinking water, and often rave about how delicious my meal was the previous night or how I’m so excited for lunch.
But the reality is, I’m faking it and have been doing so for as long as I can remember. I restrict heavily and often drown my hunger with water and coffee. While I snack often at school, I do so only to avoid suspicion and eat only low calorie “safe” foods. I even make conversation to try to distract myself from the underlying issues at hand and the relentless hunger pains. Additionally, the meals I rave about are for the most part made up. At home I rarely eat and when I do it’s to avoid the suspicion of my parents or sister. I’ve learned to take advantage of my current situation and have found ways to tiptoe around not eating without letting all but a few see even a part of what’s happening under the surface. While I am in recovery and am actively seeking help, I am not truly committed, though I’d like to make it seem that I am. I fear disappointing those in my life almost as much as I fear gaining even the slightest amount of weight.
Even with the harsh reality that I-just like anyone else with an eating disorder-am at risk for physical repercussions, I often deem my struggle as “not that bad.” For years I have seen those who struggle with eating disorders portrayed as extremely thin, whether that be Cassie from Skins, Emma from The Red Band Society or Eli (Ellen) from To The Bone.
While there isn’t something inherently wrong with this narrative, as there are people with eating disorders that can relate to these characters and find this portrayal helpful in their recovery, there is definitely something wrong with the belief that because of this portrayal eating disorders are solely a white woman’s problem, manifesting as visible rib bones and a over-dramatized fear surrounding food.
With this media portrayal lies one of the largest culprits of my fear to share my struggle and validate my need to recover. While my therapist reminds me that regardless of what my BMI might be my disorder is valid, I cannot help but define myself as someone that has “failed” at being anorexic and does not truly have a disorder because my thighs touch and it is unlikely that anyone would describe me as “skinny”.
With the label I carry of “atypical anorexia,” meaning that I have symptoms of anorexia but do not fit a BMI requirement, I feel as if I have in some way half-assed this whole eating disorder thing and am scared to openly admit my struggle and truly seek help. I worry that people will not believe me or claim that I’m doing it for attention, or even worse: deny that I am sick at all.
Therefore, I refrain from telling all but a small few and relentlessly keep up a superficial front that all is well. I tell myself I can beat this, yet every time I try to recover, I fall back into old habits, my reasoning always being that “I’m not sick enough.” I hold on to the false belief that, “I’ll recover once my BMI is [blank] or I reach my goal weight or once I look a certain way,” but the harsh reality is that by then it might be too late. The longer I continue starving myself the greater health risk I carry and the greater the possibility that I might have lifelong consequences for my seemingly harmless (in my eyes) actions.
Writing this now, I have doubts reading over my own words. Internally I nod my head, encouraging myself to keep going down the path of my relapse, using the same claims I am quick to dispute to validate this downward spiral.
But I know, logically, that I cannot continue to keep living like this. And while the day has yet to come where the stigma surrounding eating disorders and a “specific” body type is entirely wiped out, I have to move forward. I must look up to my role models who have faced their disorder and overcome them and convince myself to fully recover, whatever that may look like for me.
It’s easier said than done, and I’d be lying if I said I’ll wake up tomorrow a changed woman. But from admitting these things I hope to begin this journey and to let those with similar struggles know that they are not alone.
If you take anything away from reading this, I ask that you, as a reader, do not judge the validity of one’s eating disorder on their appearance and are supportive of your friends in need. I also would like to use this space to reiterate the importance of diverse representation in film when it comes to eating disorders and beyond and to remind you, if are struggling, to please reach out. Your appearance nor the number on your scale do not define your right to recovery and getting to live a full, healthy life.
If you or are a loved one are struggling, please do not hesitate to reach out to NEDA or a mental health professional.
Image Credit: Yuko Ota