health

'I'm recovering from an eating disorder. But I live in a world that also has an eating disorder.'

This post deals with eating disorders and might be triggering for some readers.

I developed anorexia at a late period in my life at 22 years old. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, for individuals most at risk I fit comfortably into the categories; young, female, white. I started losing weight to ‘get toned’ and ‘healthy’. Eventually my hair fell out, my clothes fell off me, my bones bruised my skin when sitting in chairs, hair grew all over my body, my heart rate lowered to 40bpm, my veins stuck out of my arms like thick ropes, and my elbows took on that ‘boxy’ look. I was anorexic and I began out-patient recovery.

I learned in recovery that there are good and bad eating disorders. There are eating disorders that look oh-so-glamorous – that’s anorexia. The disorder you can boast about because it illustrates your feminine traits of slimness, discipline and selflessness (apparently not eating is selfless). Bulimia is frowned upon. It’s viewed as a failure of femininity and a ‘cheating’ disorder. Binge eating is (a disorder which, by the way, is inextricably linked to prolonged anorexia) is after bulimia. Binge eating is seen as the disorder where the individual has failed to even bother to purge themselves of their abnormal gluttony. These are harsh and ugly words; words I do not believe for a second.

I suffered from all three of these disorders at one point in time. Anorexia was first, bulimia was second when my exercise habit meant that I had ‘failed’ if I didn’t go for a 10km run after that 40 grams of plain oatmeal, and binge eating was third when my initial recovery was paired with an unbelievably scary phenomenon known as ‘extreme hunger’. All three were as awful as the other, and none of them were glamorous or better. I had to write those words though, to describe the shame and guilt associated with an already shameful and guilt-inducing disorder that accompanies the spectrum of more/less glamorous EDs.

Your world is fundamentally altered after you have an eating disorder. You are not allowed to ever get smaller, ever worry about the way you look, ever not finish your meal, ever order the lowest calorie option save the people around you fearing you’re once again descending into another bout of anorexia.

There is, of course, something to this – anorexia has a large genetic component, and the process of skipping meals is something that can innocuously escalate fairly easily. In some ways your existence becomes much more freeing than the ‘normal’ girls around you (the ones who are counting calories, exercising vigorously, and eating ‘intuitively and healthy’), because you’re essentially given a ‘get out of diet jail free’ card for life where the heavy expectations of the ideal woman supposedly leave your shoulders. But the focus the people around you have on you maintaining a ‘normal’ body for them is sometimes, suffocating.

The most difficult part of my re-entry was trying to establish the new ‘rules’ or guidelines in which I was supposed to eat. I knew that the rules of recovery suggested that I be ‘normal’ – that is not too skinny, not too fat, just ‘right’. So I had to adopt an eating strategy that would keep me at this acceptable level for the people around me; so they weren’t uncomfortable with the way I looked, or felt awkward when we ate together. The problem was, as I saw a psychologist-dietitian about how exactly this should look, it all felt a little wrong to me, and a little prescriptive. But who was I to say so? After all I was the one who was disordered, I was the one who had abused her hunger signals, and critically endangered her relationship with food and her body. I was told I was not to be trusted; my intuition was fundamentally flawed.

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Watch: Singer Kasey Chambers tells us what it was like to have an eating disorder. Post continues after video.

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In one session I spoke to the psychologist about how I had anxiety about eating a burger (in recovery speak, we call this, ‘trigger foods’. These are foods that give you an abnormal amount of anxiety. You can also generally throw oil, butter, and refined carbohydrates into this pile for a lot of recovering anorexics). She told me her strategy to eating large burgers was to just eat half and wrap the rest of the burger up for the next day, or even just throw it out. She said I should try this to reduce my anxiety about eating an entire burger. This, in hindsight, feels like I might have been replacing one eating disorder (anorexia) with another eating disorder (orthorexia: an obsession over only eating healthy, ‘clean’ foods). But even then and still now, I wondered where the line was between eating ‘healthy’ and being ‘orthorexic’.

From what I could gather from the resources I was given, eating healthy means flexibility, intuitiveness, and 80 per cent of the foods you eat are ‘whole foods’ (vegetables, lean protein, fruit, wholegrains) with the other 20 per cent consisting of ‘naughty foods’. Except the labels of ‘clean’ foods and ‘good’ foods are orthorexic (taboo) and instead the labels of ‘everyday foods’ and ‘sometimes foods’ and ‘moderation foods’ are healthy labels (acceptable). I still don’t understand what this label exchange is supposed to do for distinguishing between the orthorexic and the healthy human. The world of fitness, health, and wellness is one of Orwellian double speak where they re-label words that have ostensibly developed negative connotations into words we find palatable – for a time until those words too, grow out of fashion. I can promise all women this struggling with the unpredictable nature of this language – it all means the same thing.

The next hurdle I came across was the concept of ‘intuitive eating’; it is still a hurdle I have to deal with because, well, it’s a trap. The problems with intuitive eating are a minefield to manoeuvre  through, but I’ll start with one point that I think many people might push against – the idea that intuitive eating is the equivalent of a ‘no filters’ approach to women. The concept is plainly and eloquently expressed by Jia Talentino in her book Trick Mirror, where she suggests that the pushback against photoshop was a double-edged sword:

“On the one hand it instantly exposed the artificiality and dishonesty of the contemporary beauty standard, and on the other showed enough of a powerful, lingering desire for ‘real’ beauty that it cleared space for ever-heightened expectations. Today… we idealise beauty that appears to require almost no intervention – women who look poreless and radiant even when bare-faced in front of an iPhone camera…”

Intuitive eating introduces a similar pressure on woman – naturally maintain a healthy body without intervention – look slim, fit and eat 80 per cent healthy ‘whole foods’ naturally. Intuitive eating ignores the women who might struggle with this concept. The women existing in a simultaneous situation of scarcity and abundance; monetary scarcity or time poverty, and in an environment of plentiful higher calorie foods. For such women, $5 McDonald’s becomes particularly appealing when unable to afford the other pleasurable thrills in life. Here intuitive eating is another dimension in which the woman can fail, and many do. While I truly believe that some do eat intuitively, I remain (rightfully) suspicious of intuitive eating as being the ‘solution’ to dieting rather than the repackaged, more attractive, synonym for a word that has grown into a taboo.

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Listen: When Your Child Has Anorexia. A Mother’s Survival Story. Post continues after audio.

But I’m not so sure that forcing ‘diets’ into a taboo category is all together helpful, because this doesn’t erase the pressure on women to diet. All it does is relegate the practice to something that happens in private, something you’re ashamed that you need to do in order to look effortlessly slim (this is, the acceptable body). There is not much good that comes from the things that find fruition in shame and privacy. There is also a sort of guilt placed on women – how dare you want to fit the ideal that we’re trying to impose on you by trying to change yourself further – you should be this way naturally! And if you’re not, that’s unfortunate.

So where does that leave me? One of many women who has suffered with an eating disorder, living in a world that really pushed me into the disorder in the first place.

What do I do? I think of it like being a feminist. I am a feminist who struggles to understand how I feel about sexualised content – is it liberation or a product of all the societal patriarchal pressures that push women into sexualising themselves? I’m not sure. But I’m sure as hell not going to shame another woman for pursuing that – even if it might not be for me. That’s where I’ve ended up.

I have no interest in a grotesque social capital competition of clean eating on Instagram. I have no interest in demonstrating that I, too, can eat chocolate and burgers. I’m not going to celebrate, discuss, or comment on the gustatory and exercise behaviours of other woman or myself. I’m not going to celebrate bodies of every size, in fact I am firmly not in the body positivity movement. I’m in the body neutrality movement – any focus on physique is not helpful. I’m not going to overthink, record, or second-guess my food choices even if they’re sometimes salads and protein bars. I won’t eat intuitively, but I’ll eat my meals with friends and family. I’ll continue to run marathons even if this is ‘cardio’. I’ll exist in a space where I’m not really sure if they way I’m eating or exercising is ‘normal’ or ‘recovered’ because I’m not sure the rest of the world knows where the line is for healthy or disordered. It doesn’t exist.

The author of this story is known to Mamamia but has chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. The feature image used is a stock photo.

For help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation‘s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or email [email protected] You can also visit their website, here.

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