My name is Emma and I have an eating disorder. It began when I was eleven years old and this year I will be 31 years old, which gives me a unique perspective of twenty years of living with an eating disorder. It is important for me to say here that living with an eating disorder is not a solo mission – it involves my partner, my family, a doctor, a therapist and many other people. Living with this disease means accepting help. If you think you might need more help to live well, please consider some of the resources at the end of this blog. You are not alone.
Eating disorders are often invisible.
There is a stigma in this society about what an eating disorder looks like, and it’s one thing: An incredibly thin person. This is completely incorrect. Of course, some people with eating disorders do lose so much weight that they cross the threshold into what society deems visually “unwell”, but many never do. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t fighting every day. Which leads me to my next point …
Fatphobia encourages eating disorders.
As a society, we cruelly value a certain body type more than others. This, coupled with our misguided assumption of what an eating disorder “looks like” means we are quick to disregard sufferers with larger bodies. I know many people within the ED community who have had their eating disorder dismissed or missed entirely by medical professionals because of their body size. When someone who is a size 10 begins to drop weight dramatically, we worry. When someone who is a size 20 begins to drop weight dramatically, we congratulate them. This is a terrible double standard that only encourages disordered eating as normal.
Eating disorders are not always about the body.
We generally assume that everyone with an eating disorder has body dysmorphia, when in fact Body Dysmorphia Disorder is a separate disorder. Although the two often do pair up, it is not a necessary component of an eating disorder. It took me a long time to realise that whilst I sometimes experience BDD symptoms, my eating disorder is not really about my body. It’s actually about control, and is an extension of my OCD. An eating disorder can be caused by trauma, grief, family dysfunction, significant life changes, long term illness and many other things. The body is not always the cause.
Eating disorders are not always about not eating.
We associate eating disorders with the three most common types (Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder) precisely because they are the most common, but as our society changes so do our disorders.
Orthorexia diagnoses have increased due to the rise of veganism, and this is an eating disorder which is fixated on “healthy eating.” Diagnosis of compulsive exercise has increased among men due, in part, to the instagram culture. Laxative abuse has been normalised after the endorsements of laxative diet products from key celebrities, but all of these things are potentially dangerous. Sometimes, we miss symptoms in our friends and family because we’ve been told over and over again that eating well and exercise are “good.”
The truth is more complicated. The question we should always ask is not “Is it good?” but “is it good for me/them?”
Disordered eating can be just as bad as an eating disorder.
In my 20 years of living with an eating disorder, I have met so many people with disordered eating. Only two of them in twenty years would fit into society’s stereotype of an eating disorder victim. The rest of them were ordinary people, living their lives, functioning well for the most part and simply thinking that their compulsive counting of calories, their mantras that if they eat cake then they are a “bad person,” and their strict adherence to diet after diet was just what a person did.
But they all had disordered eating and that can be just as difficult, just as destructive and just as prolonged. The only difference is that disordered eating is descriptive of a behaviour that doesn’t quite fit into an eating disorder diagnosis. It’s a matter of definition, not a matter or practical impact on a person’s life. I know so many people who accept their disordered eating because they always have done and comfort themselves that it’s not “bad enough” to warrant any attention. But this isn’t true. It shouldn’t be ignored.
Finally, Finding freedom from Eating disorders and disordered eating starts with freedom from lies.
In our society today we have been fed a narrative that imprisons us – the narrative is “you should be better, and you will be if you don’t eat/eat this/drink this/exercise this way.” What a cruel, heartless lie that narrative is. It promises us something it cannot possibly ever deliver: Contentment. “Just do this,” the narrative says, “and you will feel better,” and yet we never do.
Every person with anorexia will tell you that there is no such thing as thin enough. Every person with orthorexia will tell you there’s no such thing as too healthy. Every person who compulsively exercises will always be looking for the next rep, the next marathon. Every person with disordered eating will think: “If I just do this, then maybe I’ll feel better about my body/my life/my choices.” My question for all of these voices, all the people who are striving to fit into a standard in the world or in their mind that is always just out of reach, is this: When?
When will you feel better? When will you be content? How long have you been striving, fighting and pushing yourself? Aren’t you tired? Isn’t it time to stop, for a moment, and think: What if I could be happy now, right here, in this body and mind that I have? What if the time to be free has come? What if it’s now?
If you are struggling and you want to start finding freedom, please do consider reaching out for help. You can contact Emma via her blog or on twitter @EmmaLouisePH but also please consider seeking help from some of the following excellent organisations. You are not alone:
About the Author: Emma Hinds
Emma is a writer living and working in Manchester. She is a mental health advocate and has been blogging about mental health for the last ten years. Emma has a history of eating disorders and is currently living with a diagnosis of OCD and chronic depression. She has been working specifically with young people struggling with their mental health for the last four years and is now supporting the Lily Jo Project’s On Track follow up schools programs. You can see Emma’s work and follow her mental health blog here. You can also follow her on socials here: twitter@EmmaLouisePH and instagram@elphreads.