“Don’t Look At What I’m Eating.” The Contamination of an Eating Disorder
I have not been hospitalized for an eating disorder. I actually never admitted to a healthcare professional that I engaged in Anorexic behavior until I was in college.
This post might be triggering for people still fighting eating disorders intensely, but it’s not meant to be. I just want to talk about the underlying foundation, that which never really goes away.
An eating disorder is kind of like a meth lab. You can remove all of the toxic elements; the beakers and chemicals. But the ground below the structure is polluted, contaminated. There will always be a footprint.
People have eating disorders for various reasons, out of various trauma or non-trauma. There’s even some research to suggest that some cases are malfunctions in brain chemistry. Though, really, all mental health issues involve brain chemistry. We like to imagine that the mind and the brain are separate; the physical from the mental. But unlike Descartes, I see no reason to sever my consciousness from my body.
For those who have eating disorders, consciousness is inherently bound to the body. Sometimes in this world you feel as though you have no control. You have no say in what goes on around you. You’re a child or feel like a child. You have nothing over which you have dominion.
Except your body and what you put into it. You can’t force me to eat. You can’t tell me when, how, or what to eat. You have absolutely no say in the calories and nutrition I consume. It’s only when I get to the point where I will die if I don’t eat that society, doctors, whoever, can intervene and put a tube in me.
As I said, I have never been hospitalized for an eating disorder. I have an incredible amount of reverence, empathy, and respect for people who are so consumed by their eating disorders that they literally die for them. It’s tragic. It’s painful to think about.
And, honestly, sometimes I envy them.
There’s nothing we can really do to stop it, though. Those who don’t have eating disorders, but are concerned for those who do by proximity or mere empathy, face a strikingly similar problem, albeit by a kind of proxy. A lack of control, a sense of helplessness. How can I help my loved one overcome their angst (not a pejorative) and eat peacefully?
We like to blame social standards of beauty. We look at the phenomena of “thinspo,” the exchange of images and media that feature the physical attributes valued by the eating disorder community. So, society makes the connection, thinking that simply these people merely want to be thin in order to be what they perceive as beautiful, to be accepted by a superficial society.
While superficial society influences the aesthetics of the community, suggesting that people suffering from eating disorders merely want to be “beautiful” is a superficial perspective in itself. It’s a gross oversimplification of a more serious problem.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t combat the social pressures to be thin. That’s logical. Fat shaming and misogyny are serious problems. However, body dysmorphia, a major and common symptom/cause of eating disorders is not caused inherently by this external stimuli.
I spoke earlier about the concept of control. It’s an illusion. Human beings embrace various types of self deception in order to function, kind of like pretending that we and everyone we love aren’t going to die. We must have a sense of control and organization in our lives in order to have a sense of purpose, in order to have a trajectory for our very existence.
Like the Protestant Ethic, eating disorders can draw lineage from a kind of circular logic that by appearing successful, it’s an indication of ones implicit acceptance into Heaven. Heaven in this case being happiness, safety, security, and admiration. By appearing “in control,” perhaps one can actually achieve that state.
“Fake it ‘til you make it.”
Connected to the fat shaming and misogyny of our culture, we socially assume that when one is fat, one is out of control. One is gluttonous. One is lazy. One has no self respect. One should be ashamed.
If you’re thin, you’re in control. You’ve got trajectory. You’ve got everything laid out, organized, planned, and functioning. By asserting dominance over your body and your natural urges to eat, you have conquered the universe. But, really, embracing an eating disorder is like striking a bargain with the devil.
If you don’t eat, you can’t maintain control. Your body won’t function. You will become ill, weak, and sick. You will never see it that way, though. You will never see the reality of your body as it is, your life as it is. You’re fat. You’re out of control. You have no value.
I’m writing about this because the remnants of my meth lab is shame. I am ashamed of my body. I am embarrassed of how I look in certain clothes, the way things fit me. I am ashamed that my stomach isn’t completely flat, my thighs touch, and my arms have fat on them. There is nothing you can say to me that will alleviate this shame. That’s because you can’t wash away what the meth lab leaves behind.
This shame is also the origin, like the chemicals themselves. It’s an inherent part of me. It lessens as the years and therapy appointments go by, but it’s always there. Ana is always there.
Some people who struggle with eating disorders will personify the disorder and shame. That’s why you hear some people refer to “Ana” (anorexia) or “Mia” (bulimia) as a personality (though there are many other names, too). We all have an inner critic. Think about your inner critic. It picks on you for the things you do or don’t do. Sometimes it’s right, like your conscience. For most people with eating disorders, though, it’s louder than their own true voice. It sits on their shoulder and picks and criticizes everything they do.
“I can’t believe you’re trying on this miniskirt. Your legs are disgusting. Can you imagine what people will think when they look at you? They won’t be able to pay attention to anything else. The only way you could possibly get away with that miniskirt is if you Ana boot camp until your thighs don’t touch. Even then, it’s probably best to stick to pants.”
“Are you seriously eating a dinner roll right now? You know how much sodium is in that fucking thing. Don’t complain to me when you bloat up and your lips chap. You deserve it. You should seriously just stick to water for the rest of the day to make up for it. You just wasted calories on crap. I can’t believe you were so weak, but then it was stupid of me to think otherwise.”
After all this you might wonder why I said that people who suffer from eating disorders aren’t merely trying to satisfy external beauty standards, when, really they are using those standards as the measuring stick. That’s because you’re looking at this logically. You have to have a measuring stick, but that doesn’t mean you should place all the blame on the measuring stick.
The problem is that eating disorders are not logical. They are absolutely contrary to logic. I bet they would be the single most confounding human ailment to Vulcans.
Eating disorders thrive on a basic system of double standards.
I don’t think less of fat people. I don’t sneer at them or think they’re inherently ugly. I don’t think obese people should be ashamed. I don’t believe they’re simply lazy or out of control. I don’t equate those things. I don’t believe that there is one specific beauty standard, that all people should be thin. I think that there are lots of different types of beauty, and I see them all the time in my friends and acquaintances. I don’t hold them to my standards.
NOBODY should conform to my standards because they apply uniquely to me. And I would wager this is similar to many other Ana/Mia warriors.
Basically, what you do and how you look and what you choose to eat is perfectly fine. I don’t think less of you for having a tummy pooch or destroying a box of Swiss Cake rolls late one night when you’re drunk (or not drunk).
Why? Because you are better than I am.
I have to endure this, work this hard, weigh 90lbs because I am less valuable than you are. I am less important, less quality, less good. The reason I am disgusting and another woman of the same weight, size, and shape is not disgusting is because she in no way needs to meet these standards. I must meet these standards because of my inherent inferiority.
She is intrinsically better than I am. So she doesn’t have to be as thin as I should be. Because of her overall quality as person, the depth and air that makes her who she is, she is still beautiful even though her thighs touch. Nobody could ever care about that because she is otherwise spectacular and those details actually add and contribute to her overall individuality. She is truly a beautiful snowflake. I admire her.
I am not equal to her. I don’t possess the basic human worth that she has. As a human being, I am at a quality deficit. At rest, I am less than zero.
Thus, I have to work harder than she does to achieve the same value. I am at -25. So, of course, I endeavor to be intelligent, kind, and successful. I work to treat others fairly and improve the quality of the world. However, I still have to make up that -25. And, because of that external fat shaming, misogynistic, perfectionist culture, I apply twisted “logic” that breathes life into the personality of my eating disorder.
Ana is Ana because she tells me that the only way I will have any true worth, or be valued by other people, I must also be perfectly beautiful.
“Oh my god, did you hear that Cindy is a SIZE 10! See, she has big breasts and full hips. She’s sexy and curvy. If you were a size 10, you’d just look like a brick. Worse than a brick, you’d look like a grub or a maggot. You’d just be a wad of gross fat. Oh, more than you already are, of course. None of it is in the right place, so it only makes sense that you just get rid of it all.”
I’m not worth knowing. I’m not worth loving. Not really. So, I guess I just have to work harder to be better.
I call this post “Don’t look what I’m eating” because I never feel like I eat like “normal” people do. People sit down and have a meal with a protein, starch, veggie, etc. But I don’t deserve those basic meals. I can’t eat like you because I don’t process it as efficiently or properly as you do. It just makes me look gross.
So, don’t look at what I eat because it’s “weird.” I can’t even describe to you the types of “safe foods” I have because they embarrass me. These are the only foods that Ana will tolerate me eating, and even then she barely does.
Eating is easier than it used to be, but it’s still a struggle. Often times I’d rather not eat because it’s what she wants and I’m too tired or too hurt to fight with her. Sometimes I just can’t handle the constant criticism and disgust that she dishes out over Every. Single. Dish. So, sometimes I let her have her way. And the pounds come off. She gets happy. I get happy. I feel like maybe I’m finally starting to improve as a person. Maybe people won’t judge me in their minds as much anymore. Maybe people will start to think I’m worth knowing, that since I’m thin, that I have it together at least a little bit.
“But don’t let them see what you eat because then they’ll know the truth. They’ll know that you have to cheat in order to be as good as they are.”
I don’t claim to know what it’s like for everyone who has an eating disorder. People suffer from bulimia, but don’t struggle with the body dysmorphia. Some people are anorexic and bulimic. I have never liked to purge because, since I’m at a deficit already, I don’t have the luxury. For me it would be cheating. For another anorexic, then clearly it works for them and that’s good (bad).
So, I wrote this post because I ate two dinner rolls, a banana, and a plum for lunch. I was instantly ashamed of the dinner rolls. I don’t feel like they’re so unhealthy anymore, but I do feel like somebody next to me probably glanced over and thought “Who eats a dinner roll for lunch?” then looked at my pudgy arms and went “Oh.”