The Acceptable Eating Disorder

by thethreepennyguignol

Trigger Warning for discussion of anorexia, bulimia, and general eating disorder behaviour.

What do you think of when you think of someone with an eating disorder? It’s probably a woman, right? A young one, at that. And she’s probably very, very thin. Obviously underweight. The kind of person you would glance at twice in the street and exchange a worried look with your strolling partner over. They probably wouldn’t look a lot like me, is what I’m saying.

A couple of years ago, I was caught up in the middle of a really nasty binge-purge-restrict bulimic cycle. I was keeping my calories down to under a thousand a day, exercising constantly, and then cracking and having huge, shameful binges on any food I could find before throwing it all up in a panic in the hopes of undoing the damage. And, through all this, I was dead certain that I didn’t have anything wrong with me.

Because I was never thin – in fact, when I started out, I was quite significantly overweight. When I started losing weight, it felt like a victory; people complimented me, impressed with my self-control. While I lost a lot of weight relatively quickly, because I never fit the image of a person with an eating disorder, I just assumed I couldn’t have one. So I didn’t bother getting treatment.

Eating disorders are a curious kind of problem to suffer from, because weight loss is, generally, something that is viewed as a valuable source of social currency: I was complimented on my tenacity, my self-control, my hard work, and I’ve heard dozens of stories from people I know echoing a similar sentiment. No matter where the weight loss comes from, it’s encouraged, as long as we remain within a culturally acceptable boundary of thinness.

Because there’s another side to not looking the part, and that’s when, well, you do get thin but people prefer you that way. I don’t want to say that eating disorders are tacitly encouraged, but one of the hardest things about recovering has been the fact that there is such a bombardment of encouragement to return to disordered patterns.

Hey, you know those Victoria’s Secret model? The ones who are held up as the pinnacle of acceptable beauty? Here’s a bunch of them talking about the eating disorders they suffered from over the course of their time representing that beauty. Various famous and highly-desired actresses have spoken about their constant hunger to maintain their figures, with Kristen Bauer commenting “I realized as long as I’m going to be in this business, I’m going to be hungry”. Models talk about water-fasting and boiling out water weight before shoots. This is the kind of stuff that you see on pro-eating disorder blogs all the time – hunger, restriction, starving, thin, thinner, thinnest. And yet, nobody is clamouring to change the way these people eat. Because we like the way they look.

Now,  I’m not blaming these people for my eating disorder or anyone elses, and I’m not diagnosing them with anything, but it’s hard to buy into recovery as long as these people uphold the cultural standards of beauty while demonstrating habits that wouldn’t look out of place in eating disorder communities. As long as they’re closer to what’s hot, you see, we’re happy to turn a blind eye.

And that’s the acceptable face of the eating disorder – people who lose weight in unhealthy ways and end up a little closer to the version of hotness that is generally upheld across popular culture. It’s not hard to find people all over the internet recounting their stories about fearing seeking out treatment for their eating disorders because they didn’t think they were sick enough, because they didn’t think they were thin enough, because the version of an eating disorder that they had seen didn’t apply to them. Or, that because they were moving towards a more acceptable body, their eating disorders were rewarded with compliments and encouragement to lose more weight.

That’s one of the things that’s made my recovery so difficult; I’ve never been underweight, never been stick-thin, and, in fact, my body is now closer to what it “should” look like as a twenty-something woman. I acquired and often maintained that body through unhealthy means, but the end product is still something that people seem to like better than what I had before, when I had a healthier relationship with food and exercise. I’m not blaming the people who find my body or the body of anyone with an eating disorder attractive for perpetuating this cycle. But what is difficult is that, for one, I achieved the body I have now through a rigorous routine of self-hatred, and two, that people seem to like me better this way. And I’m not the only one – studies have shown that we generally prefer thinner bodies, especially on women. Recovery is hard in a world that liked you better when you were sick.

I guess my point here is this: you don’t have to be underweight to be suffering from an eating disorder. If you’re worried about your eating habits, please, please take a look at some of the great resources online such as BEAT and NEDA.