Naming the problem: eating disorders lead to mental, physical turmoil

One day in eighth gradeI was thirteenI glanced at the nutrition facts on the back of a peanut butter jar to see how many calories were in it. Then I looked at the nutrition facts on the back of the bread bag. And the jelly. And the pretzels and applesauce and everything else I put in my lunch.

I started checking the calories in every food I ate, selecting food with the least amount of calories possible. I ate less and less. I started spending my lunch period in the library so I wouldn’t have to make awkward excuses about why I wasn’t eating the PB&Js and brownies in my lunchbox. I made excuses to my mom about why I wasn’t hungry after I walked through the door after school or at dinner or breakfast or any time in between. I started running. A lot. 

It worked. My perfectly normal, healthy weight plummeted. 

The physiological implications were massive. My class took a trip to a skating rink, where I fell on the ice and dislocated my kneecap. The recovery process from the dislocationa minor injurytook over four months. I, who had always been the annoyingly perfect student, suddenly started missing school. I slept for hours. I was always cold. I lost my period for months.

I couldn’t express how disgusted I was at myself, my body, my obsessive control over what I put in my mouth. My shame at the fact I was hurting myself only exacerbated the pain.

Eating disorders are real. They have the highest mortality and highest suicide rates of any mental illness. And they are not defined by someone’s weight; any period of unhealthy eating or dieting that results in physical, social and emotional health problems counts as disordered eating, regardless of an affected individual’s BMI or physical appearance. 

Eating disorders are not a choice. They are not a rich white girl problemeveryone, regardless of gender, race or age can be affected. They are extremely serious, underdiagnosed and largely impossible to solve without intervention.

If you suffer from disordered eating, find help. Your pain is legitimate and you are not alone. You live in a society where your bodyyour beautiful, complex, utterly amazing bodyis treated as a commodity. It’s not. It’s precious and essential for your well-being. Tell someone you trust about how you feel. Call the Center for Counseling and Wellness. You deserve to live a healthful, joyful life, and there is help available for you.

If you don’t suffer from disordered eating, you know someone who does. Your sister, your friend, your teammate, your student, your future mentee or intern or child. You must show that you love and care for them and about them without regard to their physical appearance or eating habits. 

You can do so by recognizing the signs of disordered eating. Affected individuals spend an enormous amount of time thinking about what they eat. They may follow an overly restrictive diet or attempt to remove entire food groupssuch as carbs or fatfrom what they consume. They may avoid social functions due to the presence of food or exercise impulsively and excessively. Women with disordered eating often lose their period for an extended period of time. Anyone with an eating disorder is more likely to suffer injuries (like dislocated kneecaps).

If you are concerned whether someone you know suffers from disordered eating, ask questions about how the person feels. Help connect them to resources, whether that be guiding them to the CCW, a mental health clinic or a physician. Your support is crucial for the recovery of the person you care about. 

I am an example of what the lack of intervention looks like. I started homeschooling my second semester of high school because of unbearable pressure to feel, look and act like the healthy person I wasn’t. I simply couldn’t stand to be around people who were okay; I refused the mental health assistance I was offered and as a result spent my high school years holed up in my house, wishing that people outside would be able to understand me and my pain while I hated myself for not being happy and healthy like them.

My eating disorder consumed four years of joy, friendship and possibility. Eventually I did recoverI can enjoy food without wanting to throw up or not eat for the next twenty-four hours. But I relapse. This is my demon and I am still learning to live with its scars.

I have never spoken about my struggles with disordered eating. It’s painful, it’s shamefulthe perfect daughter/sister/student/friend/editor/Christian I want to be wouldn’t have this stupid problem, would she?and I still fear people will perceive me as somehow less intelligent or capable if they know about it. 

We must become a community that recognizes, legitimizes and walks alongside those who suffer from disordered eating. Be proactive. Reinforce your own healthy body image. Don’t comment on the food your friends put in their styrofoam boxes at Commons. Tell your housemates they are wonderful the way they are, regardless of how they look or feel. Express your own vulnerabilities, the parts of your life that you’ve hidden from public view, so that people in your life don’t compare themselves to the perfected version of yourself you display to the world.

By setting aside our biases and proclaiming our demons, we can restore our communities and make them spaces in which everyone has the opportunity to live out their wholesome, healthy potential.