The following post comes to us via Tracey Sands, a graduate student at Arizona State University’s West Campus studying communication as it relates to advocacy. Tracey believes dialogue is an act of love and strives to empower others to find and use their voice. She is an education outreach intern at Planned Parenthood Arizona.
The scale. The dinner plate. The mirror. The photos. All of these silent, inanimate objects are anything but silent when you have anorexia. The scale yells back saying, “You weigh too much.” The dinner plate taunts you, “I know you’re hungry, but you won’t eat me.” The mirror scoffs at the way you look, and the photos clap in support of the mirror’s disapproval. No matter what silent, inanimate objects are a signifier of an eating disorder, the eating disorder itself is constant and deafening. How do I know? Because what I described above happened to me.
Growing up I was a sassy and confident leader, both in school and sports; the first to raise my hand or reach out to a classmate, and the go-to person for team morale and strategic plays on the basketball court. Although this did not completely drift away, it was dulled at the beginning of 7th grade as I started to hate my body.
You are more than your eating disorder, you are more than your body.
Why did I hate my body? I honestly don’t know. I just did.
While no one knows for sure what causes eating disorders, a growing consensus suggests that they are influenced by a range of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors.
I developed an all-consuming anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder in which you restrict the amount of calories you consume and limit the types of food you eat, which led to detrimental weight loss. By completely restricting my diet and pushing my body and mind to their literal limits, I went from 125 pounds to 98 pounds in one year. As I lost weight, I lost my confidence, my strength, and my period, all occurring during the most pivotal time of growth, puberty. The physiological and emotional impediments put me in a dark, unhealthy place.
Thankfully, I had an unwavering support system of friends and family who noticed my weight loss, as well as the physical and emotional/behavioral changes that accompanied it. As they approached me with concerns of anorexia, I denied it … then denied it some more. After a few years, I accepted their concerns and admitted to my eating habits. With them by my side, they provided the tools for me to eventually love myself and love my body again. Although I recovered from the restrictive eating aspect of anorexia nervosa, the feelings and fears associated with it remain. I still have not completely silenced the inanimate objects that remind me of my eating disorder. Unfortunately, battling an eating disorder can be an ongoing process, but each day I choose to fight that battle, I come out that much stronger. And on this day, I am healthy!
The Whole Story
So what is an eating disorder? Eating disorders are serious but treatable mental and physical illnesses that can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights. Typically when one hears the term “eating disorder,” the associated connotation is anorexia, when in reality that is just one type of eating disorder. They can range from anorexia nervosa to bulimia to pica, and they affect about 30 million people in the United States.
There are many health consequences that can occur due to eating disorders. The heart, brain, digestive system, and hormones are all negatively affected, leading to potentially serious problems in every organ system. This is why understanding the physical and emotional/behavioral warning signs and symptoms of eating disorders are vital to saving your life, or the life of someone you know.
So what does the recovery process look like?
Honestly, that question is impossible to answer. Everyone’s recovery looks different and it is never truly finished. In reality, even my recovery process was incrementally “messier” and more heartbreaking than what I shared. What is helpful, though, is understanding the common features of recovery:
- Pre-contemplation: the denial of an eating disorder
- Contemplation: willingness to admit they have an eating disorder and are open to help
- Preparation: ready for change but uncertain about how to do it
- Action: ready to implement their strategy and confront eating disorder
- Maintenance: practicing new behaviors to sustain healthy behaviors and thinking
- Relapse: a deterioration in someone’s state of health after an improvement
- This moment during recovery is common, and often disheartening. With that said, it is still a part of recovery, and faith in that recovery should remain strong!
Speaking from experience, recovery is not easy. In fact, it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It took the closest people in my life, those whom I trusted most, an immense amount of time and patience to initiate the conversation and then to help me admit to the eating disorder. It took careful consideration into the ways they started the dialogue. Below are a few strategies my friends and I used to help guide me through recovery:
- Eliminate the power complex between the person who needs help and the person who has the strength to help …
- Eliminate accusational language. For example, the first time my friend brought up my eating disorder she said, “When I struggle with body image, I move my food around the plate to make it look and feel like I’m eating. I noticed you were playing with your food a lot but not eating it. Are you feeling this way?”
- Throw positive affirmations around like confetti — “You are strong!” “That was a healthy decision!” “I am proud of you!” “I am so happy to have you in my life.” “You are important to me.” Comments like these take the focus away from the body and redirect it to the person as a whole. It is validating and reassuring.
- Offer to go to the doctor with them …
- Offer to do research on recovery, healthy eating, healthy habits, etc. …
- Be present! Be consistent! Be patient!
As National Eating Disorder Awareness Week begins, we share this information to provide a space for understanding, as well as the tools to empower yourself (or those around you) to take the steps toward a healthy, happy life. You are more than your eating disorder, you are more than your body. You are strong and important!