As today is the last day of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I wanted to share a few more thoughts.
Each of us has been blessed with a body that is both complex and beautiful. It’s the only one we get, and when we take care of it, the benefits are endless. When we feel good physically, the feeling extends into every other aspect of our lives. Our bodies respond to the way we treat them. Whether we work out to stay fit, eat a plant-based diet to fuel ourselves or combine the two in a healthy and balanced way, we feel better in the long run. But anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder knows what it’s like to be trapped inside what Constance Rhodes calls the “thin cage.” Restriction, binge eating, purging, negative body image, self-deprecating thoughts and self-loathing lead down a slippery slope that leaves a person weak both physically and mentally.
Eating disordered people’s bodies and minds work against them, not for them. Instead of moving toward greater health, a person with an eating disorder spirals toward destruction down a tunnel that he or she can’t see the way out of. All too often, these individuals don’t even realize they have a problem until untold damage has already been done.
Eating disorders are not choices. It’s important to emphasize that. Nor are they ultimately about food. They’re complex diseases that involve a multitude of factors and can’t be “cured” simply by changing eating habits or reaching a healthy weight. And while society’s fixation on thinness as the ultimate goal for beauty doesn’t necessarily cause eating disorders, it doesn’t help the millions of men and women who are already dissatisfied with their bodies. By perpetuating the idea that being thin somehow equates to happiness and making dangerous diet behaviors seem normal, the media and society in general puts people in a mindset where they wind up deceiving not only themselves, but each other. From Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted:
The bragging [is] the worst. I hear this in schools all over the country, in cafes and restaurants, in bars, on the Internet, for Pete’s sake, on buses, on sidewalks: Women yammering about how little they eat. … To hear women tell it, we’re never hungry. We live on little Ms. Pac Man power pellets. … To hear women tell it, we’re ethereal beings who eat with the greatest distaste, scraping scraps of food between our teeth with our upper lips curled.
I hear it too, and I’m sure you have. Women going on and on about their diets, what they ate or didn’t eat, days they were “good” and days they were “bad,” what they hate about their bodies and what crazy things they’re doing to fix it. Half the time they’re having these conversations over tiny tubs of yogurt or diminutive salads or lunches consisting of Lean Cuisine and diet soda. Men aren’t as vocal, at least in my experience, but many of them struggle just as much. The “ideal” body that society pitches to men is one that is buff (but not too buff) and slender (but not too skinny). It’s a balance that’s just as impossible to achieve as the super-thin superwoman image that women are told to aspire to.
For your edification [Hornbacher concludes], [this is] bullshit.
During a recent workout, I was reminded again of how today’s society views health. I was doing some strength training from a video that’s well over 20 years old now, and as the class huffed and puffed their way through the moves, the instructor commented on “all the beautiful bodies out there” before pointing straight to the camera and declaring, “You’ve got a beautiful body.” In another older routine, the instructor spends a good deal of the workout talking about how focus can drift from health to appearance. She encourages people to remind themselves of what they really like about their bodies and reminds them that working out will make them healthy inside, too.
The newer workouts I have don’t keep this kind of focus. Instead, the instructors invariably fixate on how many calories are being burned and how “ripped” or “shredded” everyone is trying to get, implying or outright stating that there’s no point in working out if neither thing is happening. Health, well-being and positive body image are absent from these modern fitness programs. They’re challenging workouts that have given me a lot of strength and vastly improved my cardiovascular health, but they’re designed around that elusive idea of the “perfect body” that so many people hurt themselves trying to achieve.
Though today is the last week of 2012’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, eating disorders aren’t going to go away. Those who struggle will struggle until they can reach a place where recovery can begin. Those in recovery will continue the tentative journey back to real health. And those who have struggled will always remember where they have been. Whether you fall into one of these categories or know someone who does, everybody knows somebody. Don’t hesitate to speak up and speak out.