The Food and Body Problem, and Why You Should Care

Thank you all so much for your support with my first blog post, here. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a little glimpse into the 12 year anniversary of my journey to healing. Here I talk a little about the reality of eating disorders and body image issues, why you should care, and what we can begin to do about it…

I think we feel a lot of shame in asking for and receiving help. I know, on October 13, I didn’t want help. I didn’t know why people were so adamant about helping me, and I found it annoying that they drew such attention to a problem I couldn’t realize.

But, I saw that so many people were begging me to go and I was such a people-pleaser that I did it for them. It’s sad to remember that, 12 years ago, I didn’t want to get better. Besides the feeling of not knowing what was wrong, I didn’t care if I left and never re-entered my own life.

It’s such a good reminder, in sports and in life, that we don’t always have to show up because we feel like it… we won’t always feel like it. We have to do things every day, and we have to find reasons to do it. For me, it was to find freedom (“and to get my family off my back!” -18-year-old me).

I didn’t really know the extent of my illness, and many people at the time didn’t know the harmful effects of what it means to have an eating disorder when it looks like just losing a lot of weight. I remember having to tell my team that I needed to go away, and they nodded and felt sorry for me. To me at the time, I believed I was telling them something they didn’t know. When I first joined the team, I think they thought I was naturally thin, but I had never had a small frame. But, three months into the season, by looking at me dwindling away and sharing meals together, of course they knew.

Here are some facts about eating disorders. (And, if you think you don’t need to know or don’t know anyone affected, then please continue reading just a few minutes more…)

  • Every 62 minutes, someone with an eating disorder will die as a result of complications from the disorder (and, it has the No. 1 mortality rate of all mental health illnesses).
  • 10-15% of all Americans (men and women) suffer from some type of eating disorder.
  • 1 in 200 American women suffer from anorexia and 2-3 in 100 suffer from bulimia.
  • The mortality rate associated with anorexia is 12 times higher than ALL deaths of 15-24-year-old females.

And, what’s more disturbing:

  • 50% (!) of girls between ages 11-13 see themselves as “overweight,” and, by the 4th grade, 80% (!) of children have been on a diet.

Why didn’t my teammates say anything? They must not care, I thought.

In reality, people actually just don’t know what to say, and that’s half the battle. They don’t really see that skipping one meal is harmful (it doesn’t have to be), and they may think that being dehydrated is fairly normal in an athlete, and being constantly exhausted is, too.

Nearly every time I speak about my experience with an eating disorder I get a message that reads a little like this:

Thank you for sharing. I have a loved one I think is suffering from an eating disorder and/or body image issues and I want to help him/her. How?

Every. Time. And, I think many people want to believe that I have all the answers because I can navigate my own negative voice in my head these days. I survived 134 days in a treatment facility, and then a relapse a year later when my parents invited my family to say goodbye to me. So, looking at me now, I think people assume I have some special insight into the cure.

I’m not perfect and I have tough days like every other human. In a perfect world (where?), I’d like to think my problems and then my work in recovery translates to solve everyone else’s struggles, too, but it simply doesn’t. Even if someone also fights the demons I did, namely anorexia, and an exercise compulsion and addiction, how they respond and deal with it will vastly differ.

At the root of it all, I think our society is severely messed up with the messaging it gives us in relation to our bodies and dieting. If you know someone who has disordered thoughts about his or her body, food, or exercise, they probably convince themselves that they’re right… because no one is telling them otherwise. I don’t know the answer exactly, but here’s a start: tune in to our society’s obsession with weight and food.

I’ll point you in the direction to think about some general problems in our culture so you can then begin having conversations toward change…

You’ve heard of the keto diet? 21 day fix? Vegan diet? Tea detoxes? For the majority of us, trying these diets may kick us into a new-normal of health. They may be temporary or help us focus on how to make healthy decisions with food and exercise. For some like me, they give you an excuse to limit entire food groups. They teach us that carbs are “bad,” and eating before you go to bed will make you fat… and that’s “bad,” too.

Any time we eliminate entire food groups and a “lifestyle change” forces you to say “No” to enjoying your life a reasonable amount (going out to dinner, or, shoot, you forgot to work out so you have to stay home and do that, instead of hanging out with your friends), is a no-go in my book (unless you have consulted a doctor for medical reasons, of course).

Want to lose weight? Tugging at your extra layers with disgust? Weighing yourself and then reacting with emotion as if it’s tied to your worth?

Who is watching and then wondering if they’d be loved more if they should do the same? If you have the ability to influence someone around food and body image, encourage flexibility, love at any size, and balance.

On that topic, have you ever dined with someone who just ate dessert or Thanksgiving dinner? You probably have. How did they talk after finishing?

You may have heard comments like these: “Diet starts tomorrow;” “I’m so bad for eating that;” “It’s my cheat day;” “I’m going to have to work out extra long after that meal.” Sound familiar?

The thing is, we all deserve to eat – you don’t need an excuse. We need food to survive! We’re not “bad” for eating a particular thing… we’re “bad” for burning down a church. Your body has this amazing way of balancing itself out if we listen to what it needs, not by following a rule book.

Halloween is coming up and there’s no doubt you’ll see “health” articles that say things like, “Two Fun Size Snickers = 1,000 burpees to burn them off.” (I don’t know if that’s true, but you get the gist.) I’m not sure about you, but I don’t eat Snickers to then do 1,000 burpees… and, I still don’t avoid Snickers. SRsLy?

The thing is, yes, we all feel uncomfortable sometimes after eating a big meal or foods we’re not used to. But, it passes. Then we’ll feel hungry again! Too often we hear this ugly talk about who we must be as people because we indulged (lazy! disgusting!) and we punish ourselves with our words and thoughts, and/or an attempt to get rid of the calories. Stop that! Not only are your kids listening, but so are you… and you’ll start to believe it.

I have so much empathy for teens these days because I didn’t really have social media growing up. Teens see their non-athlete friends posting bikini pictures on Instagram and watch as all the comments pour in to say how “sick” (in a good way) their body looks. Then, they compare the comments on their feed or look at their own body, in all its strength and beauty, and hate it.

Is she breaking records and learning new skills her body has never done before? No. No one is asking that girl to lift heavy weights, run sprints, and jump high. No one is asking her to perform at a high level from 8 AM to 3 PM for three days straight in a club sport. And yet, social media tells young people that that is what beauty looks like.

I avoided sports for a while because I couldn’t handle exercise and competition while battling this disease because it’s hard to combat comparison in those areas, especially when we hear coaches and parents criticizing young athletes, too. We’re fighting to win, but we forget that we’re all doing our best. No one is trying to lose at anything.

If you get nothing else from this, I hope you can take a look at how you’re talking about your body and food, who is listening, and why it’s so important.

You can follow me on Twitter @SloaneDear. Drop me a line, here, to let me know what you’d like to hear about and what you think, so far.