As I prepare for my speaking engagement about eating disorders and athletes, I have been having this thought (fear!) in regard to these young people I’ll soon address:
They might think that eating disordered behaviors and thoughts are normal.
Let’s think about that for a minute. What I’m saying is that the thoughts of wanting to become smaller, fitter, and more appealing are WIDESPREAD… and the behaviors a person will engage in to achieve those things, are normal.
Skipping meals, doing hours of cardio, eating zero carbohydrates/eliminating entire food groups, chugging coffee and energy drinks, purging by vomiting or exercise, compensating tomorrow from today’s food and exercise, sleeping through hunger, having an obsession with healthy eating – all normal.
Commenting on each other’s looks and bodies, talking about food as “good” or “bad,” equating “likes” with self-worth, being body shamed even by yourself, finding role models based on what they look like – normal, too.
Gosh, it’s SO HARD to grow up in this day in age, no doubt. We re-think posting the photo with our favorite family members because of what we’re wearing, how we look, and the reactions we won’t win. With social media all around us feeding us messages encouraging us to be/do/have more, and the diet and fitness industries banking off our insecurities, it’s no wonder they’re so profitable and hold so much, well, weight.
When I talk about my experiences, I worry that the younger ears listening will sort of shrug and say, “I do that too, but I have control. It’s different. It’s normal.” Because that’s the problem.
I was thinking about the differences in accidental or every-once-in-a-while behaviors such as skipping lunch, overeating to the point you feel out of control, or overtraining, and intentional eating disorder behaviors… because it can get fuzzy. Sometimes even now I will be working in the gym from 8 AM to 4 PM without eating an actual meal. Does that mean I’m back in my eating disorder? No, and here’s why…
These things happen every now and then, and that’s both the reason our bodies feel hunger and why low-calorie diets don’t work long-term – our bodies get pretty good at improvising with what we give it. But when this happens, if I can’t get to food for a long period of time, I hate it. I get pretty hangry and must. find. food. ASAP.
I call it being “in recovery” and not “recovered” because when this happens – when I don’t eat for a long period of time and feel like deep grumble inside – there is still a small part of me that loves it. There’s a voice that creeps in (and is unwelcomed) that says, “Yes! Keep going! You can skip lunch again tomorrow. Can you imagine how powerful and thin you will feel? No one has to know!”
The difference is that I hear that voice, acknowledge it, and then don’t act on it. I sit with the discomfort and simply tell it to go away. I have the choice and duty to myself to make a decision to not engage with that disordered voice; to hear how convincing and easy it might be (just this once!) and then realize that giving in doesn’t actually serve me.
If I skipped lunch and felt pride about how disciplined I could be, or happy to punish myself for eating too much yesterday, that’s where I am back with my eating disorder. Do you see the difference?
So, how can we begin to interfere with these damaging thoughts and behaviors? I can tell you what I do when I feel the outside world affecting my self-perception…
For one, I unfollow anyone on social media that makes me feel less worthy or not enough. If I feel bad about myself after seeing a few of their images or words, I unfollow them. It’s that simple and puts you in power of what you see and don’t see.
Along with that, I seek out good role models – the ones that have nothing to do with the way they look or benefit from their bodies. I look for women with healthy, loving relationships with themselves and others. I look for pioneers in their careers or in social causes. I look for relatable women in looks, and I read what they write about themselves and the world around them.
I think about food as a means to give me the energy to do all the things I want to do in my life, both intellectually and physically. When I restrict or get too focused on my body, food, or exercise, that takes up too much room in my mind and my life and leaves little left for me to smash my goals and reach my dreams. You might think that a skinny body has nothing to do with these things, but if you’ve ever been hungry for a long period of time, or tried to figure out what you can eat for 100 calories, three times a day, that will make you feel full, but not guilty, then you might know how foggy it makes the rest of your world.
Stop engaging in these behaviors and comments. And, confront others who speak this way. This one is difficult, especially since it’s been so normalized, but here’s what you can say: “I think I know what you mean, but I’m trying to work on not talking bad about that kind of stuff,” or, “I think we should start talking positively about ourselves and see where that can take us.” I really believe in faking it ’til you make it.
If something throws me off track, I get right back on, no matter what. If I skip a meal or eat too much, too little, or something else gets in my way that could potentially keep me stuck for a while, I go back to the habits I know will work. There’s no use in playing that game where we try to compensate: too much today, too little tomorrow… Consistency and habits over a longer period of time will say more about how you look and feel than a couple of days in a month. (A key to remember during holiday parties!)
How do you tune out the disorder and tune in to yourself?