One of the biggest misconceptions about eating disorders (and there are many) is that a person can tell if another person has one… just by looking at them.
You probably have a picture in your mind what someone who suffers from an eating disorder looks like:
He or she is frail and gaunt with sunken in cheekbones, knees bigger than thighs, and biceps smaller than the elbows. You can pick them out because they look tired and never eat. Sound right?
This may be a picture of someone with an eating disorder, sure. This may have been a description of what I looked and acted like at one or two times in my life when I suffered with anorexia. But eating disorders are actual mental diseases and it takes physical characteristics and behaviors to diagnose certain eating disorders.
In my experience, people with binge eating disorder (where a person eats uncontrollable amounts of food in one sitting) with or without purging may be overweight. Folks with orthorexia (obsession with “healthy” eating) may be awarded for how disciplined and dedicated they are.
The point is, eating disorders are about compulsions, patterns, behaviors, and thoughts. They’re not about weight or percentages of weight (though, weight is one component of being diagnosed with anorexia nervosa).
When a person begins to lose weight, what is your first thought? If he or she has some weight to spare, your response might be, “Good for you.” Stop that. Losing or gaining weight isn’t a badge of honor or shameful experience. You never know the circumstances of the loss or gain, but more importantly, weight isn’t a thing to be celebrated.
Weight and body size doesn’t explain who a person is, his or her habits, strengths and weaknesses, or his or her worth. It’s literally a number to explain your relation to gravity.
When I began my recovery, it was apparent that I had a problem. I dropped around 30 pounds within three months and almost 50 pounds within five. When I went to treatment, many of the women I met weighed a “normal” amount, in my eyes.
As time went on and I began restoring my weight and people thought I was “getting better,” I still struggled. I struggled with my thoughts and behaviors, and I struggled with the added weight, more of each every day. I didn’t want someone else to have the control of deciding what my body would look like and consume. Not only was I planning new habits and ways to hide, but I was also angry and unhappy.
Weight restoration is often a necessary component of anorexia treatment, but if you don’t work on the reasons why a person keeps losing so much weight, a pattern of relapse and disordered eating is bound to happen (yep, I know!). Just because I was forced to eat thousands of calories more each day doesn’t mean I was happy about it or wanted to.
At the beginning of my process of gaining weight, I was still very much underweight for the first 20 pounds or so. But, I had reached a culturally acceptable weight for someone who might be “naturally thin” – with my bone structure, I was not a naturally thin person. It took very little food and many miles to stay that way and that was something I could continue to hide because everyone thought that was normal for me.
Up until about four years ago, I still struggled. I still believed that because I was an athlete for most of my life, I internalized the message that food needed to be deserved and earned. I stressed my body to the MAX and carried extra weight because of it. I was still obsessed with losing weight, eating healthy, and exercising daily not too long ago because I was the highest I’d ever weighed.
I was struggling with similar thoughts, big time, but no one knew! I so desperately wanted to be free of this internal battle again, and what I was doing wasn’t giving me that… so I decided to make a change.
Once I let go of that fear that I had to work out and I had to eat perfectly, my body released the stress and extra weight. I was eating whatever I wanted – chips, dessert, vegetables, bacon, (lots of) sandwiches, whatever! I no longer struggled and I no longer had to hide.
You don’t have to be right or wrong about someone. People aren’t there to judge and so we can prove ourselves to know the best. Show some compassion for all people and greet them with care when you approach them with concerns (more on this another time).