10 Real Reasons Not To Restrict

One of the blog posts in my archive that most consistently gets hits is 10 Real Reasons Not to Self Harm. I’ve had multiple people tell me that it was a useful post for them in some way, and I’ve found myself referencing it when I’m feeling really crappy and I need some reminders from my slightly more stable mind about why I shouldn’t self harm.

Lately I’ve been feeling some urges to restrict again, and so in the spirit of 10 Real Reasons, I want remind myself and others what actually sucks about giving in to eating disorder temptations and restricting your food intake.

1. This might seem super obvious but it’s really easy to forget when you’re in a serious restricting place. Food tastes good. Not only that, but it’s hugely comforting to eat a warm meal or to have something that reminds you of childhood or a good time in your life. You’re denying yourself something that’s super fucking awesome by not eating. I know you probably know that, but I just thought I’d mention it.

2. Most people who restrict heavily like to try to convince themselves that not eating doesn’t actually affect their energy, mood, or thought process. Let me just take a moment to call bullshit on that because physiologically there’s really no way for you to have a good level of energy and clear thoughts when you aren’t giving your body and brain enough calories to fuel them. When you eat food you can do more stuff. Stuff like creating great art or being with the people you love or fighting the patriarchy or whatever the hell it is that makes you happy.

3. Do you know how painful it is to sit on things when your ass is bony? It’s very painful. See also: hugs, leaning against things, sex, cuddling, and interacting in any way with the world. Don’t starve yourself. You need the extra cushioning. It makes the world less hurty.

4. You can lie to me and tell me that you’ll feel worse after you eat. And yes, it’s true you might feel guilty or anxious. But there’s this thing called biology and that means that when you don’t eat your mood tanks. Have you ever seen a cranky toddler? Have you ever tried giving that toddler food and seen them suddenly become perfectly fine? We are all the cranky toddler. Eat the food. Feel better.

5. Do you know what people do when they want to be together? They eat. Food is social. Food connects people. Food is how many people express care and affection. When you don’t eat food, you are cutting yourself off from other people, whether you intend it to be that way or not. That is one of the suckiest things about restriction, and it leaves you feeling pretty shitty.

6. Here are some scary facts: when I stopped restricting my ring size, shoe size, and boobs all increased slightly. Do you know what kind of malnutrition it takes to shrink your feet? The kind that will eventually kill you. Keep your feets and hands the sizes they were meant to be. Don’t starve yourself.

7. Restricting may seem like it’s ignoring food, but it usually comes with obsessive thoughts around food. Your life shouldn’t revolve around food. There are a thousand other things you could be doing with your life than thinking about food and worrying about food. Even if you’re avoiding food, you’re still using up a lot of emotional energy and willpower, as well as causing some serious decision fatigue that will mean you’ve got less reserves for every other thing you need to do in your life.

8. Do you consider yourself a feminist? Do you think women should be equal to men, or shouldn’t have to feel all sorts of unnecessary pressures to be beautiful? I’ve noticed that the more the people around me buy into the ideas that they need to eat less, they should be quieter or prettier or more conventional, the more I feel pressure to do so. Even if you think that you’re only impacting yourself by restricting, you’re sending a tacit message to all your friends and acquaintances that you think you should be living by the patriarchal laws that tell women to be skinnier, quieter, less, smaller. You’re taking up less space when the strongest thing for a feminist to do is stretch out and take up as much space as possible.

9. I want you to imagine that your best friend wasn’t eating on a regular basis. Would you ever tell them that this was a good plan? No? Why are you treating yourself worse than other people? It can be incredibly hard to accept that you deserve the same care that other people do or that you’re allowed to take care of yourself (we’re all supposed to just self-sacrifice constantly and hope someone else takes care of us right??) but if you think extreme restriction is bad for the people you love then you gotta accept it’s bad for you (and also start including yourself in people you love).

10. It’s so fucking boring. Jesus christ is restriction boring. It’s lonely, it’s exhausting, and you end up sitting around just staring at walls for most of your life (with some extra crying jags for funsies). Planning your life around NOT doing something is actually the stupidest thing ever. Imagine instead planning what you DO want to do. It’s so much more interesting! You actually do things! You leave your room! You engage with the world! It’s great. I don’t think I’ve ever felt less interested in the world than when I was restricting because my world was entirely sitting around fighting with myself about whether or not to eat. Bo-ring.

Musings on Mental Health Activism

In a perfect world, all people would have a basic understanding of mental illness and respect that it is very real and painful. In a perfect world, if someone disclosed their mental health status and said that it affected their decisions and life, other people would respect that without requiring evidence, gory details, or an exact explanation of how serious it really was (are you sure it wasn’t all in your head?)

Alas, this is not the world we live in. Disclosing mental health status often comes with a round of questioning and well intentioned but utterly unhelpful suggestions (have you tried exercising?) that can quickly put one on the defensive. I personally have felt pressure when writing about my mental health to engage in the “just how bad was it?” defensiveness, pre-emptively listing out symptoms and consequences to illustrate that no really, this needed to be taken seriously.

Nearly every article I read about mental illness feels the need to either specify that depression is a serious illness (if it’s a scientific or research based piece) or take a large chunk of its time to describe the internal experience (if it’s on the subjective side). There’s certainly nothing wrong with that impulse, and subjective descriptions of mental illness are incredibly important to increasing awareness and understanding, but almost never do I see someone write about an experience they had that was influenced by their mental illness without focusing heavily on symptoms and vivid, graphic descriptions.

This makes sense to some extent, but it seems odd to me that we cannot have mental illness be an influence in our lives without going the extra distance to explain the exact details. In the world as it stands, there is not enough understanding of mental illness to mention it as a factor without making your statement/article/conversation about mental illness.

Here’s where I get hung up.

As someone who wants to increase understanding and awareness of mental illness and mental health issues, as someone who is aware of these dynamics and the ways in which stigma against mental illness contributes to the requirement that mentally ill people prove how hard things are for them every.single.time, do I proceed by molding myself into the Good Depressed Person and patiently describing over and over (in the level of detail required by my listener to really understand) what it’s like in my head? Or is there something radical in simply letting myself say “I am depressed and that led to x, y, or z” without backtracking, explaining, or questioning myself?

There may be space for both of these options in the world of mental health activism. It’s easy to see how speaking openly about the internal experience of mental illness is part of activism. It very clearly increases awareness and understanding, and can help others respect the seriousness of a mental illness, as well as the fact that it is not a choice or a lifestyle. There are downsides though. I worry that making personal stories a constant factor in every discussion of mental illness sets an unhealthy precedent that people’s stories are required to be public. I worry that we’re painting a picture of mental illness that feeds into certain romantic notions of things like anorexia, while playing into the voyeuristic pleasure some people get in hearing about disturbing and graphic symptoms. I see this especially in discussions of self harm when the questions immediately turn to how deep, how often, where, pics.

It might be that having both tactics is the best choice so that we can continue to educate others about mental illness in a serious way while also recognizing that sometimes it isn’t the only or overwhelming factor in an individual’s life. Sometimes it’s just a part of life, like a twingy ankle or allergies. It gets in the way, but it doesn’t destroy.

Again, ideally, this could be a great way to move forward in activism. The problem comes with the lived experience of trying to mention your mental illness without defending it. People push. People overlook it. People argue and debate and yell after you’ve said you’re triggered. People invoke all the stereotypes of mental illness that you’ve been working so hard to fight against (lazy, taking the easy way out, not trying hard enough). These things, even if you know that they are unwarranted and are ignoring a very real factor (mental illness) hurt.

I don’t think anyone is obligated to always educate others when they talk or write about their mental health. You’re allowed to say “this thing triggered me, which relates to the rest of what I’m talking about in ways x, y, and z” without having to explain how your triggers came to be, what triggering looks like for you, and exactly how real and serious the experience was. I just don’t know how to let people do that while protecting them from the less informed folks who will take that as an opportunity to berate them for not liking triggery thing, or for not being able to cope with a situation, or whatever the case may be. And I don’t know how to recognize that people 100% have the right not to explain themselves while also knowing that these incidents might not help the larger aims of mental health activism.

This is the forever balancing act of oppressed groups that want to make things better. In order to gain the rights and treatment you know that you should have, you often need to play by the damaging rules of society as it is, putting you in a place to get hurt and perpetuating those same rules. How radical can we be in acting as if the world had already accepted us? While it might be idealistic and forward thinking to expect everyone to know about mental illness, does it actually do anyone any good when it comes to securing rights and reducing stigma?

There are no clear answers here about the “right” way to approach discussions about mental health or activism, but I wish we knew better how to help improve the world around us without making ourselves so vulnerable.

No, This Is Not How To Raise Awareness

Ugh. Ugh ugh ugh. Eating disorder coverage has been getting better in the past few years. I’ve seen stories covering orthorexia, binge eating disorder, bulimia, and EDNOS, as well as some that include the oh so shocking fact that eating disorders don’t just happen to people who are skinny, and sometimes they’re not motivated by weight loss, dieting, or models.

So I was deeply unhappy to see this art series that purports to draw attention to eating disorders but is exclusively composed of skeletal Disney figures. Sure, it’s great that it includes men and women of color, but there is such a small percentage of people with eating disorders who actually look like that, whose BMIs have dropped down into the “you need to be hospitalized” realm that I can’t help but feel that it just limits our perception. Beyond that, it perpetuates the horrible, horrible idea that you can diagnose a mental illness by seeing how skinny someone is.

Newsflash: eating disorders are not defined by someone’s weight. Weight is actually one of the smallest components of diagnosis (there are lots of other criteria! And lots of different disorders! Some of which include NO weight component!)

It is not outreach or advocacy to continue to portray eating disorders in stereotyped ways. This is not helpful.

For real information on what eating disorders are and what they’re like, try NEDA, Science of Eating Disorders, or just check out my back log of blogs tagged with “eating disorders”.

Cross Cultural Eating Disorders

It’s commonly held knowledge that eating disorders are a Western phenomenon. They came about because of beauty standards, small models, and photoshopping. They’re on the rise! Panic! It’s an epidemic!

Only this isn’t necessarily supported by a hard look at the data. One of the problems with assessing whether or not eating disorders exist in other cultures is that the diagnostics for the disorders were developed in the US and Western Europe, leading to a focus on the presentations that we tend to see in those places. As an example, one of the diagnostic criteria for anorexia is “Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though you’re underweight.” While this is the motivation for many people to refuse food, it is not true of everyone who displays many of the symptoms of anorexia, and may simply have different motivation.

There are a few different sources of data that contradict the idea that eating disorders are culturally bound or that they are caused by Western beauty ideals. We can look at history or we can look to minorities or other countries that may not have been wholly influenced by Western concepts.

Historically, we have strong evidence that people have been choosing to starve themselves for hundreds of years. The book Fasting Saints and Anorexic Girls traces the history of self starvation from the earliest records through to the first recognition of eating disorders as psychiatric conditions. While the book suggests that these are distinct phenomena because in the past few people have practiced self starvation due to a fear of fatness, behaviorally it shows many parallels.

One particular group of individuals that have similar behaviors to modern patients with eating disorders are religious fasters. These tended to be young women who had little control over their lives in many ways and who chose to abstain from food for extreme periods of time in order to be morally better by ignoring their bodies and focusing on their spirits.

The book includes some quotes from people who chose to restrict their food intake in times past, and concerns about morality, space, selfhood, and perfection come up again and again, just as they do in current conversations about eating disorders. Many of the experiences are couched in religious terms, but the underlying fears (“I am not good enough”, “there is something wrong with my body”, “I need to be better”, “I don’t want this life”) could just as easily be pulled from a study of eating disordered patients today.

Individuals throughout history have chosen to abstain from food, often falling into something like depression and priding themselves on their ability to go without for long periods of time. Their motivations have changed as their social milieu has changed, going from religious, to entertainment, to aesthetic. However many of the sentiments that these individuals express ring similar across time and space.

“It’s like I never knew what self-respect was all about until now. The thinner I get, the better I feel . . . I’m proud of my stoic, Spartan existence. It reminds me of the lives of the saints and martyrs I used to read about when I was a child . . . This has become the most important thing I’ve ever done.” This kind of quote could easily be from a religious faster or a modern individual with anorexia.

Over at Science of Eating Disorders, Tetyana posits “Religious and spiritual reasons are not the only factors that could be contributing to AN in non-Western countries (or Western countries before the ‘thin ideal’). Personally, it would seem to be, that anorexics in those times, would just attribute their desire for weight loss to those reasons much like today it is often attributes to a fear of being fat. But, both of those could just be post hoc rationalizations on the part of the sufferer, to make sense of their otherwise perplexing desire to restrict their intake and lose weight. That’s my feeling.”

I’ve written elsewhere about how restricting food made me feel powerful, godly. I often imagined that my body was not subject to the same requirements that others were. Only the weak needed food, but I decided my morality, my meaning, and my body for myself.

“Comparable to the ascetic practices in the history of Christianity are the fasting practices in the Chinese Daoist tradition (Eskildsen, 1998). These practices sought to transform the body as a means of gaining immortality…  The history of Chinese thought thus suggests that, in certain traditions at least, the emaciated body has been highly valued and pursued in a manner highly reminiscent of Western observances.”

But in addition to historical examples, we can also look at current cases of eating disorders in non-Western countries. It’s a common trope that these are rare, and when they do appear they are evidence of growing Western influence in the country. The problem with that assumption is that many individuals who might be diagnosed with an eating disorder but lack fatphobia are not given the diagnosis. The unthinking assertion that the rise of eating disorders correlates to increased Western influence doesn’t look at the lived experiences of individuals in non-Western countries.

Again, from Science of Eating Disorders:

“For example, one study found that in British Asian girls, dietary restraint was correlated with traditional (rather than Western) values (Hill & Bhatti, 1995). This finding was supported in a study by Mumford and colleagues (1991) who essentially found the same correlation. On a Caribbean Island, with little Western media, Hoek et al (1998) found that the prevalence of AN was comparable to Western countries and a study by Apter et al (1994) showed that a group of village Muslim women (with minimal exposure to Western values) had eating pathology scores that were indistinguishable from patients with AN.”

Many of the patients quoted in this article don’t talk about a strong desire for thinness or weight loss, but point to their bodies as the site for other struggles in their lives, particularly around control and selfhood.

“… food restriction arose from a sense of powerlessness in the family context, it is possible that the patient experienced her emaciation as egosyntonic, with her low body weight consonant with the goal of not wanting “to ‘give in’ to her family, especially her mother, who forced her to eat even when she was not in a mood to.”

Again, these individuals exhibit many of the same behaviors as individuals diagnosed with eating disorders in the Western world, but don’t show the obsession with thinness or fatphobia that we assume is an essential part of an eating disorder.

An eating disorder is a coping mechanism that allows an individual to survive extremely difficult situations or feelings. Physically, it has effects that make it easier to live through strong emotions: it numbs out painful things, it leaves you sleepy and sedated, and it also provides a kind of high that makes you feel accomplished and safe. These are biological results. They are the same no matter where you are or when you’re living. And they are effective at helping someone survive a difficult situation no matter what kind of difficult situation that is: it could be not living up to religious expectations or not fitting into a beauty ideal.

And so I am continually dismayed at ridiculous articles like this that seem to think eating disorders are not only limited to the West, but also limited to young, naive, shallow teen girls who can’t figure out how to do basic things like feed themselves. Diagnosis, demographics, and etiology are complex and confusing. If you don’t know a little something about mental health, don’t write about it.

Words: Yes They Do Have An Impact

People suck at talking about mental health issues. Oh sure, there are some people who have taken the time to educate themselves who know not to use “OCD” to mean “neat, tidy, type A”, but the media as a whole is just not good at portraying mental illnesses as real, serious, and illnesses rather than choices. More often than not, writers rely on a few stock phrases to describe mental illnesses. And more often than not, these phrases are misleading, reductive, or flat out wrong. There have been a plethora of examples of a few of these recently, and I’d like to highlight two that are damaging and overused.

The first one caught my eye after an odd kerfluffle involving a pair of Victoria’s Secret models. One commented that she would never have a body quite like the other’s and that she thought the other was beautiful. Not too outlandish of a thing to say: even models have some insecurities and compare themselves to other people. The response? “Accusations of anorexia”. Sorry what? Accusations? This is somewhat akin to saying “accusations of having pneumonia”. Grammatically it sort of makes sense, but in the actual ways that we understand the word “accusation” it implies some weird things about anorexia. Namely that it’s a choice, that it’s something bad or wrong, that it’s something offensive and you should feel ashamed of it.

It’s a phrase that gets bandied about fairly often, as if anorexia were some sort of character flaw that we should all be above. In discussions of “skinny shaming” (a phrase that should have its own post), naturally thin people often comment that they are accused of having eating disorders because of their body type. It makes sense that no one would want to be told they have a mental illness if they don’t. It implies that you need to change or that there’s something wrong with you. More often than not, it’s impossible to convince the world otherwise if they already believe you have a problem. That sucks. Of course it does.

But having someone mistakenly think that you’re ill is not the same as being accused of something, and using that wording does a huge disservice to people who actually do have eating disorders. It tells them that their disorder is something they should feel some amount of shame over, something they shouldn’t be open about because it’s clearly still seen as a choice or a character flaw rather than an actual illness. The phrase often perpetuates the idea that people with eating disorders are all skinny and that you can identify them on sight, because it’s most often leveled at thin people with no other evidence of an eating disorder beyond “you’re really skinny”. Very rarely is someone “accused” of having an eating disorder because they express unhealthy or damaging attitudes towards their body.

Other ways of phrasing this idea might not be quite as succinct. “Believed to have an eating disorder” doesn’t come across in nearly as dramatic a light. But it is more accurate, and that means that it’s preferable. The way we talk about eating disorders contributes greatly to the perception of them and whether or not we see them as serious. This is an extremely easy adjustment to make that can help decrease the stigma around eating disorders.

On the other end of the spectrum we have the endlessly overused phrase “battling depression”. In my Google alert for depression today alone I saw three articles that used this phrase in their title. There are probably times and places to use the word “battling” when describing someone’s relationship with depression. There have definitely been times in my life when I’ve felt as if I’m waging a war inside my own mind. But it should not be the only phrase we can come up with to describe an illness. Especially because depression is not always incredibly active in someone’s life, even if they do still have it, the phrase “battling” can be misleading about what it’s like to live with depression. Sometimes you’re surviving. Sometimes you’re struggling. Sometimes you’re being beaten up by your depression. Sometimes you just have it.

Of course it’s hard to have depression, and most people who have it end up fighting back against it in some fashion or other at some point in their life. But not all of us feel like we can do it all the time. Not all of us have the energy to constantly be “battling”, and the implication that having depression is always a battle means that if you aren’t fighting back then you’ve accepted it and you’re not trying hard enough. While depression has started to move past some of the stereotypes and stigmas that still seriously plague eating disorders, we do tend to have a single narrative about it, and it’s rarely one that recognizes the complexity of what it means to experience depression.

We rarely note the fact that people with depression live like most other people, have hobbies, sometimes enjoy themselves, have relationships, hold down jobs, have good days and bad days, sometimes let the bad feelings happen and sometimes work really hard to feel better, just like most other people. They have an additional stressor to deal with, but they’re more complicated than a single trait.

I’m certainly not proposing a complete ban on the phrase “battling depression” but for goodness sakes could we shake it up every once in a while? This is just getting to the point of extremely bad writing, and we can do better.

 

Embodiment

Eating disorders are about bodies. Duh. They’re about fat and losing weight and body image and skinny models and photoshop. Wait, what? That’s not right. Eating disorders are about the experience of being in a body, the limitations and lack of control that being embodied necessitates. Much better. I’ve been wanting to write about this article at Science of EDs on embodiment for quite some time, but I haven’t known exactly what to contribute beyond “yeah, that!” The article looks at a study of embodiment in which participants rated how much they experienced their body externally, through the feedback and sight of others, through objective measures, or through physical ways of controlling their bodies. Unsurprisingly, high scores on these measures were correlated with eating disorders.

When I read this, I felt a resonance with these experiences and questions: yes, what drove my eating disorder was a feeling of discomfort with having a body, an inability to imagine how my “self” fit into that body, a confusion about how my body actually fit into people’s conceptions of me, and a kind of certainty that the only time I really was in my body was when I was doing something to it or with it. But embodiment has always meant more than that to me. Having a body means you will die. That’s a pretty basic fact at this point in time (although there is the potential that through technology we will change it). Having a body also comes with a variety of limitations: you can only be doing one thing at a time, be in one place at a time, you are bounded by temporality and space. Even if you’re a highly capable person who can probably accomplish nearly anything they try, your embodied nature says that you can only try a limited number of things.

Bodies, and particularly bodily functions (like eating) are a constant reminder of these facts. For much of my life, I have not been able to stand being present in my own body (aware of my senses, my location, my body) because it was so limited. Some people are able to accept these limitations without struggle. Some people don’t find that being in a body is a constant reminder of their miniscule nature in the entirety of reality. But many of the people that I have met who also have eating disorders are the kinds of people who have been told their whole lives that they can do whatever they put their mind to, that they can do so at a high level of accomplishment, and that they can change the world. The perfectionism that this breeds hates limits, even ones that are utterly reasonable (like not being able to live forever).

Some people have certainly wondered why those with a high drive for control and perfection choose their bodies as the realm on which to enact their personal battles. The experience of embodiment as mortality and limitation gives a good window into this connection. It might seem that the whole world is not within our control, but the most basic level at which we have no control is the fact that we are embodied, our bodies do things we don’t want them to, we can get sick and die, and having a physical presence inherently limits the ways that we can affect the world.

It’s quite possible that few other people with eating disorders are consciously aware of hating their body because it represents the fact that they cannot do everything they’ve been told they could; I cannot cure cancer and reconstruct Proto Indo-European and become a bestselling author and be a feminist/atheist activist and play taiko for a living and learn neuroscience and solve the problem of consciousness and star in an amazing TV show. I have to pick and choose, and knowing that I am giving up on some potential opportunity is painful. But even if others don’t consciously recognize that the reason they can’t do all this is because they are physical beings, on some level I suspect they feel it: it comes out in the guttural anger at the body and at the failings of the body, it comes out in the unrealistic expectations of perfection in every way, it comes out in the unnaturally high achievements and the insistence that slack is for other people.

Embodiment might be at the heart of all eating disorders, but not because of bad body image or a struggle to reconcile self-image with the perception of others. Somewhere in there, all of us want to be little gods, capable of anything. Bodies will always remind us that we never can be.

 

Confession Syndrome

There’s a tendency that I have when I’ve done something cruel to myself to want to blurt it out at the most inopportune moments. Sometimes when I first meet people I have to tell them about the times when I went a week without eating, or how it feels to bleed on every object you own because you can’t go a day without cutting yourself. It’s like some sort of disease. Last week at a party I blurted out the story of the most recent time I felt suicidal to a friend, describing the moment in gross detail.

Things are not real until they are witnessed, until they have been woven into words and placed in context. There’s something especially painful about living through trauma silently. You begin to doubt whether it was real, whether it was as bad as it seemed, whether it’s actually a part of you. Every tiny thing you do to yourself is somehow validated as acceptable when there is no one to contradict it. Self harm or restriction or purging is a cruel thing to do to yourself, and appropriately they often come with guilt. If you did these things to someone else, you would feel you needed forgiveness. And so when you do them to yourself, there’s a need to confess and have someone forgive you, let you know that you can continue on.

I’ve started to call it confession syndrome. It’s a way to validate yourself and quickly signal to someone else that you trust them. But it’s cheating. There are absolutely circumstances in which you need to share these stories. They need to be heard and incorporated into your identity and forgiven by you and with the support of the people you love. You need reminders that you are still loved even with the darkest moments of yourself in full view.

But the unthinking moments of blurting out disturbing stories are not the same as honest and open communication that creates a validating environment. Instead, it puts other people in a circumstance in which they have to validate you and have to witness something about you that isn’t necessarily appropriate to your relationship. It bypasses the hard work of actually getting to know someone and shorthands to “we’re close” by disclosing personal information. And because you’ve pushed an interaction into a personal context, you’ve pressured your conversation partner into accepting and being close with you as well: validating you.

Confession syndrome is a horrible way to build relationships. One of the most important elements of trust is seeing how someone behaves over time in a variety of circumstances. You get a feel for someone’s character by doing this. It gives both parties time to increase their vulnerability on a fairly even level: one person might share something slightly more personal, then the other will reciprocate. When you drop a bomb like “I cut myself”, you don’t give the other person the option to reciprocate in any reasonable fashion. It’s a kind of emotional hostage situation: be close to me or else.

Having people in your life that will listen to the times you need to rehash the stories is important. Sometimes they weigh on you and you can’t help but need to say them out loud so that they will stop circling your mind over and over again. But learning how to be a whole human even with all the broken bits is not something to do with that person you just met or at that party while slightly tipsy. It’s for the quiet moments with loved ones. It’s for the places you are wholly safe. It’s for the people that don’t have to prove they will love you through the ugliness.

I’m putting away my confession syndrome, as best I can, moving forward. I have safe spaces to share these stories. I have people that I should tell about the things I’ve done to myself, people who want to know me more fully and who have shown they are trustworthy. These are the relationships that need these stories. These are the people who help me create myself with their narratives and their care. These are the people who want my confessions.

 

Hierarchies of Eating Disorders: A Spiritual Perspective

If you’re someone who reads lots about eating disorders, you’ve probably already seen this article by Maree Burns floating around recently. For those who aren’t enmeshed in the world of post-structuralist and feminist critiques of eating disorders, you may want to try to read it anyway. It’s a little long and at times jargon-y, but it’s also fascinating and makes important points about the hierarchies we set up around eating disorders. Similar to Burns, I will not be using this post to posit anything about the actual nature of eating disorders, but rather about how they’re constructed in the common conscience of Western society.

There are many points in Burns’ article that I’ve spent time grappling with: the fact that anorexia is both held up as perfect control and derided as sickness and disgusting, the way anorexia and bulimia can be mapped onto the virgin/whore dichotomy, and the tendency to view anorexia as the ideal eating disorder. There is an hierarchy of eating disorders, one that is held up by nearly everyone. Anorexia is considered cleaner, more respectable. Many people even view many of its characteristics as positive, but simply taken too far. On the other hand, bulimia is considered disgusting, animalistic, and out of control.

Burns looks at this hierarchy from the perspective of post-structuralism. I’d like to take a different perspective that I think can illuminate some other elements of the hierarchy and the ways that eating disorders make a certain kind of sense. Spirituality is something that Burns does not touch on at all in her article, despite the fact that moral language runs rampant in descriptions of eating disorders, and in the past eating disorders often happened in religious contexts.

Throughout her article, Burns draws on the Western concepts of dualism. She looks at it particularly from a feminist lens, in which female is associate with body/disorder/evil/animal, and male is associated with mind/rationality/control/order. However there is a slightly different version of this dualism that may actually shed more light on eating disorders, which is the body/soul split. Burns points out that society (including pop culture, psychological professionals, and those who actually have eating disorders) makes negative judgments of only certain elements of eating disorders. This includes the behaviors of bulimia (especially purging) and the skeletal body of someone with anorexia.

She posits that these are different types of judgment: the judgment of bulimia is about actions that don’t fit into the appropriate feminine mold, while the judgment of anorexia is about a body that makes a mockery of the thin ideal.  She looks to how each of these “negatives” deviates from acceptable feminine roles and how that deviation results in judgment. In contrast, the behaviors that make up anorexia (self-denial and self-control) are often viewed positively as movements from feminine (bodily) to masculine (rational).

However there is another way to interpret the negative judgments we cast on those with eating disorders and the ambiguous position of anorexia in society. We can find a clue in the religious language used by starving saints in past centuries and co-opted by some people with anorexia today (including myself). Oftentimes this language circulates around dismissing the body completely and moving into a fully spiritual realm. The prioritizing of the next world over this one still holds sway in Western culture (despite frequent cries about our society falling into horrible materialism).

These criticisms of eating disorders reveal that bodies, particularly bodies that remind us that we are animal, mortal, and fallible, are what receives criticism. Negative judgments of bulimia often center around the corruptness of the body and through the body, the individual. The body is seen as the ruler in this situation, but the focus on the body is often given a moral meaning. People with bulimia binge, however the binging on food is often extended into other realms: they’re posited to be kleptomaniacs, sex addicts, or out of control. Most of these assumptions focus on impurity and the fact that binging and purging “taints” the individual. I’ve often heard them referred to as “failed anorexics”. This means that they have failed at the purity that those with anorexia achieve because they allow their body and its needs to overtake them. The obsession with “how much did you eat” and “how did you throw it up” reveal society’s dark obsession with the animalistic elements of bulimia and how it affects the body, rather than an interest in the inner lives of those with bulimia.

Burns suggests that the negative judgments of bulimia are made in contrast to the self-control (often interpreted as rationality) of anorexia. She says: “Self-starving is also paradoxically privileged as a signifier of those qualities that have historically been associated with ‘masculinity’, such as self-control, persistence, transcendence of the (labile feminine) body, and strength” However I would argue that this type of self-control is often associated with spirituality rather than any kind of rationality, as she suggests. People recognize the irrationality of anorexia in the context of the material world. However starvation, asceticism, and self-denial have a long history in the religious tradition of transcending this whole plane of existence.

Something that I’ve posited for quite some time is that the end goal of anorexia is to become pure spirit, to no longer be held up by worldly, finite things.This is why anorexia is often held above bulimia. However the reality is that people with anorexia do have bodies and their actions do impact their bodies. When their bodies begin to appear abnormal, we’re reminded again that they are human, finite, and mortal and that their bodies are falling apart. We are reminded of death (see: focus on the “skeletal” nature of the anorexic figure). And especially as Western societies move closer to secularism, this reminder of death is viewed as disgusting and disturbing, garnering criticism. The combination of heavenly motivation with dying body creates the mixed reaction of most individuals.

This additionally explains the feminine coding of anorexia. It falls in line with the tradition of women who fade away into martyrdom and make their femininity acceptable by rejecting their bodies unequivocally. It is part of the “pure” woman, the history of women as keepers of the spiritual well-being of their families, of women as more moral and in touch with religion than men. Part of the push/pull response to anorexia is the fact that the very deadliness and extremity of it is considered admirable by some. Not everyone can do it: it refuses to accept human limitations and so in some ways appears almost supernatural. The extreme refusal of finitude almost appears to be a martyrdom, especially for those who are trapped within the eating disorder. There’s even a kind of cultish interest in the fact that many people with anorexia suffer from ammenorrhea. Their bodies no longer even produce blood, one of the most obvious markers of human finitude.

On the flip side, bulimia reminds us of our more animal side. We think of the behaviors not as outstanding or amazing, but as mundane and slightly disgusting. We associate overeating with animals, with bodies, and we view vomit as wholly animal (because bodily fluids are gross ya know?). It’s very easy to view the dichotomy between bulimia and anorexia as a struggle between our lower natures and our higher spiritual calling.

And of course if we are considering female morality and spirituality, sex must be play a role. The connections between food and sexuality have already been identified, particularly in Burns’ article. Abstinence is a largely spiritually driven quest. Few secular people feel the need to be abstinent for moral reasons (of course there are some, but it’s not nearly as common as within religious circles). The drift of the spiritual meaning of sexuality into food also colors our conceptions of eating disorders. Just as the body is dirtied and corrupted by inappropriate or out of context sex, so it is by inappropriate or out of context food: a binge. An important part of this connection is the way that sexuality is used to dehumanize, animalize, and objectify women. When we use phrases like “orgies of eating” to describe a binge, we sexualize not only the food, but also the individual participating, and through that sexualization we objectify. It portrays people with bulimia as less human, as more animal. The objectification of women through hypersexualization plays directly into the ways that anorexia (anti-sexual) is viewed as humanizing, pure, and spiritual while bulimia is viewed as animalistic: those who engage in it are objectified just as others who are hypersexualized are.

While the role of male/female dichotomies plays an important role in eating disorders, we should also consider the dichotomy of worldly/heavenly and how that can explain some of the behaviors and attitudes we have towards eating disorders. The history of eating disorders (particularly the long history of female saints starving themselves to death) is a good place to start in this perspective.

Bodies That Change: Weight Loss and Trans Narratives

There’s a parallel that’s been rumbling around in my mind for quite some time now that I’ve been hesitant to write about for fear of stepping into a topic that I know not nearly enough about. I’ve often noticed that whenever I read something written by a trans person, I see lots of parallels with recovery from an eating disorder and with weight loss narratives. And then last week I got a little kick in the pants from a friend who posted an article about weight loss and said they felt parallels with their experience of transitioning.

So I’m just going to go for it. I think there’s a lot of rich support and community that could be built by talking across these boundaries and experiences, and speaking to similarities. I obviously am not trans, so I’m going to do my best not to make statements about the experience that I don’t know anything about, but I will try to pull from places that I’ve heard others describe it and the struggles that they’ve mentioned. I would love to hear any trans perspectives or challenges.

The thing that strikes me most about recovery, weight loss, and transitioning, is that all of these processes circulate around bodies changing (and along the way minds and identities). There is probably some sort of final goal (lose weight, gain weight, present as female/male), but there are all sorts of small changes that a body goes through that must be incorporated into a new identity, projected to the world, adapted to, accepted, and understood as “me” by the individual who inhabits that body. While the particular changes may be different, the experience of “is this me? How does this work? Where did that muscle come from?” is shared. And there are many elements to it that are confusing and difficult which could be made easier by shared conversation from a variety of perspectives.

At the core of all of these things is the process of changing body so that it fits into your sense of who your are: it is creating an identity through a body. In many ways, I think that all of these processes of changing your body are coping mechanisms for feeling that something is wrong with the way you view yourself or the way that others view you, or for feeling as if your body is standing in the way of you creating a healthy identity and life for yourself.

This process is hard. Really, really hard. It doesn’t make sense and there’s really no template for it because asking “how can I get people to take me seriously when my body  no longer takes up the same amount of space?” is not considered Real, Deep, Appropriate work in the social justice community. But this is work. This is the work of understanding that we are physical creatures, and that our physicality can change who we are. This is the work of creating our own identities in such a way that we fully accept the body that is a part of us. Sometimes that involves large, sweeping moments of self-realization and sometimes it involves little things like “I really liked the way I could pick up a heavy couch when I was fat. How do I do things that need strength when I’m skinnier?” It’s the process of learning yourself all over again, but it’s not particularly sexy and it’s not particularly interesting unless it’s your life and you can’t for the life of you figure out how to move your damn bookshelf.

Everything about your body can affect the way you interact with and view the world (or yourself). Having different muscles can affect your mood and energy level, hormone levels can affect your basic perception and sensitivity to stimuli, the sheer amount of space you take up will affect how big, intimidating, powerful, or potentially dangerous you see the rest of the world as. It may seem simple to change your body and switch from checking “female” to checking “male” on the census form, but actually understanding how your body changes your perspective is a much harder and much more subtle process that involves figuring out all those little pieces and putting them together into a new conception of “this is me and this is how I see things and this is how I do things”.

For myself, I have found the process of adapting to my changing body to be frustrating and angering. I’ve often wished that I could talk about it more openly with others, that people were there to commiserate, or that there was just some sort of guide book (will I keep gaining weight forever????). I have heard some of these frustrations echoed in other places, by Zinnia Jones, by those who have lost a great deal of weight. Many of us just want some reassurance that our bodies haven’t turned into something alien and unknown. We want to know that other people’s bodies reacted the same way or similarly. We want to know that we’re still ourselves.

But we also want to know how to relate to the world with a new body. A body that was fat and is now thin is going to take up space differently, move differently, have different strength, touch things differently…even something as simple as sleep differently (welcome to skinniness, where you can’t sleep on your side because your knee bones rub together and it hurts like a bitch). And so many of us are looking for a model of “how do I do stuff when I’m like this”. We’re trying to figure out how to tell other people about our bodies and how our bodies match our selves and what part of our bodies fits our identities. It’s difficult when you’re in recovery to explain your body. The body is often in flux, you’re not “skinny like you were supposed to be”, you don’t entirely understand your body as “right” yet. It doesn’t wholly feel like you. The process of labeling your body and then explaining yourself to others is difficult and something that anyone whose body goes through a drastic change must learn how to deal with.

Learning about how to talk to others about a new body is something we could all use help and support with. How do you respond when someone says “you look different” or “you look healthier” or “you look great!”? How do you tell others what you identify as? How do you look down at yourself or look in the mirror and think “yeah, that’s me. That’s just me”? For me, this process is hardest when I think about my body in the long term. I keep thinking that I’ll drop the weight again, that I’ll go back to the “real me”, that somehow this is just a temporary state of unreality. I have no idea if there are trans individuals who feel this way, but I have heard from some people who went through weight loss regimens that they think about whether the weight will come back, and worry that they’re in a temporary state. I imagine there might be some parallels when you haven’t reached a point of feeling comfortable in your gender identity (sort of in the “still transitioning” point of being trans). I think all of us wonder if the changes will stick, if we should commit to ourselves as we are.

And a big part of that is learning how to internalize this new shape as “me”. While I have never transitioned, I would imagine that it takes a bit of time after hormones/surgery/whatever to get used to the changes (hey I have boobs that didn’t used to be there! That’s odd). For me, it was more along the lines of getting used to being present when I wasn’t entirely happy with how I looked. I wish that I could speak to some of those trans people about how they learned to see their bodies as them, how they learned to view those new manly muscles as “me”, how they started to see boobies as part of their bodies.

One piece of identifying with a new body or a changing body is accepting that there are both pros and cons to any change. For me, I am highly aware of the cons of my changing body (uuugh I’m fat and my thighs rub together) but I often forget about some of the positives (I don’t feel dizzy all the time, I am more physically capable, I’m not nearly as fragile and don’t expect others to walk all over me because of my petite and sickly frame). I think because of the very positive framing of transitioning in the mind of the person who transitions, speaking to people who have transitioned could be an amazing way to remind me of the benefits I’ve gotten from my new body. On the flip side, I think the perspective of someone who is more hesitant to change their body could be useful for someone who is TOTALLY GUN HO about their new body and might need a moment to slow down and learn the ways that their body can’t quite keep up to past expectations.

There are elements to being larger, to being male, to being more muscular that are AWESOME. You take up space. You feel powerful. You feel capable. You even feel like your body protects you from smaller things like hard surfaces or the boniness of your own ankles. But there are elements to being smaller, to being female, to being dainty, that also rock. The world fits you. You get to wear awesome fucking dresses. You’re often allowed to express more emotion and enthusiasm without ridiculous policing. It’s a great practice to recognize the good things about being you right now and being the you that was (sidenote: I am not saying that “female” equals smaller, more dainty and “male” equals bigger and stronger).

Part of this is being honest about the nitty gritty changes, which I believe is a place where all of those whose bodies go through extreme changes can support each other. Your hair fell out, or you get diarrhea constantly, or you get bizarre heart pains, or your mood is all over the place, or your tits are really tender. For people whose bodies haven’t changed these are uncomfortable and overly personal things that shouldn’t be shared. But when your whole world is in flux, it can be extremely comforting to be able to tell someone. I think that’s true no matter the cause of the changes. Recognizing out loud that these are things that are happening can be a big step towards actually accepting yourself. And I don’t think that it matters exactly the experience of the person being open, whenever someone is willing to be vulnerable about these things it makes it easier for others.

At the end of the day, trans narratives, weight loss narratives, and eating disorder narratives are all focused around a body that changes, usually in an attempt to make that body fit with an internal conception of “who I am”. Nobody likes to talk about how the body actually changes, but rather they like to focus on external categories like “fat” “thin” “male” “female”. But in all of these narratives, bodies change slowly, with little adjustments in how we walk and talk, in how much space we take up, in our strength, in how alert and awake we feel, in our moods, in our flipping bowel movements. And for most of these narratives there are pros and cons. Hopefully each person makes a choice that makes them feel more comfortable and more confident in their own body, but change always comes with some cost. I wish that we could talk about what it means to see your body change, to adjust in small and large ways, to move into a new category and identity, to say good bye to some things you might have liked.

I think some dialogue across these spaces could be good for both: we have different concerns about the ways that our bodies change, but I believe we can provide insight to each other. Having an outside perspective that isn’t so wrapped up in the same concerns (ah! gaining weight! ugliness!) might help us see some of the benefits of how bodies change, help us deal with the difficulties, and give us support around the weird little things that happen. And if we can speak across some of these boundaries and labels, we might learn to accept others’ identities a little bit better when we see the parallels to our own.

Things That An Eating Disorder Is Not

1.A fear of fatness
2. A diet
3. A choice
4. Stupid
5. Caused by Western media
6. Caused by beauty ideals
7. A new phenomenon
8. Understood
9. Anyone’s fault
10. Incurable
11. Easy
12. Sustainable
13. Irrational
14. A metaphor
15. Internalized fatphobia
16. Prejudiced
17. For white girls
18. A phase
19. Identifiable by size
20. Isolated from family/friends/society
21. Identical to any other eating disorder
22. Useless
23. About anyone else but the sufferer (and potentially close friends/family members whose emotions are deeply enmeshed)
24. For young people
25. For women
26. A ploy for attention
27. Trivial
28. Motivated by someone else’s body
29. Motivated by the sufferer’s body
30. Seriously, not about bodies
31. Isolated from other trauma/emotional issues that the sufferer might have
32. Fun
33. Shallow
34. Simple
35. Definable
36. Caused by any one thing
37. Entirely genetic
38. Entirely socialized
39. Making a statement (except possibly “help!” or “I can’t handle life!”)
40. About you
41. An epidemic
42. Getting more common (hey guess what more awareness does? Leads to more diagnoses!)
43. For you
44. To please men
45. To make women submissive
46. Weakness or powerlessness
47. A problem for you to fix
48. Something you get to define
49. An identity
50. A talking point or pawn for your theories about society
51. Manipulative
52. Blackmail
53. Seriously, still not about you
54. Gender roles taken to the extreme
55. Not really a problem
56. All in your head
57. Solved by “just eating” (or really by eating at all…that’s an important piece but really doesn’t fix the disorder)
58. A lifestyle
59. A fashion choice
60. Limited to anorexia and bulimia
61. Limited by your location, age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, class, sexuality, education, or really anything else
62. The same as “wishing you were skinnier”
62. The same as weight discrimination
63. The same as skipping lunch that one time
64. Self-control
65. Submitting to patriarchal beauty ideals

Things that an eating disorder is:
1. A potentially deadly disease that is unique to each individual who has it.