The Body Image Crisis: Starving for Control
“What you are going through today, and who you are as a person, are two different things.”
“EDNOS”: what does the acronym written in my medical records actually mean for my life? The “eating disorder not otherwise specified” diagnosis is a tricky one. I’m not quite this and I’m not quite that but I have however been irrationally fearful of the calories in a stick of gum, wondered for hours on end whether having that half a banana earlier today will proceed to haunt me for the rest of my life.
What this acronym actually means for my life is that I will always have to check in with myself, regulate my internal monologue, judge whether the thoughts I’m having are “healthy” ones or of some other nature. It means that there will always be elements of both courage and consciousness in the bites that I take, that for me, sliding the fork into my mouth will feel, at least in some small way, like the split second between rolling out of an airplane and reaching terminal velocity. When I think about the summer of 2012, I am triggered almost instantaneously. I remember the way it felt back then to focus constantly on something so basic and fundamental to my existence yet so complicated at the same time: food. I easily get lost in the intoxicating sensation of retrospective thought until I snap myself back into the moment, take a hard swallow, and actively push the feelings out of the rest of my day. I remember the elation, the euphoria of “winning” at my own dysfunctional game at that time; of waking up in the middle of the night with hunger pains that started in my stomach and moved to my throat. And I can’t say I hated that feeling.
The perception I had back then, of my own self worth at any given moment, became wholly and inextricably contingent on what I’d eaten earlier that day. And God, if it happened to be 'laden' with fat, it was game over. To be clear, my definition of laden has changed quite dramatically throughout my process of recovery.
And I can’t quite pinpoint just when I began to really let it slip but I can tell you that I largely didn’t care. I didn’t care about the way it must have looked to others. I wasn’t concerned about myself or what I was doing to my body. The panic that ensued after my salad would arrive dressing-on or the steamed vegetables I had ordered were instead delivered to me in a mushy, fried state…it was an atrocious feeling. My reaction, which was invariably intense, however rarely externalized, is something I would only come to view as being terribly maladaptive with time. It’s not everyday that you see a 20 year old crying over a salad but my brain was just not wired correctly. And that wasn’t normal and that wasn't my fault.
“You don’t look like you have an eating disorder,” said my highly esteemed, Greenwich-based psychiatrist about a year and a half into my recovery process. Dude, do you want to take a look inside my skull? Yeah, that felt like somewhat of a counterintuitive approach for a medical professional. I guess I can’t expect those around me to understand the inner-workings of this disease if they haven’t experienced the drudgery in an up-close-and-personal kind of way. But if there’s one message I can get across in writing about this strange distortion of the mind, it’s that what an individual looks like on the exterior does not, by any means, indicate his or her internal state. Of course, the underlying depression I went through at its peak was also easy to miss for those living on the outside.
The day my vitals were taken at an eating disorder clinic, in the presence of an adolescent health specialist, a dietician, and a psychiatrist, and I was told that I would die if I continued down the path I was on, something inside me changed. I had come to prioritize my weight and living out a monotonous and rigid routine over preserving and nurturing my life. Looking back on these times, I now see that my views on what was clearly not a safe lifestyle were thwarted by my elusive disorder; that even the most seemingly rational rules just don’t always apply to a suffering individual. I felt completely powerless to a disease I grew up without the slightest understanding of; one that would ultimately obliterate any rational conception I had of myself and my world, and one that I would come to hide meticulously for whole years of my life.
If there is one chief message tied to society’s broad understanding of the eating disorder, it is that a need for control is what perpetuates one's harmful behaviors. I have been a control freak in one way or another for as long as I can remember. Whether it’s been in the classroom, on the field, or in some other manifestation of daily life, I like to be in control. Projects were always meticulously organized and God forbid I wasn’t the leader of the group. Those were uncomfortable circumstances for all, typically resulting in me weaseling my way to a more prominent position so I could breathe again. It didn’t feel so good to know that any outcome could be attached to my name yet not necessarily reflective of my individual effort. The mechanics of control are complicated in such a way that many people don’t quite understand them. Why was it so satisfying to know that I could go an entire day without adequate nutrition? That sounds ludicrous, I know. But the more I was able to restrict and the more I pushed the envelope, the more I was able to convince myself that I had discipline. Discipline, which translated directly into starvation, felt to me like the mastering of some highly esteemed status. It was access to a position in direct opposition to that which our society heavily scrutinizes: the individual who has yet to learn the principle of restraint. But strangely enough, the opinions of others had very little to do with the path I was choosing for myself.
Oh recovery…what a journey it has been. Medication brought me back down to Earth in a sense. It helped me to consciously and unconsciously separate my mind from my body, to look down on the space I occupied in my complicated world, and to recognize that I was living in a way that was terribly unhealthy. I could finally see, above all, that this was no way to live even if I had believed, at one point, that there was no way out. Medication and therapy did more for me than just take “the edge off” of the unceasing anxiety I experienced everyday. It also gave me the tools I needed to achieve something that while effortless in appearance, is a feat nearly impossible for the victim of disordered eating. It gave me, for the first time in years, the ability to see my own all-consuming thoughts as what they truly were: irrational and both physically and mentally damaging. Because, you see, the eating disorder above all else, is a liar. It tells you that your value as a human being is contingent upon the number you see on a scale, on the degree of control you subject your body and mind to. It tells you that you are below average across the board; that you will never amount to anything. And most unfortunately, it tells you that the only way for you to avoid this awful fate, to change the way others will perceive you, is to live your life with an ethos of extreme restraint, to starve. You truly feel undeserving of anything more.
It is not always easy to look and speak positively about our own bodies, but spreading a body positive message is enormously important in our society. Our time on this Earth is far too short to spend it viewing with exhaustive effort, each bite and each move we make, through a critical lens. Recognizing this and living both in pursuit of personal authenticity and in support of body positive ideals, is of utmost importance at this time. We have been trained through pervasive media exposure and oftentimes unachievable standards circulating all around us, to believe that thinness equates to success and that having a filter isn’t necessary when it comes to commenting on the body mass index of those around us. Many of us, myself included, can relate to the habitual and frighteningly automatic tendency we have to judge and remark on the weight of those in our society both in and out of the spotlight. The way in which an individual becomes trapped in an eating disorder may or may not directly relate to these pressures and criticisms. Each and every experience is unique and rooted in a complex web of environmental factors and genetic dispositions. Regardless of the trajectory of cause and effect, we are all affected by the messages to which we are inevitably exposed. It takes a conceded effort to change habits, no doubt, but I think that most of us will agree that we can do better. It is time to take accountability and ownership of our actions and the consequences they can have. We need to give our little brothers and sisters a fighting chance, a better world.