Today something happened that’s prompted me to write something I’ve been meaning to write for a while now. I was at work and a colleague was asking me what my parents think about my eating habits (I’m vegan, and – in a relapse – I’ve started fasting, which means that I don’t eat anything when I’m at work), when another colleague comes up to me and says: ‘you’re not skinny’, and proceeds to grab my stomach and side and say, ‘no, you’ve got flesh on you – you’re fine’. Had she known that I’ve been struggling with an eating disorder for the past five years, I’m sure that she would never have said those things. But what she did say is indicative of a huge problem – the assumption that because someone looks fine, they must be fine. Eating disorders are not a weight, or a body type. They are a mental illness, complex and multi-dimensional, and often they are hidden behind a ‘healthy’ weight. I have never been underweight, and yet for the past five years of my life, I have been consumed by an obsession with food, my weight and my appearance, extreme dietary restriction, exercise addiction, binging and purging. But because I don’t look like the emaciated stereotype of someone with an eating disorder, I must be fine…
I’m far from fine.
And it’s that narrow idea of what an eating disorder is that has stopped me from saying anything about it – the fear that people will think that I’m looking for attention, that they’ll evaluate my body and decide that it’s unlikely: ‘she’s obviously not going through anything serious – she’s not thin enough.’ And that’s actually a thought that I have about myself all the time. ‘If I was really sick, I’d be thinner’; ‘I’m not doing well enough at this’; ‘once I’m underweight, that’s when I’ll get help.’ Indeed, it was these thoughts that prevented me from seeking help for so long – feeling ashamed to call myself sick, like I didn’t deserve to say that I had a problem.
When I finally listened to my family and sought treatment last year, I was diagnosed with OSFED – Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder – because I didn’t meet all of the criteria for anorexia (namely, I wasn’t underweight). ‘Not meeting the full criteria’ to my ears was ‘failing’, ‘not serious enough’, ‘not valid’. My experience with treatment wasn’t a positive one. The counsellor told me that he had never had any issues himself with eating, and I felt like a silly little girl, with silly issues, and that he had absolutely no grasp of what an all-consuming demon it was to me.
Add to this the fact that gaining weight is often equated with mental recovery. People stop worrying, assume that you’re healthy because you’re not ‘visibly’ suffering anymore. But gaining weight does not mean that you’re free from restrictive behaviours and thought patterns. Just because you can’t see someone’s pain does not mean that they’re not experiencing it.
An eating disorder is not a title you have to earn by starving yourself to within an inch of your life. We need to dispel the idea that to have an eating disorder you must be skeletally thin, because it contributes to one of the most dangerous aspects of the disorder – the feeling that you are not ‘sick enough’. It’s a feeling that results in the person becoming more and more entrenched in life-threatening behaviours.
I’m writing this partly for myself – because I’m sick of constantly dismissing my own experience – but more so for anyone who has ever felt like their struggles and their pain aren’t valid, that they ‘don’t count’, because they’re not ‘visibly’ sick. You deserve help, and you deserve to be healthy and happy. WE do.