At first I was going to use a picture of me from my “skinniest” sickest time – to illustrate the point that I still looked pretty normal – but then I realized that I’d rather illustrate this with a pic of me now. These guys remind me every day why I work so hard to be happy, healthy and present for them. I’m so glad I “failed” at anorexia!!
Well you never looked THAT skinny. In all my years of recovering from my various eating disorders, this was probably the most painful thing people said to me. It was as if people were telling me I wasn’t skinny enough to have an eating disorder. It was also a brutal reminder at how much I’d “failed” in my goal to get that skinny. I tried! I did all the stupid tricks you read on websites and magazine articles. (What, those cautionary stories aren’t meant to be how-to’s? Oops.) And while I did get pretty thin when you compared me to, say, Victoria Beckham or Angelina Jolie I looked like one of those human-shaped pillows for lonely people to cuddle with. And they live that way! For years!
It’s a phenomenon called “functional anorexia*” where women (or men) restrict calories and exercise just to the brink of severe unhealthiness. They are fashionably thin but not scary thin and manage through tight control – and sometimes pharmaceuticals – to stay in that place. And because they aren’t “sick” in the way we think people with eating disorders should be sick then they think they’re just fine. There’s a lot of ground between “not dead” and “thriving”, though.
I recently covered a story for Shape about a girl who suffered for years with anorexia but no one ever noticed. “Just because my bone structure stopped me from being the size 00 everyone pictures, doesn’t mean that I wasn’t in an incredibly unsafe and unhealthy place,” Brittany Miles said.
I can totally relate to Miles’ sentiment. It’s one I’ve heard in every TV interview I’ve done about eating disorders. I’ve heard it from friends and family members. I’ve heard it from strangers on the Internet. And the worst part is that often the people suffering buy into the attitude as well, thinking they aren’t sick and don’t need help. I’m all for people living their lives how they want but I’m also all for people not beating themselves up over every calorie or pound.
This weekend I read the perfect description of functional anorexia when an awesome reader sent me this article called “You’re right, I didn’t eat that.” (Note: This article is massively triggering. Like the possibly the most triggering article about eating disorders I’ve ever read. It’s also thoughtful, insightful and makes some important points about society. Decide carefully if you want to read it.) The author, Alana Massey, is of course referring to the Instagram phenomenon “You did not eat that.”
“You Did Not Eat That” is set up to show the chicanery behind the chic. The anonymous account is run by a person who worked in the fashion industry for over a decade and finally got sick of seeing ultra-thin girls posing with decadent food tantalizingly close to their mouth but never in it. And when the trend trickled down to fashion and fitness bloggers she decided it was time to start calling them out on their hypocrisy. When I first saw “You did not eat that” I totally laughed. I’ll admit it. I’ve had the same thought before looking at pictures on some blogs.
But it’s not about calling out specific people or even thin body types and setting them up for ridicule. “If you’re a size zero, and you’re frolicking in a tiny bikini on the beach, you probably did not eat the doughnuts that you posed with the sunglasses,” she says, echoing what the rest of us are thinking. “It’s just presenting this curated life that’s beautiful and perfect and totally unrealistic. More power to you for rocking that! You look awesome! Don’t lie about how you got there! It’s fine.”
It’s this kind of “curated life” that sets us up for functional anorexia, binge eating, bulimia, exercise addiction and other disordered behaviors that fly under the radar because they aren’t killing the person in an obvious way. Of course it’s not all the fault of media or dissembling images – there is a big genetic component to being predisposed to an eating disorder – but these things don’t help.
In Massey’s article she talks about how she used to be a normal size but when she had some problems in her life and lost a bunch of weight, she was blown away by how much more attention (both romantic and otherwise) she got. It was enough to convince her that she wanted to stay at this new low weight forever.
“I’m disordered not diseased,” she says of the complicated, fragile system she’s designed to keep her at this precarious weight. She points out that because her aesthetic is so desirable, people never think to worry about her.
She makes an interesting observation about the way her disorder complicates her personal relationships and how her loved ones inadvertently reinforce her behavior. “These symptoms do not aggregate into the appearance of a disease but rather, into a certain temperament. It makes them exclaim, “Relax!” rather than, “Get help.” The level of control the symptoms reveal hovers close to illness but [it] doesn’t cross far enough over the line so as to become sad — rather merely unattractive. And it is easier to walk away from someone who is unattractive than someone who is sad.”
The problem with functional anorexia or “hidden” eating disorders or whatever you want to call them - and I speak from experience – is that it’s not sustainable forever. Life happens. You get sick, you get a new job, you have a baby, you drop your guard for one moment and because you’ve been semi-starving yourself for years, all that food comes rushing back at you like a freight train. Because you restricted for so long, your body wants to binge. It wants to not be deprived anymore. And that is a terrible place to be. I still remember the day I realized that I no longer had the “self control” to restrict my food to that level. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I felt weak, disgusting, depressed and like a total failure. I needed professional help to navigate through that process and it was still grueling.
My message is this: You do not have to be thin to have an eating disorder. And an eating disorder doesn’t always make you thin.
“Weight can be an indicator of an eating disorder, but it certainly isn’t the only one or even the best one,” says Lynn Grefe, president and CEO of the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), adding that using weight as the only criteria for an eating disorder is incredibly damaging and demeaning to sufferers. She says the hallmark of an eating disorder is the mental component: How much time do you spend thinking about your diet, exercise or weight? Are you isolating yourself from others? Do you hate your body? It’s when the thoughts of food and dieting overtake the rest of your life that it becomes disordered. And that can happen at any weight.
Hidden eating disorders may be a popular term in the media right now but they really aren’t hidden. We just don’t want to see them.
*I am NOT saying every thin girl has an eating disorder or that Victoria Beckham or Angelina Jolie do. I know there are plenty of people who are thin just because that’s the way they are built and I’m not trying to shame them. I’m not even talking about them in this article.