For an illness that has been around for centuries, the lack of actual knowledge the public has on eating disorders is surprising. Pop culture depicts those suffering from the disease almost always as bony, depressed shells of once lively people, or nobody talks about eating disorders at all. For myself and those who have battled the disease, I really wish we would talk about them.

When I first heard the term anorexic, it was used as an insult in school about someone whose lankiness wasn’t considered attractive. 

In psychology and health class, people with eating disorders were portrayed as skeletal individuals that were on their deathbeds with no explanation of how they got there or what that part of the disease looked like. So naturally, when I was suffering from an eating disorder years later at 16, I didn’t think I was sick at all. In the beginning, I still looked “normal” and enjoyed food. 

I had no idea that, just like sexuality or gender, there is a spectrum for eating disorders.

One of the biggest misconceptions about eating disorders is that they are a choice. Nobody wakes up and decides not to eat or to purge or to binge. Disorders latch onto anxiety, trauma, depression, OCD and other problems until you aren’t entirely sure what came first. It’s really important that we talk about eating disorders not just as an isolated problem, but as a part of a bigger mental health picture that can affect anyone at a vulnerable time.

In the beginning, nothing I was doing was unusual— remember that. I had just begun to work out about three times a week and trying to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into my diet. To others, this was a marker of maturity or success, especially as I began losing weight. Being “healthy” became my thing. In December, I was given a fitness watch and by February I was deep in an eating disorder that would cause me to have fall outs with friends, lose about forty-five pounds, and have to go into treatment.

I went to a competitive high school that didn’t do anything to ease my worries about college and the future. If anything, those fears were exploited to make me fear failure above all things. Going to anything less than a prestigious four-year university was almost unheard of and having less than a 100 average put you a peg below the rest. I was a natural overachiever— not doing homework one night wouldn’t be an option. As my anxiety about the future grew, so did my desire to be “healthy.” Social media posts that said “Eat this, not that” and the many low-carb diet crazes slowly became more frequent on my feed. This, along with health class lessons that slammed fast food, led me to associate carbs, sweets and processed foods as “bad.” I dabbled with the Paleo Diet and eventually switched to an extremely low-carb diet. At first, I would only eat bread or sweets on the weekends, but soon I had cut them out entirely. I had stopped nearly every food that could be classified as a grain, all in the name of being “healthy.” Thanks to my fitness tracker, I was able to count my steps, track water intake and count calories. Along with the fitness band, I also started using the treadmill and those two factors, paired with restriction, would be my downfall.

Throughout my entire disease, it became clear that the diet culture we live in can invalidate and encourage eating disorders. 

When I told people I no longer ate carbs, I was met with awe-filled faces and praise. As I lost more and more weight, I was dubbed a “skinny queen” by my peers and my phone was often flooded with messages from people asking me how I was doing it. Even when my attitude rested in an almost permanent state of irritability, people only wanted to know how they could be as thin as me.

The answer was I was starving myself.

However, because losing weight is typically correlated with success, happiness and health, I would get further into my disorder for another year and a half. I had two different medical professionals I saw regularly that assured me that losing my period, losing weight and being addicted to exercise was okay. It was shrugged off as anxiety. Although it’s true that my disorder was triggered by a high anxiety-inducing time in my developing life, all of those things should’ve been a red flag for my doctors. Instead, I was told I was doing well and should try incorporating more nuts and protein into my diet, never mind the entire category of grains I was literally terrified of. And, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, “Anorexia is the third most common chronic disease among young people, after asthma and type 1 diabetes.” One would like to think that there would be more awareness by now, especially as social media and fitness culture continue to boom.

The denial also stuck with me because I felt good about myself, seriously. That’s another myth. Not everyone with an eating disorder has low self-esteem. I thought I was cute, I just wanted to be “healthy” and fitness-oriented. I was doing well in school, I applied and got into nine colleges, started a small baking business and got my certification to teach yoga. These were all high-achieving things that I thought made me exempt from an illness. I didn’t know that eating disorders aren’t limited to anorexia, binge eating and bulimia. There are about eleven different classifications of eating disorders. Because only the top three are ever delved into, I thought maybe I was just rigid. I didn’t want to be stick thin, I wanted to be strong. I assumed my treadmill addiction to be nothing more than a routine I enjoyed and it wasn’t until coming across the term “orthorexia” that I began to think that I was doing anything abnormal or unhealthy.

There was no hope for me by the time I got to college. I lost ten pounds within the first two weeks, was waking up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat, could barely open doors and could only bring myself to eat less than 900 calories a day. At one time I was focused on organic whole foods, then I cut out carbs and once I was at college I wasn’t convinced that any food was really “good” for me. I had intense cravings for ketchup and peanut butter and would sometimes go so far as to eat salsa out of jars. My skin was gray, cold and I was always tired. To fuel my time at the gym and the five clubs I was in, I would drink upwards of six cups of coffee a day and chew on some chewing gum to curb hunger.

Luckily I wasn’t blind to my own problem, not everyone struggling with an eating disorder can see the error in their ways. I had been told by doctors and peers that I was “fine” and for so long I believed it, but I was dying. I called my school’s mental health office and scheduled their earliest appointment which was roughly a month away (which I would later find out I would not have survived to attend). I tried the support group, but it only had two available times that were during my classes and was later listed as “full” online. With the help of my family, I met with a new doctor who confirmed my worst fear: I had an eating disorder. I had become one of those thin, pale frames from the movies.

With all of the New Year’s resolutions, social media usage and diet culture, it can be easy to understand (though often in hindsight) how eating disorders develop. I was lucky to have the support I had to get help and get to recovery. I hope that as gym memberships and social media booms, so does the education and awareness of eating disorders. Those at risk or struggling with can be doctors, moms, dads, high school students, college graduates, models and other often highly qualified and intelligent individuals. Just as society pushes its own “healthy” standards and beauty ideals, we should also promote balance, mental well being and compassion. 

Lead Image Credit: Pixabay