Pressure. Pressure to be thin, well-dressed, well-spoken, a great mom, etc. Women are bombarded with a lot of ideas about what our lives are supposed to look like. We all want to fit the ideal. But what happens when we try too hard?
Starting at a young age, there are perfectionists among us.
Success is getting straight A’s, being the best at whatever we attempt (dance, soccer, acting, cheerleading) and being thin. Some of us are told “you’re so pretty” repeatedly and we begin to think that beauty is the only thing about us that is worthy. We may stop participating in any extracurricular activities because somewhere along the line we started believing that we weren’t good enough. If we aren’t perfect, we just quit. We focus on getting good grades and being thin because those are the easiest aspects of our lives to control.
When we are 13 or 14 years old, around puberty, we start hiding our bodies under oversized clothing and coats.
We think that our maturing bodies are not attractive. They don’t look like the bodies of the women we see in magazines, on TV, and on social media. Maybe we grow too tall, or we stay too short. People make derogatory or surprised comments about our bodies, forever reminding us that we don’t fit the ideal. So, we begin to diet. If we are tall, we don’t want to also be thought of as big. If we are short, we believe that we have to eat less and less so no one will think of us as dumpy. Some of us have parents who are dieters and so following the newest diet trend becomes a requirement. Others of us just start dieting on our own. We soon discover that no matter what diet we try, the weight always comes back on. Feeling like failures, we begin a vicious cycle of starving ourselves for a few days, and then gorging ourselves in such a short time period that we feel like we are out of control. After eating, we may make ourselves vomit. We may take laxatives. We are desperate to fit society's ideal and to maintain our worthiness, which, for us, is highly tied to our physical attractiveness. After a while, we realize that while we are binging, and for a while thereafter, our feelings are muted. We learn to eat when we start to feel something and grow scared to feel anything at all. Others of us realize that if we are thinking about food all the time due to starvation, then we don’t have to feel our feelings. We learn to hide from ourselves and focus on trying to meet the ideal. We believe that if we can just do this, that, or the other, then we will be who we should be, who we’re supposed to be. We lose sight of who we really are and feel like the number on the scale is the only thing about us that matters.
Life is too hard, and we are able to use our disordered eating as armor.
Sometimes we realize we are harming our bodies and our minds by taking these drastic measures, and sometimes not. If bad things happen, we just eat and eat, and the feelings go away, if even just momentarily. If things get stressful, we will starve ourselves because at least THAT we can control. There is power in not eating. A power that helps wipe out all other emotions. But we are flat, like a shell of a person, unable to fully express ourselves.
Like so many other women and teens, I also have been caught in the trap of restricting food to lose weight. Thirty percent of all dieters transition into patterns of disordered eating and 25% of people who start diets eventually meet criteria for a clinical diagnosis of an eating disorder.
With weight loss comes a sense of control and an ability to hide from emotions. Your body directs all of its energy into thinking about food and physical survival, shielding you from negative (and positive) emotions. Your emotional development, and sometimes even your cognitive, is put on hold. Why do we want to numb ourselves?
America prides itself on celebrating individualism, yet children, teens, and adults, continue to be bullied because of their differences. Being bullied, especially to the sensitive person, can have long-lasting detrimental effects.
I have been 5’11” since the 10th grade. I was not just made fun of by the “mean girls” in middle and high school, adults even often made borderline derogatory statements about my height. I often heard surprised comments like “You’re so tall!” from an adult who would be standing there with their eyes wide open staring at me like I was a freak. For everyone, hearing people point out your glaring differences on an almost daily basis, is not easy to manage when you’re a teen. All you want to do is “fit in”, which is a developmentally appropriate need. You might not think that 5’11” is super tall, but I am from a small rural area. I was always the tallest in my class. I was passively discouraged to do activities that I liked, like dance and cheer, because of my height. I never found the sense of belonging that we all want to feel, especially while in high school. I was too scared of being made fun of to try to approach people and make friends. Most of the relationships I did form, were very superficial. My junior year in high school I enrolled in a boarding school and this was a very stressful experience for me. Around that time, I discovered that people would praise my appearance when I lost weight, instead of negatively reacting to my height. I continued to lose weight. Additionally, being thin and obsessively being able to control my food intake gave me a sense of pride that I had never known before. I relied on being skinny as a coping mechanism. If something occurred in my life that actually did spark a negative emotion, I thought to myself “at least I’m skinny.” My sensitive nature was tamed to almost nothingness by the eating disorder. I retreated further and further into myself, becoming less and less vulnerable and so, ironically, reducing even further my chances of making the emotional connections I desired.
The adaptation of an eating disorder initially helps women survive their extreme emotional pain, but then turns into something that threatens to take away their very lives.
Recovering from an eating disorder is not easy, and there may be setbacks. Over time, I learned that in order to feel joy, I also have to feel dejection. Recovery means being able to open yourself up to others, even if they may not like what you say, what you represent, or what you look like. Taking certain non-destructive measures to protect yourself from the outside world’s constant roar of dieting, fitness, beauty, and thinness is necessary. The potential for relapse is much less if you stop looking at magazines, don’t follow dieting or extreme fitness accounts on social media, and don’t watch commercials. (Thank goodness for Netflix!) Most importantly, never EVER get on a scale. To stay healthy, you have to find the courage to listen to your own body, not care what anyone else thinks, and show the world who you really are without fear. Some people won’t like you, that’s almost guaranteed. But, you will be much more comfortable in your own skin, and you will, eventually, find your tribe.
Women and teens whose bodies recover from eating disorders but whose minds do not, often experience episodes of detrimental behaviors, that may, or may not, have anything at all to do with food.
I cannot emphasize enough that full recovery is only possible once you can make sense of the eating disorder and discover the role that the harmful, but effective, coping mechanism plays in your life. If you can’t get to the bottom of the issue, there is a very strong likelihood that you will naturally continue to use harmful coping mechanisms. Professional support is often needed so that you can first learn healthy coping mechanisms, and then understand the root of the disorder and begin the healing process.
There are a few different ways to approach eating disorder treatment.
One of those, Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy (RO-DBT) is based on 20 years of research and can be used to help women and teens who are stuck in a pattern of extreme emotional restraint. RO-DBT is especially helpful for women and teens who follow restrictive eating patterns. Women with bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder may benefit more from a different evidenced based treatment, such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Whatever treatment path you choose to take, I encourage you not to wait, the time is now. The sooner you release yourself from the prison that is an eating disorder, the sooner you can begin living the life of your authentic spirit.