It was my 24th birthday, and I had just binged on disgusting squash pancakes, and eaten half of the Tupperware of icing-free, sugarless almond flour cupcakes (that nobody would eat except me). I felt sick, miserable, and had just binged, again. Wasn’t this diet supposed to heal cravings? That’s what it promised!! (Pro-tip: Diets don’t heal cravings.)
I spent ten formative adult years of my life, ages 14–24, believing that being skinny was the most important thing I could do as a woman and member of society. And like most people with eating disorders, I really, truly believed that losing weight and keeping it off was the most responsible and healthy endeavor I could undertake, and that I was a waste of space when I had extra weight on me (which was always — it was never enough). And this was my religion.
I had the sort of eating disorder where you couldn’t put your finger on whether I had one or not. I wasn’t emaciated. I never had to go to the hospital. You could have categorized me under “health nut.” That was certainly the way I described it.
“No, no, I just want to eat healthy foods. I … love sprouts. Do you know that (insert any food) is basically the worst thing you can eat? Yeah …”
But underneath it all, I was a wreck. I couldn’t sit down in the middle of the day without kicking myself for not exercising. Any drop of an ingredient that deviated from the strict alternative healthy diet I was on at the time (think paleo, raw veganism, etc.) sent me into a panicked tailspin. Restaurant eating was a joy. Not.
And all while this was happening, I had no idea. I thought it was just life. My own personal health and weight plight. I just believed I was just someone who was addicted to food, whose weight would always fluctuate, and that this was just my personal burden to bear.
I wished I could be like my friends who could eat whatever they wanted and be healthy, but I believed it just wasn’t in the cards for me. Plus, I was too busy judging their poor food choices.
This damn image-based society makes it really easy to equate your worth to weight and your weight to beauty, while in reality all three are completely separate entities. This society villainizes fat people and makes it seem like weight and eating are moral issues. They are not.
It’s also really easy to have a “socially acceptable” eating disorder disguised as healthy or “clean” eating. But when clean eating becomes a food purity obsession, it has become an eating disorder called orthorexia nervosa. It is really common to have orthorexia and have no idea you have an eating disorder at all. Because everywhere you turn, there are people and companies spewing diet facts to bolster your conviction that eating pure, healthy food, and maintaining a svelte, fit body are two of the most important and morally superior things you can do in your lifetime. Orthorexia often exists alongside many other disordered eating tendencies, and normally is accompanied by a weight obsession. Because “being fat is bad,” right?
No. Weight is not a moral issue.
This society is trying to battle obesity and anorexia at the same time, without recognizing and honoring how painfully connected they are. We are pumping out processed food, but also warning people of the dangers of not “eating clean,” and judging people who don’t live their lives in constant fear.
Your weight has absolutely nothing to do with how good or successful of a person you are. None of us are more or less worthy because of what we weigh, just like we are not less worthy because of any other life or body situation. People’s weights are their own business. And contrary to popular belief, you cannot tell a person’s health or habits by their weight.
And even if you could? That unhealthy person deserves your respect. Just like the short, the tall, the cis, the trans*, the person with disabilities, the person with special-needs, the feminine, the masculine, the skinny, the sick, the smoker, the addict, the introvert, the extrovert … Everyone deserves respect. Everyone is allowed to have self-respect. In fact, perpetuating the belief that self-respect is earned is the thing that feeds the vicious guilt / repent diet cycle. You will not be good enough once you improve. You are good enough now.
How I Healed
I had that epiphany on my 24th birthday, while stuffed with squash pancakes. My birthday epiphany was the dramatic kind that you see in movies. I had a moment looking at myself in the bathroom mirror, and said out loud to myself: “What are you DOING?! Caroline, you have to stop. You need to stop dieting. Forever.”
I had actually tried to stop dieting a few times before. I went down the Geneen Roth-y intuitive eating path. Geneen Roth is an intuitive eating writer, and though I like a lot of what she says, she has these eating guidelines that are all about very carefully listening to your body’s cues, and eating very slowly only when you are hungry. Listening to your body, conceptually, is great. I support listening to your body’s needs and intuition 100%.
But you know what I did with those guidelines? Like so many others, I made them a diet. It was all about eating the smallest amount possible. I was so stressed about eating too quickly. And any eating above what I “needed” was deemed “emotional eating” and should be banished and cured by taking a bath or spritzing perfume or dancing around in a nightgown to classical music in candlelight. Or whatever else adorable, sensual women do to take care of themselves instead of eating food.
My opinion? That fearful version of intuitive eating is bullshit and doesn’t work, because it perpetuates the fear of “eating more than you need.” It is a diet. People with eating disorders don’t need another reason to fear nourishing themselves with actual food. I strongly believe that the less you fear food or overeating, the more easily and naturally you will be able to listen to your body.
These five tips can help further the process of healing from an eating disorder and body image issues. Because after that birthday epiphany, I did it, on my own. And I did it without baths or candles or perfume.
1. STOP restricting
As long as there is a diet looming in your future, your eating can’t fully normalize. Bingeing is a reaction to real or perceived restriction (meaning physical and mental restriction), so bingeing will never fully go away unless you can prove to your body and mind that you are not going to restrict anymore. Not just this week, but forever. It is physically and mentally restricting that heightens a fixation on food.
So neutralize food and neutralize eating. How do you do that? Start eating. None of this “smallest amount possible” shit. Seriously, you deserve food, and we need it to heal our metabolism. We need food. We need carbs. We need fat. We need those excess calories to heal our metabolism.
Remember, if you have ever been stressed by the idea of “intuitive eating” before, there is no such thing as a “perfect eating stopping point.” Meaning you will always stop eating on a spectrum. Sometimes you’ll still be a little hungry, sometimes you’ll feel very full, and everywhere in between. There is no perfect way to eat, and no perfect satiation point to stop at. Just focus on what feels good and nourishing for you.
2. Trust that your body and appetite WILL normalize
If you stop restricting, and keep feeding yourself with love and compassion and understanding, it will eventually normalize. It may feel out of control in the beginning, but that is just in response to restriction and is a normal, necessary phase. You are not a lost cause; it is simply a biological reaction to restriction. Your body just needs to know it is not in crisis anymore, there is no famine, and there is ample food coming in. Once you give this to yourself consistently, your appetite and weight will begin to normalize.
It can be easy to eat and nourish ourselves once we are not in a guilt / repent cycle. Eating can be easy. We just need to get back there. So make a pact to get on the same side as your body. Your body is not broken, and it can guide you back.
Note: If you have a restrictive eating disorder that feels out of control, please seek support and medical attention. Your appetite will still be able to normalize in time after recovery, but extra structure will be needed in the beginning to make sure you are getting enough food safely.
3. Get defiant
The idea that your feelings of worth could hang on how thin you are is BULLSHIT. You are an amazing beacon of human light and warmth, and fuck everything else. Look up body-positive Pinterest boards. Read fat activist blogs and books. Read the book Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon. Stop reading gossip sites and magazines. Own your worth.
Start seeing your weight as beautiful, defiant, powerful, and a worthy part of your human life force. Fuck all the rest. Buy bigger clothes. (You aren’t too big; your clothes are just too small. I am not even close to kidding.)
Start using your unique voice. Stop stifling yourself. Stop waiting to be thin. Stop waiting to be better before you reach your goal weight. It is never gonna happen that way. Your life starts NOW. This is the crazy, exciting paradox. All the things you thought you had to wait on weight for, you can do those now.
I know this may sound unrelated and pointless, but this is creative, expressive, emotional therapy. Getting in touch with your own voice, emotions, fears, beliefs, and inner world is a really important part of recovering from eating and self-esteem struggles, and writing is a great way to start getting in touch.
I used to be really resistant to journaling. I would roll my eyes and think it was dumb, but it isn’t dumb. Journaling, or “Morning Pages” as the book The Artist’s Way calls them, is like free therapy you can give yourself every day, any time, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. (I also recommend the book The Artist’s Way, as creative recovery / therapy is intensely healing for many people to unlock buried dreams and your stifled voice.)
5. Know that it takes time
It just does. You have to prove to both your body and your mind that you are truly over the diets, the restricting, and the shaming. Prove it through actions. Prove it through eating. Prove it through rest. Prove it through compassion for yourself and others.
And speaking of … Add a heaping dose of compassion to everything you do and everything you think about yourself and this process. You are not going to heal by hating yourself. That just isn’t how it works.
You can do this. The world is so much better when you actually eat, and know that no matter what, you are worth it.