She counts calories like it’s her job. Her spine eerily protrudes from her back as she pinches her skin in the mirror. She drowns in her sweaters and jeans. Her entire life flashes before her eyes as she walks down a hall and faints from starvation. She has a rock-hard support system of friends who tell her she is beautiful, but she can’t realize it for herself. Then—after a near death experience or similar “Come to Jesus” moment—she miraculously sees she’s gone too far and is stronger than this disease. All is well! End of story. Side note: she’s always white.
This is the girl I saw in Netflix’s To the Bone, but could well be the description of any number of other disordered girls on TV. I’ve seen this girl in Center Stage’s Maureen and in Cassie Ainsworth from Skins. I’ve seen it as a side plot for an episode or two and then have it get solved with one “deep” conversation (think: Miranda from Lizzie McGuire or Blaire from Gossip Girl). In the case of To the Bone, this girl is 20-year-old Ellen, and her savior is a doctor played by Keanu Reeves who exclaims, “I’m not going to treat you if you’re not interested in living.” Thanks, Keanu. Beyond demonstrating the fact that eating disorders do exist, these TV shows and films don’t do much to capture how disordered eating manifests differently between individuals. And while I would hope many of these films are attempting to bring disordered eating to light, I often watch them all and can’t help but think: “Why doesn’t my eating disorder look like that?”
AND WHILE I WOULD HOPE MANY OF THESE FILMS ARE ATTEMPTING TO BRING DISORDERED EATING TO LIGHT, I OFTEN WATCH THEM ALL AND CAN’T HELP BUT THINK: 'WHY DOESN’T MY EATING DISORDER LOOK LIKE THAT?'
On the one hand, I do look like the women on screen. I am white and thin, by societal standards, but when I watch these women drown in their sweaters, faint in the hallway, or refuse a piece of chocolate, I feel like a fraud. I’ve always felt like a really shitty anorexic, as if my body did not bear my suffering in the “right” way. Even at the height of my anorexia, I wasn’t great at it. I was too thin, but never to the point of skeletal; I could never shed those five extra pounds because I liked my late night bowls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch too much. I never fainted during a choir concert, and I didn’t exercise 5 times a day: only once. I guess I was a pain in the ass because of my low blood sugar, but I never alienated all my friends. I also never took up smoking cigarettes to curb my appetite, as I always thought they were gross. I was such a B-student at Anorexia that when my doctor told me I had to stop running cross country because I had lost my period, my coach didn’t believe me. In fact, he said I looked “good.”
It wasn’t until I really committed myself to “Being Anorexic” that people began to notice. I had engaged in restrictive and disordered eating since the age of 13, but my eating disorder reached its height when I was 16 and involved in an abusive relationship. This dude was a shitty, little asshole who knew I desperately sought his attention and used this to play with me in whatever which way he liked. It all came to a head when he pressured me to have sex with him one night in his basement and broke up with me the next week. I wish I could tell you that after that night I didn’t talk to him again, but I did. And I lied to my friends about it. I felt completely out of control as my newly mature and sexualized-self betrayed me. I longed for the days when I was flat-chested and brace-faced, safe in my prepubescent-self.
So I began to restrict more and more and more. It wasn’t until I incorporated the diet pills, and the long post-meal trips to the bathroom, and the cuts on my wrists, that people began to take things seriously. Even then, when my mom took me to the local eating disorder treatment center to be evaluated, the doctor told me that my condition wasn’t “severe enough” for inpatient treatment. I’ve been told that a BMI of 17.5 or less is the primary requirement for intensive treatment for anorexia. Below 17.5 is when physical death starts to occur: heart failure, hair loss, etc. I was at 18. I became obsessed with this number. This “17.5 or less” incentivized my weight loss. It became my measure of disease, of my suffering. But even when I reached that coveted “17.5,” I still didn’t look diseased enough. I never got admitted to the treatment center.
WE ARE CODIFYING WHO IS SICK AND WHO IS NOT IN SUCH A WAY THAT WE ARE CREATING HIERARCHIES OF THOSE WHO SUFFER, WITH THE THINNEST WHITE WOMEN AT THE VERY TOP. AS A RESULT, MANY INDIVIDUALS HAVE BEEN ERASED FROM THE NARRATIVE OF DISORDERED EATING.
The truth is, the more people I talk to who experience disordered eating, the more I realize that many individuals don’t exist in the realm of “17.5 or less,” even more so than me. Some exist far above or somewhere in-between, but their pain remains invisible because they don’t look the way an eating disorder looks: like an Ophelia. Or a Blaire. We are codifying who is sick and who is not in such a way that we are creating hierarchies of those who suffer, with the thinnest white women at the very top. As a result, many individuals have been erased from the narrative of disordered eating. Eating disorders span across racial, gender, and class lines; however, it was only until recently that we began to examine other communities. The Minnesota Adolescent Health Study recently found that dieting was associated with low body pride in all ethnic groups. Similarly, a recent survey of 6,504 adolescents suggested that Asian, Caucasian, Black, and Hispanic teens are trying to lose weight at similar rates (NEDA). The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders also reported that 16% of trans youth experience disordered eating and that queer individuals are more likely to develop disordered eating than their straight counterparts. It is clear that disordered eating lives in many bodies and occupies them in different ways, but we have not yet made room for the wide range of experiences and behaviors in the diagnostic framework.
So, what would be revealed if we did include these other experiences? The most obvious answer: disordered eating is much more widespread than we initially thought. Could it be so widespread that it transcends the category of disease into that of social norm? Has it been beneficial to keep disordered eating within this rigid diagnostic framework as a way of obscuring just how many people are suffering? After all, most of those who suffer from disordered eating—women, LGBTQ, ethnic minorities—are disenfranchised groups who are often subject to violence against their bodies. The problem here is twofold. Those who do meet diagnostic criteria are labeled diseased, and their minds are blamed for their suffering, and those whose suffering is not medically diagnosed remain hidden in the darkness. Either way, our culture never has to take responsibility for its violence and sickness.
DIFFERENT BODIES ARE TARGETED IN DIFFERENT WAYS, BUT NONETHELESS, THEY ARE ALL BEING TARGETED FOR BEING TOO MUCH OR TOO CONFUSING OR FOR JUST EXISTING IN THE FIRST PLACE.
The violence that supports disordered eating exists on many levels, and we see how disordered eating has become a normalized behavior in the ways body monitoring and food restriction has been woven into our cultural language. The most obvious is how disordered eating is reinforced at an industry-level. We see it in the success of the dieting industry. In 2013, U.S. News and World Report declared the weight loss industry as a $60-billion-dollar industry. That means that keeping people anxious about losing weight is worth $60 billion dollars! Talk about financial incentive. As I scroll through my Instagram or Facebook feeds, I am constantly fed the new juice cleanse or “Tight-Booty Workout.” We also see it in the fat shaming that is ever present in our culture, on television shows like “The Biggest Loser” or those promotions of gastric bypass surgery as a last-ditch effort for weight loss (read: Roxanne Gay’s Hunger for more about this). The fashion and entertainment industries also feed into this culture of body-shaming. I will never forget the day I auditioned for a commercial and was told: “We like your look, but are looking for someone leaner.”
Beyond the industry level, violence against bodies happens on an interpersonal level. Situations, like I had with my abusive ex, have become normalized, and I know this because I am one of many who shares this experience. We also continuously hear stories of a trans individual being interrogated about their genitalia when using their bathroom of choice or a black woman being told to conform to the beauty standards of a white body. After coming out as queer, I thought I might escape the heterosexist pressures of thinness, but I still feel the need to appear thin and boyish in order to be seen as attractive in the community. Different bodies are targeted in different ways, but nonetheless, they are all being targeted for being too much or too confusing or for just existing in the first place.
I LEARNED LOVE, COMPASSION, AND HOW TO RIDE MY BIKE FROM MY MOTHER, BUT I ALSO LEARNED HOW TO CRITICIZE THE FAT ON MY STOMACH AND HOW IMPORTANT IT WAS TO BE IDENTIFIED AS 'THIN' BEFORE 'SMART' OR 'KIND'.
This violence also translates inter-generationally, particularly between women. I learned love, compassion, and how to ride my bike from my mother, but I also learned how to criticize the fat on my stomach and how important it was to be identified as “thin” before “smart” or “kind.” These learned attitudes translated to lunchtime at school with my girlfriends, all of us participating in rigid portion control and closely eyeing each other’s eating habits. We were all products of our mothers and our mothers’ mothers and their mother’s mother’s mother.
Incorporating all these experiences of the body into myself, I constantly struggle between a place of wanting to be thin to be attractive and wanting to be thin so that I lose my desirability and don’t have to deal with any of this shit. I see my disordered eating as a form of punishment—a punishment of myself, but also of all things telling me my body is not good or worthy. For me, it’s so much more than wanting to be thin: it’s how I harbor my pain. This is how disordered eating has been normalized within me, but these pressures and the abuse exists everywhere and manifests differently in each individual. Yet, somehow, we are still trying to prescribe a uniform set of symptoms to something that is extremely nuanced and widespread. In doing so, we keep the disordered eating as the problem at hand and exclude so many stories. But, what if we began seeing disordered eating as a response to a problem instead of the problem itself? The problem here, broadly, being patriarchal violence against bodies. How would treatment of disordered eating change? Would we finally get the chance to see someone different than the manic pixie dream girl drowning in her sweaters portrayed on screen?
IT WAS REALIZING THAT I DO NOT NEED TO PROCESS THE EMOTIONS OF EVERYONE AROUND ME, FOR I AM ONLY RESPONSIBLE FOR MYSELF. IT’S MY TEACHERS WHO TAUGHT ME THAT LOVING MYSELF COULD BE A FORM OF RADICAL RESISTANCE AGAINST ALL THE VIOLENCE I HAD BEEN SUBJECT TO.
When I think about my road to recovery, I realize it’s not the medical treatment plans that made me heal. Sure, the weight gain regimens helped me physically survive, but they did not heal me psychically. What healed me and continues to do so, are the people and the experiences that help me realize I will not die if I am expansive. It is the individuals who love me without boundaries that force me to question everything I once knew to be true. It was the moment of exploring myself on stage and having that mode of expression. It was falling in love with a woman for the first time. It was being told that it was okay to feel angry towards my male partners who called me “crazy.” It was finding those men who did not leave me when I wanted to leave. It was realizing that I do not need to process the emotions of everyone around me, for I am only responsible for myself. It’s my teachers who taught me that loving myself could be a form of radical resistance against all the violence I had been subject to.
WE NEED TO REINTERPRET WHAT EXACTLY “SURVIVAL” MEANS. IT DOESN’T JUST MEAN A BEATING HEART AND BREATHING LUNGS, BUT LIVING AS ONE’S WHOLE, EXPANSIVE SELF WITHOUT FEELING UNSAFE.
With everyone’s experience of disordered eating being so different, I recognize, too, that everyone’s recovery will also vary; however, I think what could possibly be universal is this idea of loving one’s self as an act of radical resistance. When treating disordered eating, we need to shift away from simply assuring someone can physically live through weight gain regimens, medication, etc. and towards incorporating how they want to live. We need to reinterpret what exactly “survival” means. It doesn’t just mean a beating heart and breathing lungs, but living as one’s whole, expansive self without feeling unsafe. I think if we begin to rework our understanding and treatment of disordered eating in this way, we will create more sustainable recovery plans and begin to include more stories. But, perhaps, most importantly, we also need to recognize this shift can’t just happen on an individual level but must happen on a societal level as well. I think the first step in this very important shift is telling different stories—the stories of those whose suffering you can’t tell just by looking at them.
The biggest thing I’ve come to realize in my recovery from my eating disorder is that healing is not linear. I often talk to my friends about my eating disorder in the past tense, as something that once was, but in many ways, it is still very present. One day, I can feel invincible and sure of the woman I am, and in the next, I will feel so guilty for eating a whole sandwich that it will consume my whole day. It’s moments like these that I realize the goal is not to get from A to B, from broken to healed, but instead to find how I want to live in active opposition to all the things that do make me feel broken. I don’t want to simply survive: I want to flourish. I want to search for the ways I feel the fullest without feeling like I’m going to die in the process.