I’m a very slender woman but not an anorexic. I was once anorexic but am not any longer. Yesterday as I was looking through a rack of dresses for an admittedly very small size a woman said to me with no small amount of disgust that perhaps they had none left in size zero. I may wear a SIZE zero, and very often a two, but I am not a zero, and there is a distinct difference. I had the good sense to realize that the acrimony that the woman was projecting was not about me but was about her feelings (lack) of self-worth, so I said nothing and smiled as graciously as I could. What she said did get me thinking, though, because of my past.
She may have resented my size, but little did she know that as much as she resented it I had once resented it, ruminated over it, and gotten down to 81 pounds. If the mentally and physically woman standing in front of her looked rather small, such a notion would strike her as sheer lunacy, but would she think that I asked for it or that I did it to myself? Have you ever thought such things about those struggling with an ED? You know, if you have I am not that surprised or even that upset. Eating disorders are multi-faceted mental disorders which are extremely hard to understand, very difficult to live with and also quite difficult to treat. Please allow me to try to explain a few things about why we should not treat them in a cavalier manner. I feel that I am particularly well-equipped to do so because no one was more surprised than I was when I myself struggled with an ED in undergraduate school. I was a well-adjusted girl throughout my life, was never marginalized by my peers of either gender nor did I ever struggle with self esteem and I was a gender studies’ minor, for pity’s sake. Nevertheless, like most mental disorders anorexia is not discriminatory when taking its victims and within a span of six months I had weakened mentally and physically in a manner that can only be described as alarming. I did not see it coming, nor did I recognize it as it was happening. When asked about it I denied it was happening not because I intended to mislead anyone or be deceptive with my behavior but because the things being said to me were nonsensical and sounded preposterous.
That’s the thing about eating disorders, and about anorexia especially. Unless you know someone that has struggled with it it makes little sense. I did struggle with it, and still much of it makes no sense. Too often the disparity between what is and what the anorexic or bulimic perceives causes other people to think that an ED is nothing more than a cry for help or an exercise in vanity when nothing is further from the truth.
It is disordered and frenzied, all-consuming thinking. There were so many other things I would rather have been doing, would rather have been spending my time, focus, talents and energy on than that but as someone who can become hyperfocused and vigilant it was especially worrisome and tiring for me to exert all of my energy onto something to destructive. Unfortunately, I am far from alone in such a self-destructive disordered way of thinking.
It is estimated that 8 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder (7 million women and 1 million men) with that number on the rise. The age at which eating disorders are manifesting is shockingly low, with it appearing in children as young as five in America and Australia. Nearly half of all Americans know personally an individual who is presently suffering with an eating disorder. Furthermore, EDs have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, with 5-10% of anorexics dying within 10 years of contracting the disease, 18-20% dying within 20 years of contracting the disease and between 35-40% never recovering.
This is no trivial matter. I am hyper-vigilant about some things in order to, as best I can, stave off any kind of relapse. Were you to find yourself in my closet you would notice that there are no labels in most of my clothes but absolutely none in my pants. As most women do, I have a bit of a range in sizes but I don’t freak out about numbers and will not allow myself to be in a situation where a 2 doesn’t fit, therefore ruining my day. If a pair doesn’t fit, I don’t know what size it is but I do know there are 20 other pairs right there. Onward.
Likewise, I have no scale. Sometimes I am rudely asked (in a tone quite like I was spoken to today) how much I weigh. I pay attention to these things, and realize that I must be looking more gaunt than thin, and try to up my ice cream intake. My goal is not to look thin but to be healthy. However, having a scale in my house would not be a good thing for me. I do not look at the scale when I am weighed at the doctor, either. My GP would like for me to weigh about 10 more pounds than I do now, at least. Upon leaving his office the last time I had a cheesecake milkshake. I do my best. I eat when I am hungry. I do not eat when I am not hungry because to do so would be to make food the enemy, again.
I tell you all of this because even as someone who is 98% recovered from her eating disorder (think of me as an alcoholic who has not had a drink in 8 years – I am as sober as sober gets, but you will always be in the process of recovery) I perceive from the media and from other people daily how with EDs and with anorexics especially how the perception is that we CHOSE this; that it isn’t really a problem. Stop blaming the victim. No one would choose this. No one.
Recent research has shown that there may be some genetic predictors for those with eating disorders. I have been watching this area of research for the past 9 months, and find it particularly exciting. I hope it stops the attitude of “they did it to themselves” that is as pervasive as it is ignorant. I am also keeping a close eye on it because I am fearful that the media and the beauty/modeling industry will be brazen enough to point to these findings and say they are not (even partly) to blame.