Warning: This story contains graphic content about eating disorders and their effects that may disturb some readers.
In November 2016, I was newly diagnosed with an eating disorder and looking for advice.
The bookstore’s nutrition section displayed a colourful assortment of diet books. They featured young and thin women on the covers. They also promised weight loss in 30 days and happiness forever. But I wasn’t there for that.
I was there for the small stack of books near the bottom labelled “Eating Disorders.” I read 10 pages of one that promised to restore my relationship with eating. But it was vague. Shocked, I realized the book was actually focused on binge-eating disorders.
That book may have harmed me more than it helped. But there were no books about anorexia recovery and I left empty handed.
It made me feel invisible.
The invisible people
People don’t talk about eating disorders and that’s a problem.
I hid myself in baggy sweaters from everyone except my parents for two years. I had become a shadow of my former self. More than 20 lbs had vanished from my body.
I never knew another person who was like me during those two years. We all hid. And nobody else noticed us either.
When I started becoming more vocal about my experiences, the stories of other people who had also grappled with an eating disorder or struggled with their relationship with food materialized.
But we suffer in silence. In fact, when researchers followed 496 teen girls for eight years until they were 20, they found more than five per cent of the girls met the criteria for anorexia, bulimia or a binge eating disorder. Males represent 25 per cent of anorexic people. One in every 200 men will develop bulimia. Between 35 and 57 per cent of teen girls engage in crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills or laxatives to lose weight.
Most disconcertingly, anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.
We think about food a lot.
What campus would be complete without chronic complaining about residence meals causing weight gain? In my first weeks of university, I would listen to people make sardonic jokes about their stomach rolls almost every day. Then they would ask the table if they should get a second dessert.
We are bombarded with information on food like a cafeteria food fight. We obsess about our bodies and what we put into them. I’m already sick of reading all the articles and listening to broadcasts about Canada’s new food guide. Chapters has diet books lining the front of their store.
I see ads about crave-killing lollipops while scrolling down Instagram. I see my Facebook friends advertising butter coffee. They say it helps you lose weight and skip breakfast. I unfollowed them.
At holiday gatherings, families compliment those who lost weight. People who have gained weight are told, “Are you sure you should be eating that?” when they pick up a cookie.
I’m glad my family has never uttered a word about my pant size. I only wish that was the case for all families.
When I visit Moncton’s mall, I pass by Victoria Secret. Pictures of models cover the store. They mock me with their flat, toned stomachs. I had achieved their size once in my life. It was during the struggle with my eating disorder.
I didn’t realize I had an eating disorder until I looked up anorexia online and found a list of symptoms. I fit into almost every category far better than I fit into my clothes. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t sleep. I lost my period. I developed rigid food rituals. I realized I obsessed about food and I knew it was unhealthy. But today’s diet-obsessed culture had assured me it wasn’t. They told me I was perfect and strong.
Things need to change.
All I remember about health class was Canada’s rainbow food guide plastered on the projector screen and some facts about STDs. Eating disorders weren’t mentioned.
When I realized I had an eating disorder, no services existed in New Brunswick other than expensive therapists. There are no eating disorder clinics in New Brunswick.
Sometimes, I felt like I was suffering from something that didn’t exist.
One September morning in 2016, I decided to follow an exercise routine and become as fit as the women on fitness Instagram accounts. Two months later I had achieved that goal. But I had acquired an eating disorder.
In part, recovery was difficult because I saw influencers who looked the same as me. Or at least how I perceived myself to be. They said they were great, strong and healthy. So I told myself the same thing.
It took two years of dietician appointments for me to realize everyone’s appetite is different. It took two years to learn to eat when I was hungry.
At this point I want to be left alone by that incessant media fitness narrative. I just want to go to the gym every once in awhile. I don’t want to violently change my body. Been there. Done that.
I dream of a future where we don’t worry about food constantly. There are more important things in life.
It won’t be easy.
I remember one of my first conversations with my dietician. She said to overcome an eating disorder, I had to let go. It was simple advice. But it seemed complicated to a person who had learned that was a synonym for failure.
But letting go is the key. We need to let go of diets and weight loss, of our unhealthy obsession with health. And in doing so, we can let go of the added stress and neurosis that comes with it.
Our bodies are beautiful no matter what size and we need to stop shaming people for fueling themselves.
Food should be simple. And letting go of food, our bad relationship with it, is the first step toward living a more fulfilling life.
For more information on eating disorder support visitnationaleatingdisorders.org or nedic.ca.
This is part two of a two-part series focusing on eating disorders by Caitlin Dutt. The first part appeared in the Jan. 15 edition of The Aquinian.