I once worshipped a porcelain god. Throughout the day I bowed down to my god in addictive reverence.
During high school, I secretly grappled with bulimia. On the outside, I was a straight-A student who was always smiling and laughing.
On the inside a demon was taking over, eroding my teeth and gums, leaving my throat raw and transforming me from a happy young woman to someone sad, shameful and scared.
Even as I forced fingers down my throat and watched my sustenance and my health and my faith swirl down, down, down, down, I wondered why I wasn’t stronger. I didn’t have the “better” eating disorder. I wasn’t anorexic. In my twisted mind, I was weak because I was unable to completely deprive myself of food.
I did give anorexia a shot and ate only shards of lettuce for several months. I lost weight – a lot of it. People noticed. (I loved the attention. It gave me a sense of accomplishment when people asked me how much weight I’d dropped.)
Then my parents become aware of my problem. “You’re too thin, Katie. Please eat,” my mom begged.
Never one to disappoint my parents, I answered my mother’s plea. I started eating again. Food tasted so good, but when I saw that little red line on the scale climbing, I panicked. I felt out of control. When I was losing weight, the scale was my cheerleader, applauding me for being “strong.” Now suddenly it reared its ugly head, revealing its superego. It was screaming at me, berating me for letting myself go. The barometer of my self-worth was betraying me.
Then I read about a girl who suffered from bulimia and how easy it was to purge herself of the demons that haunted her. Extra calories. Fat. She would gorge on cream-filled donuts, greasy pizza and cookies, only to regurgitate the meal and watch it disappear down the toilet. This unknown woman became my mentor.
I was never gluttonous. No eating frenzies for me. I only used bulimia as a way to hide my eating disorder. My parents wanted me to eat, and so I did. But I couldn’t stand the feeling of food swimming in my stomach. I had to get it out. I had to purge myself and stay thin.
Interestingly enough, today I’d probably be diagnosed with purging disorder, a new eating disorder doctors are beginning to recognize that’s characterized by women of normal or thin weight who purge themselves after eating even small amounts of food by vomiting, taking laxatives or some other purging method.
But back then I was given another label – bulimia nervosa. I was told I had a “full-blown eating disorder” when I finally sought counseling in college. Because I met the puking quota – I had self-induced vomiting more than two times a week for longer than three months – I was seen as someone who needed help.
Amazingly, (I credit my parents’ support and my Catholic faith) I recovered fairly quickly. Although an eating disorder is an obstinate companion that never completely goes away. I still have days when I’m too consumed by my weight. I constantly have to fight impulses to engage in unhealthy behavior – whether it’s fasting or throwing up after eating two cookies – but I have come a long way from those dark days when I worshipped a god that did nothing but hurt me.
In some ways, I was fortunate; I was classified as an “eating disordered patient.” People were trained and available to help me.
Other women aren’t so lucky.
A friend once tearfully recounted an experience she had while trying to seek treatment.
“I wasn’t dangerously thin,” she told me after she learned I had struggled with an eating disorder, “but thoughts of food and diet were controlling my life. I wanted help, but I was terrified the therapists would laugh at me and tell me I wasn’t thin enough to have an eating disorder.”
She said she role-played her counseling session over and over in her mind:
“Do you starve yourself?”
“Do you binge and purge?”
“Have you lost more than 15 percent of your body weight?”
“Well, no but…”
“I’m sorry, but we can’t help you. You’re not skinny enough.”
Her premonition wasn’t too far off: She took a slew of psychological tests, briefly talked to a therapist and was then told she was not sick enough to get help. I wasn’t surprised. Insurance often won’t cover therapy for patients who don’t meet certain requirements the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (psychiatry’s bible) outlines for eating disorders.
One in five women is purported to have a clinically diagnosed eating disorder. They’re the ones everyone wants to help. But what about the millions of women who feel like failures because they eat bread (and other “bad” carbs) and aren’t Auschwitz-thin? Or all the prepubescent girls who are on a diet right now? What about the college student who lives off beer, cigarettes and laxatives interspersed with an occasional meal? Are they not sick as well?
We’re all in denial if we think any woman who is preoccupied with diet, fitness or whether or not her thighs touch needs doesn’t help.
Frankly, I’m tired of the term “eating disorder." Many women will never vomit every day (or ever) or starve themselves to the point of emaciation. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a problem. The obsession with all the media figures who have personal trainers, cooks and their share of eating problems is taking its toll most women. It’s rare to find a woman who loves her body (all the time, not just when she’s on a diet), unless perhaps she’s sucked out the fat, tucked the tummy and taken a knife to her breasts to boost her cup size. (Research suggests that media idealize a female body that only one percent of woman can hope to biologically attain.)
It’s time all women – mothers, sisters, grandmothers, wives, girlfriends – take it upon themselves to stop the self-loathing and the “lookism” permeating in our culture. It’s time we remember we are made in the image of God and that our bodies truly are temples that deserve our respect. It’s time we help our children develop positive body images and not support media that perpetuate unhealthy and unnatural bodies. What’s important is being healthy and knowing our worth is much deeper than our dress size.
As a woman who once was at war with her body, trust me on this one. A fixation with weight only robs you of your inner peace and health. And even when the scale is cheering you on to lose more weight - it is only a hollow, ephemeral espousal that knows nothing of true happiness.
More from health