Eating Disorders are Tough to Fight!

Eating disorders are complex. Unlike conditions that mess with your head but leave your body out of the mix, and those that affect your body but not your mind, EDs involve both your mind and your body. The psychological piece interferes with your ability to adequately nourish your body, and its impact on your body (including your brain) interferes with your ability to think clearly. That makes them tough!

Despite many individual differences, there is one common phenomenon. Almost everyone with an eating disorder is preoccupied with body. Whether or not the disorder began with an excessive focus on shape and weight, if someone has an ED most of his/her emotional life now plays out on the body. Strong emotion and negative experiences (e.g., depression, rejection) “feel fat.”  Stress means she has to lose weight. Boredom means he is too flabby. Focus on the body, hating it, trying to change it, takes the place of effective coping with the real experiences of life.

Eating disorders isolateInstead of taking actions that can manage life’s challenges, all the person’s energy is channeled into behaviors aimed to create a negative energy balance. In other words, the person becomes hyper-focused on eating less and/or exercising more, thus reducing the nutrients available to his/her body. With fewer nutrients, mental clarity suffers and mood goes downhill. Feeling worse, the person increases efforts to control the body and gets locked into an endless cycle of chasing an impossible body ideal and feeling worse and worse.

Eating Disorders Increase as Goals Shrink

Over the past half century, the prevalence of EDs has increased dramatically. One explanation is that we are more open about mental health problems and so people are more comfortable reporting their struggles. Another reason is the emergence of a global culture as we all we all tap into the internet and receive the same messages about what is good, desirable, beautiful. And those ideals have become increasingly out of reach. If you doubt my word about that, consider the changes in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition cover model over the last 50 years. In 1965, she looked like many of your friends might look. 

eating disorders beauty standards
eating disorders beauty standards

By 2020, she was clearly outside the norm.

This trend has not been any kinder to males. Check out the change in Luke Skywalker and Hans Solo from 1978 to the end of the 20th Century. They went from looking like regular guys (with awesome abilities!) to pumped up mega-men. Not surprisingly, eating disorders have been on the rise among males over the past several decades.

eating disorders beauty standards
Luke & Hans have beefed up!

Modern standards of beauty are exceedingly thin for women, bizarrely beefy for men, and insanely perfect (whatever “perfect” means!). We see these images everywhere we turn—screens large and small, billboards, magazines, the sides of busses and buildings. Moreover, we’ve convinced ourselves that if we work hard enough and spend enough money, we can look like these impossible images.

Here’s the problem.

The people in those images are there because they are exceptional. Plus, those pictures are so heavily photoshopped that we are not even seeing the real humans who posed for them! The standards for which we strive, are not based on reality and cannot be achieved! Feeling we are not good enough and have to try harder, makes us an easy target for every diet and exercise fad that comes along.

Which brings us back to what makes eating disorders so hard to beat. The strategies we use to achieve these impossible goals inevitably involve under-nourishing ourselves. When that happens, you lose body tissue, both fat and muscle, and you lose energy and mental clarity. That puts you in a lousy position. You keep working hard, never get anywhere, and feel like a failure but do not have the presence of mind to figure out that the problem is not you. The problem is the impossible goal. Unfortunately, once caught up in this vicious cycle, it becomes terrifying to contemplate breaking out of it. Having bought into the idea that your value hinges on achieving the impossible body, the thought of giving up that goal can feel like a death sentence.

Like I said, eating disorders are tough!

Do You Have an Eating Disorder?

If you feel like you may be flirting with an Eating Disorder, answer these five questions [Screen for Disordered Eating; Maguen et al 2018]

  1. Do you often feel the desire to eat when you are emotionally upset or stressed?
  2. Do you often feel that you can’t control what or how much you eat?
  3. Do you sometimes make yourself throw up (vomit) to control your weight?
  4. Are you often preoccupied with a desire to be thinner?
  5. Do you believe yourself to be fat when other say you are too thin?

If you answered yes to more than one question, please PLEASE! schedule an appointment with a psychotherapist who is eating disorder knowledgeable. You may not have an outright ED but talking to a therapist about what’s going on might just keep you from heading down a one-way, dead-end road that is tough to get off.

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