National Eating Disorders Association

NEDAwareness Week: I Had No Idea

This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. The theme this year is “I had no idea”, drawing attention to the fact that although eating disorders are all around us, they remain private, mysterious, and often invisible. NEDA has a quiz on their website with some pretty surprising facts that dispel some of the myths about EDs and show just how pervasive they’ve become. For instance, did you know that there are more people in the United States with eating disorders than there are with green eyes? Take a look at the quiz and test your knowledge. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable when it comes to EDs, but I didn’t manage to score 100%.

This year’s NEDAW theme raises a question that I find myself thinking about a lot: have disordered eating behaviors become so normal in our society that we’re losing track of what actual normal eating is*? So many of us are trying to conform to a beauty standard that is literally impossible for us to live up to–are we getting so used to the restrictive or other extreme food-related behaviors that seem to go hand-in-hand with chasing this impossible ideal that we no longer even notice them? It’s possible that when we say, “I had no idea”, part of what we mean is “I didn’t think this was disordered, it doesn’t seem unusual to me.” I want to be sure to note here that disordered eating and eating disorders are different things (I’m not using them interchangeably), but since disordered eating might as well be considered a gateway drug, I think it’s valid to discuss them both here.

I go through phases where I feel like there’s no point in continuing to talk about how photoshopped all the pictures we see are, or how nice it would be to see more diversity in body shapes and sizes. I mean, we all know this, right? Every picture has been retouched. We don’t all look like supermodels. And the images we’re exposed to that create this standard aren’t going to change anyway. As for my part, who’s even reading this stuff I write about body image positivity and eating disorders, anyway? What’s the point? There’s nothing I can do that will have a big enough impact to change anything. It’s discouraging to feel like you’re up against something so big and ingrained. But then I see facts like the ones below, and realize that no matter what, we can’t stop talking about these things, we can’t ignore them, and we can’t give up. Calling out the many ways in which our society encourages and rewards disordered eating will never stop being important, and it has to be done. So even though I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: there’s no such thing as a perfect body, every body is just as good as every other one, and most importantly, every body deserves to be loved.

Media Literacyinfographic2_13

*I know the word “normal” often has less-than-neutral connotations when used in a context like this one. It’s definitely not an ideal word, but it’s the best I can come up with. I mean, trying to work out an alternative to “normal” is a post unto itself.

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Dear Women’s Running

I recently came across an article in Women’s Running Magazine on the subject of disordered eating.  The first time I read it, it bothered me.  I decided to sit with it for a while, and see if the feeling would pass.  After a few days, it didn’t.  So I sat down and wrote the following letter to the magazine.  I have yet to receive a response, and I’d really like to hear what the editors or the author have to say.  I hope they’ll take the time to get in touch with me.

***

Dear Women’s Running,

I want to begin by saying that as an avid female runner, I’m a fan of your magazine; for the most part, I think of Women’s Running as a magazine that has positioned itself differently from other fitness-themed magazines targeted to women.  You take female runners of all levels seriously, and provide them with intelligent and empowering content.  Needless to say, a women’s magazine that does this is not at all easy to find.

It’s for this reason that I was, and continue to be, so disappointed by Amy Reinink’s recent article, “Dangerous Relationship”, on the prevalence of disordered eating behaviors in women.  This is a topic that merits far more attention than it gets in mainstream media, so I commend you for publishing an article that addresses this subject matter; however, it also happens to be a topic that needs to be handled with great care, as a failure to do so has the potential to do more harm than good.

Ms. Reinink begins her article by stating the weight, height, and amount of calories consumed daily by Kendra Glassman—for anyone suffering from either an eating disorder or disordered eating habits, information like this could prompt feelings of inadequacy, a need to further limit caloric intake, or criteria against which to judge one’s own body and most likely come up short.

Not only do the details given in this opening paragraph have potential to trigger a reader’s disordered behaviors (and with 65% of women displaying these behaviors, it’s fair to assume that many of the readers of Women’s Running struggle with them on a daily basis), they are also completely unnecessary.  Instead of providing the reader with information that will help her to understand the rest of the article, they reinforce the warped and conflicting definition of health that haunts many women and that is usually touted in magazines like Shape and Fitness.  As Ms. Glassman ultimately learns, overcoming disordered eating behaviors and living a truly healthy lifestyle means putting emphasis on the way a body feels and performs rather than how much it weighs, or how few calories it can be fed before basic functioning is compromised.  Ultimately, the inclusion of these details at the beginning of the article undermines the overall message that Ms. Reinink is trying to get across.  This piece could have served as a platform to combat many of the stereotypes that contribute to disordered eating behaviors.  The fact that it doesn’t is disappointing.

To make matters worse, Ms. Reinink describes Ms. Glassman as “the picture of health”, reinforcing the notion that there are specific looks associated with both EDs and disordered eating, as well as good health.  The implication is that Ms. Glassman fits in with the model of a woman who is thin and conventionally pretty, but that she isn’t rail thin; because an observer wouldn’t be able to count her ribs, she’s healthy.  This could have been an opportunity to take on the idea that having these narrow definitions and images of ‘sick’ and ‘healthy’ is detrimental and dangerous—they prevent us from being able to identify the cases in which someone needs help, and allow us to make assumptions based on very little other than the messages we’ve been sent by society and the mainstream media.

Additionally, in specifying that Ms. Glassman is consuming a nutritionally balanced 1,500 calories a day, Ms. Reinink gives the reader the impression that a diet consisting of a caloric intake this low fits right into the “picture of health” Kendra Glassman represents.  Not only is this a limited caloric intake for a woman training for a marathon, it’s a limited intake for anyone who isn’t actively trying to lose weight.  All this and we haven’t even made it past the article’s opening paragraph.

Finally, although Ms. Glassman’s story has a happy ending, Ms. Reinink fails to acknowledge the fact that many similar stories don’t. Disordered eating is an extremely slippery slope, and overcoming such behaviors is much more challenging than simply refusing to obsess over one’s weight.  In many cases, addressing these struggles may require the help of a therapist or an entire treatment team. Even if professional help is sought, there is no guarantee that the behaviors won’t still develop into a full-blown eating disorder. Moreover, disordered eating and eating disorders require constant vigilance and daily work, and this fact is only vaguely referenced in the article.  Recovery can be a lifelong process for many women, and Ms. Reinink’s omission of the degree to which disordered eating and eating disorders can be life-altering and dangerous really trivializes what these women experience and often fight extremely hard for.  In keeping with this, Ms. Glassman’s suggestion to observe and emulate a man’s eating habits in “Disordered Eating”, the piece that accompanies the article, comes off as insensitive and glib.

I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that Women’s Running, or this article in particular, are to blame for the prevalence of disordered eating among women.  I also want it to be clear that disordered eating behaviors and eating disorders are not only the result of environmental factors, but are also influenced by a person’s biology.  But in a society like ours, where there is so much environmental pressure on women to be thin and conventionally beautiful, and where this pressure has such a deleterious effect on the way women view themselves, it’s unfortunate to see a publication that has an opportunity to endorse and promote a different message of health throw it away like this.  I can’t help but feel confused and extremely let down by the way this subject was handled.

I sincerely hope that in the future, topics such as this one will be explored with much more care and sensitivity than were on display in this article.

Sincerely,

Emilie Littlehales

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What to say

Celebrity Eating Disorders: "Nicole Richi...

I can’t say it enough: I think it’s really important to be open and honest about things I’m struggling with, whether it’s straightforward stress or more complex issues affecting my diet and overall (by which I mean both mental and physical) health.  There is such a strong stigma in our society when it comes to any kind of mental illness that when someone does feel comfortable opening up about their experiences, I feel they should do so.  This is the main reason why I try not to beat around the bush when it comes to talking about eating disorders, depression, and anxiety (three things that I can talk about with some authority since I’ve experienced and continue to struggle with all three); in my opinion, there is something to be gained by not hiding what is going on, how difficult things can be, and what it’s like to live with these things on a daily basis.  In addition to helping to break down the stigma, I hope that my approach will show someone else who is struggling that there is hope, and that things can get better.

But I also understand that things of this nature are deeply personal, and not everyone is comfortable wearing their diagnoses on their sleeve.  I respect those people who choose to remain silent.  In the case of conditions like depression or anxiety, it can be somewhat easy to fool people into thinking that things are fine, and you’re not suffering.  Sadly, it’s not uncommon for people to do this (I know I’ve certainly done it a fair bit).  Eating disorders, however, are pretty hard to conceal or disguise, which adds to their complexity and makes their stigmatization feel all the more personal–after all, EDs are worn on the outside, and on display for everyone to see whether we want them looking or not.  Because we can’t conceal our bodies, our disorders risk becoming the subject of public scrutiny and even though it’s possible no one would say much of anything if we were depressed, it seems that once something manifests itself physically, it’s fair game for everyone and anyone.  All of a sudden, something that is private and personal is being commented on by anyone who cares to say something.

This happens all the time in the media–it seems like every couple months there is a new starlet who is photographed looking gaunt and slight.  Instantly, she is diagnosed with anorexia by all the glossy gossip magazines, everything she’s doing wrong (starving herself! smoking too much! not sleeping enough!) gets criticized, and the message gets passed around that this is a matter of public concern (when really it’s just another excuse for us to talk about someone’s body; we’re still criticizing it, it’s still not the right size, it’s just that this time around it’s too thin instead of being too fat).  Now of course I think that eating disorders are in fact, a matter of public concern, but individual cases of EDs aren’t unless the individual chooses to make it so.

Of course there are situations in which this is not the case, but for the most part I think such situations entail public exposure on a much smaller scale.  For instance, if you have a friend who you know is engaging in disordered behaviors, you ought to say something and try to get him or her the help they need.  But what do you do if you see someone who appears to need help?  I’ve seen a couple women in my neighborhood (one of whom is an actual neighbor of mine) who, to me, look like they probably have active EDs; however, it would be inappropriate for me, as a complete stranger, to approach them, even with the best of intentions.  As much as I would like to do something to help, I can’t really.

Knowing what to say and how to say it is, in my opinion, central to helping someone recover, and I think that as a society, we have a long way to go before we will really know how to address these issues on a large public scale.  For now, I think it’s essential that we all do what we can on as large a scale as we can, even if that just means asking a friend if they need help finding resources for recovery.  One thing is certain: we need to determine how to speak publicly about these private issues, find a way to discuss them in a manner that doesn’t result in a criticism of someone’s appearance, or judgment on the way they are living.  Until we can establish how to do that, we are going to have to hope that the other, smaller actions we are taking are enough.

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Control: to get what I want

Control Yourself

Image by Fortimbras via Flickr

Control.  It’s one of those abstract concepts that everyone wants a piece of.  It’s an especially hot topic when it comes to fitness and dieting: control your appetite, your sweet tooth, your emotional eating, your impulses, your cravings, your exercise regimen…When you think about it, a great deal of the marketing involved in the health and fitness industry centers around control, how to get it, and how to keep it.  The idea is that if we can control our bodies, we can control the universe.  We’re supposed to believe that our bodies are the enemy, and that everything about them–from our thighs to our cravings for potato chips or chocolate–is designed to work against us and undo all our hard effort.  And from this notion we take the belief one step further: we should be engaged in a constant struggle.  It is us versus our bodies.

I’ve mentioned before that when you’re suffering from an eating disorder, your experience with it is simultaneously unique to you and similar to that of other sufferers.  One factor that always seems to be shared is a desire for control; what differs are the reasons why getting control seems so essential.  In my case, my ED was triggered by being bullied at work and feeling helpless.  When your boss is picking on you and making your life miserable for reasons you can’t figure out, and when the people who should be able to help you are turning a blind eye, it’s very easy to feel like you have no control over anything that’s going on in your life.  In cases like this, taking control of what you put in your body, or how you deal with it once it’s there, becomes incredibly appealing.  And the more helpless and out of control you feel, the more profoundly you immerse yourself in starving yourself, or bingeing, or purging.  It’s an incredibly easy equation, and when you’re suffering from an eating disorder, it’s incredibly appealing.

Unsurprisingly, there is a high percentage of comorbidity between eating disorders and depression (according to one study, the rate is 94%).  What I find interesting about this is how similar (and at the same time different) the issue of control in depression is to control in EDs.  In the case of depression, control can both trigger and aggravate the person suffering.  One of the most difficult things I dealt with when I was experiencing the worst of my depression was the feeling that every situation I encountered was outside my control; that there was some force greater than I was that was actively working against me, and over which I had no control whatsoever; and that there was absolutely no way I’d ever be able to turn things around.  It’s easy to see how this sort of thinking can both lead to and perpetuate a depressive episode.

In both eating disorders and depression, control becomes an obsession, and when you’re dealing with both at the same time, you feel caught in a never-ending battle in which you’re constantly fighting to get what you feel you will never, ever have.

One of the most central aspects of my recovery, and one of the things I have to work hard on every single day, is the idea that no matter what, I will never be able to take control over everything and that this fact does not make me helpless or put me at a disadvantage; indeed, it makes me normal.  Having complete control is an illusion, and so is the idea that whoever or whatever does have control is operating against you.  But because our society makes such a big deal of it, we get very easily caught up in its trappings, and control becomes something that the ED voice uses to draw you in, while the depressive voice uses it to hold you under.

The reality is this: there are things we can control.  Examples: the food we buy at the grocery store; whether we exercise or not on any given day; whether we take the bus or the train to get to work; whether we do something nice for ourselves.  There are also things we can’t control.  Examples: the weather; the decisions of others; whether the bus comes on time or not.  Gaining control is not the key to success nor is it the key to happiness; however, realizing and internalizing that fact just may be.

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The Support network

An eating disorder is a lonely, isolating illness.  Food is a pretty social part of our lives, and we use meals to connect and form bonds.  When you have an uncomfortable relationship with food, the last thing you want to do is sit down for a meal with other people who may not understand what is going on (through no fault of their own) at best, and judge you negatively at worst.  Whether your disorder manifests itself through restricting, bingeing, purging, or some other form, chances are you prefer situations where food is not involved.

While you’re going through whatever form of hell your ED is putting you through, one of the most important things things to have access to is a support network.  This can be a group of professionals, friends, family, teachers, team members, anyone who can help you when you feel like you have no strength left in you with which to keep fighting.  After all, EDs can make you feel completely and utterly helpless and hopeless.  Struggling with one is exhausting since food is such an integral and essential part of our lives.

I have been incredibly lucky in that I have had an amazing support network available to me every step of the way.  When people bend over backwards to help you out, have the patience of saints, and hold you when you cry without asking questions, sometimes you feel like you might not ever be able to repay those people.  So, as small as this token of recognition is, I wanted to give back by paying tribute to the people who help me every single day.

  • Nat is probably the most important part of my support network.  He recognizes how hard it is to remain patient, but he never ever gives up on me.  He props me up when I can’t stand on my own, he loves me unconditionally, he always knows the right thing to say, and he will stop at nothing to make me smile.  I don’t know where I would be without him.
  • My family is wonderful.  My two sisters are amazing listeners and give great advice.  They have both worked hard to understand what makes an ED so hard.  My brother-in-law and future brother-in-law are everything you could want in a brother–supportive, fun to be around, and great to talk to.  My parents are loving and accepting.  My niece and nephew are the sweetest people on the planet, and sources of laughter and incredible amounts of love.  They also remind me how rich, wonderful, and amazing life can be.  Even my extended family is great–my aunts, uncle, and grandmother care about me and I know they are always there for me.
  • My friends are a blessing.  Whether Mike is taking time to talk to me about something that’s upsetting me or helping me make changes to my blog, he is patient and caring.  Lily is my oldest friend and will drop everything to be with me if I need her.  Sonia is far away, but always in my heart because of her wisdom, kindness, effervescent spirit, and love.  The friends I have at work are always happy to listen to me vent, offer advice, cheer me up, make me laugh, and talk about YA books and boy bands.
  • My treatment team is really great and has helped me immensely over the past year.

As hard as things can sometimes be, I know that I wouldn’t be as far along in my recovery as I am now if it weren’t for all these people.  I am really, really grateful to all of them, and I hope that this shows through and that I am able to offer them support when they need it.

As I continue to recover, it becomes more and more important to me that those who are in need of support and help with their ED-related struggles feel they have someone to talk to, or at least somewhere to go (either physically or virtually) to feel that they are not as alone as they feel.  I hope that this blog can somehow serve to provide support and lessen the pain of an eating disorder, if only very slightly.  Everyone deserves to have a support network, and everyone deserves a fighting chance against their ED.

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Screen Test

jackrabbit sports

A couple weeks ago, I sent in an application to be part of JackRabbit‘s Run for the Rabbit Campaign.  I got a promotional email about it in January that described the Campaign:

JackRabbit is kicking off the “Run for the Rabbit” campaign on April 22nd. This is not just a marketing campaign, it’s also a major fundraiser! We will choose six people of different backgrounds and abilities to star in the campaign while training to run the Hamptons Marathon in September. Each participant will also select a cause that they believe in deeply and raise money for a charity of their choice throughout their training. The competition is not for who can run the fastest, but for who can raise the most money.

As soon as I read about it, I knew I wanted to apply.  I’ve been trying to think of ways to do some fundraising for the National Eating Disorders Association, and this would be a perfect way to do it.  Of course, applying for things like this always makes me nervous.  I don’t handle things like excitement all that well because I’m always afraid that the more excited I get about something, the worse it will be when it doesn’t pan out (and I never expect that it will pan out, so I always end up telling myself that nothing is worth getting excited for–it’s kind of a cyclical thing, you see).  My slightly kooky feelings about excitement aside, though, I knew I would really regret it if I didn’t apply, and it is follow through February, the point of which is to push myself to do things that I might normally give up on.  I ended up sending in an application.  And of course since it’s me, I figured that would be the last I heard about that.

So as you can probably imagine, I was stunned when, last week, I got an email inviting me to come in for a screen test.  At that point, I tried to contain my excitement as much as possible, while telling myself that this was a) an error; b) a practical joke; OR c) standard procedure for every applicant (yes, I told myself that there were probably only like 50 applicants).  It’s fun being in my head, right?  As it turns out, there were about 325 applicants (for 6 positions), and I guess about 50 people were contacted to participate in the casting call.  The lesson here: I should probably give myself a little bit of credit.  I have to say, though, I am definitely in much better shape when it comes to things like that now than I ever have been before.

My screen test was today at 5 pm, which gave me the entire day to fret and contemplate just how much I felt like my nerves were going to make me throw up.  I was a wreck, and probably not all that pleasant to be around.  To make matters worse, I thought we were going to be late and almost started crying when we were waiting to catch the train that would take us to the store in Union Square.  We got there at about 4:58, and then we waited and waited.  It turns out they were running a bit behind.  I ended up going in for my screen test around 6:15.  In a way I didn’t mind sitting and waiting because it gave me time to calm down a little bit.  Things probably wouldn’t have gone all that well if I’d gone directly in to the test after being so worked up on the train.  But at the same time, having all that time to kill was difficult–I spent most of the time psyching myself out and then trying to stop myself from psyching myself out.  At one point I thought maybe I should just leave.  I saw some of the other contestants as I was waiting for my test, and couldn’t stop thinking about all the ways in which they were probably more appealing than I was.  All my insecurities started bubbling to the surface: I don’t look like a runner; I don’t run enough; I make weird expressions without knowing it; I look weird on camera; my voice sounds like a kid’s voice; I don’t say the right thing; etc.  I mean, you name it, and I will beat myself up about it, so I had no shortage of ammo this afternoon.  I also couldn’t stop thinking about what the test entailed–would I have to read lines?  Dance around?  Tell a story about myself on the spot?

In the end, things turned out fine.  I think.  The screen test wasn’t unlike an interview, and I talked a lot about how running helped me get through my ED: how it helps me to beat stress, gives me time to sort out my thoughts, and puts me in touch with my body in a way that makes it easier for me to treat myself well and actually EAT.  I also talked about why I chose NEDA as my organization, how treatment for EDs is difficult to come by and expensive, how scary it can be to end up a prisoner in your body, and how being able to publicly train for a marathon while also being able to say that I am in recovery from an ED could potentially be really inspiring to others who are still suffering and may not be able to see a way out.

Obviously, I want to be chosen to be part of the Campaign, and have a chance to do this fundraising.  I’ll be really disappointed if I don’t get chosen, and I’m sure I won’t be able to resist beating up on myself a little bit.  But regardless of the outcome, I can feel good about the fact that I had a chance to go in for a screen test at all, and I can also know that the Campaign is not the only change I’ll have to raise money for NEDA.  Maybe, if I continue working on following through, I’ll see that there are opportunities all over the place and that it’s a question of finding them.

I’ll keep you posted.