Signs of Eating Disorders. When we think about someone having an eating disorder we often experience feelings of disbelief and pity. We imagine the 80 Pound waif starving herself to death in pursuit of the perfect figure, and think how sad it is that she can’t see how small she has become, and that she has lost sight of her inner beauty, and worth.
What we rarely envision is the man or woman who is overweight and engaging in compulsive eating. “That person doesn’t have an eating disorder,” we say, “They just need to try dieting/lose some weight/exercise some willpower.” Well, I’m here to tell you that the overweight person often has just as much of an obsession with weight loss and body image as the underweight one. What we need to understand is that compulsive eating is not about a lack of willpower. It is not about being lazy or unconcerned with one’s own well being. It is about a person who turns to food to fulfill their need for comfort and nurturing. Now, having said that I must clarify that everyone who is at a high or low weight according to society’s standards, is not necessarily suffering from an eating disorder. There is a lot of physical diversity out there, and bodies come in all shapes and sizes. But one of the side effects of eating compulsively is often weight gain, if you are eating when you’re not hungry and or unable to stop when you’re full, whatever your size, you are engaging in compulsive eating.
Though Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Compulsive Eating may seem like radical opposites on the scale of eating disorders, the truth is they are brought about by the same need. The need for love, the need for acceptance and the need to feel secure in who they are and their importance in the world is what drives one to disordered eating in the first place. Whether we choose to restrict our food intake, exercise obsessively, overeat and then purge with laxatives, vomiting or exercise, or just overeat and eat and eat and eat; whatever our preferred method of being around food we are all just trying to fill the need for comfort and nurturing.
I can no longer count the times I have heard the Compulsive Overeater say, “I wish I could just throw up” or the Bulimic say, “I wish I had never started throwing up, now I can’t stop myself’ or the Anorexic say, “I wish I wasn’t so afraid of food – of being fat.” Each in their pain and suffering presumes the grass is greener on the other side of disordered eating. The truth is, each is equally painful and equally consuming. How much pleasure can a person get from life when they are constantly obsessing about how they look, what people are thinking, what they have/haven’t eaten today and what they will or wont eat tomorrow. Decisions about whether to attend a function, go for a walk, have lunch out or even to call a friend are made based on how the person with an eating disorder feels about their body that day. They label foods as good or bad and then label themselves as good or bad for wanting those foods. They presume that every bite of food taken in front of others is being scrutinized and that people are thinking, “ooh, look at her, she shouldn’t be eating that, no wonder she is so FAT.” What we need to remember is that we are the one’s with the obsession with food. We are the one’s who think we are so incredibly fat and unappealing.
Have you ever gotten dressed in the morning and been feeling okay, maybe even good, about what you were wearing and how you looked only to find that by lunchtime you can’t wait to get home and change because you feel so fat and so conspicuous? If so, ask yourself, “What changed about my body between 8:00 am and noon ?” Nothing changed except your perception of yourself. If you have had an experience like this you suffer from distorted body image. This distortion goes hand in hand with disordered eating, but can exist without an eating disorder. Having a distorted body image, whatever your true size, causes us to see everything that happens to/around us as being related to our bodies. Whatever happened, it’s because I’m too fat, too big, too ugly, too much. This is what we call a defense mechanism. Having something to blame for everything allows us to avoid dealing with the real issues in our lives. We get to remain in an uncomfortable situation such as an unfulfilling job or unsatisfying marriage without having to be fully aware of how unhappy we are. As long as we are focussing on our bodies and as long as our bodies are taking the blame for everything we don’t have to risk change.
A lot of us are afraid to ask for what we want, many of us don’t even know what that is. We were given the impression early on that our needs don’t count, that we don’t matter as much as others. That’s just not true. Everyone is equally as important as the next person – not more, not less. But for many people with eating disorders the feeling is that they are worth less. So, if they don’t want to risk complete rejection and abandonment they had better not ask for anything, better not offer an opposing opinion and better not expect anything from anyone because inevitably they will be let down. This means that the person with an eating disorder believes that if they are not always giving, kind and thinking of others first they will lose the love and respect of the people that are important to them. The truth is that people with eating disorders often feel isolated and that there is no one who really knows and understands them. And because they are such pushovers they often become associated with people who only know how to take. This brings us back to the need for love, comfort and nurturing. If it is not being met in our relationships with others we are going to fill this need somewhere. For those of us with eating disorders, that place is food.
You may have already identified strongly with the things we have discussed so far and be wondering if you or someone you know may have an eating disorder or be heading in that direction. The following is a checklist of behaviours and signs for each of the three major eating disorders. If you feel that you have some or all of these behaviours you may wish to speak to a counsellor who understands these issues and find out what you can do to leave distorted body image and disordered eating behind for good.
If you eat compulsively you likely: Eat when you are not hungry; Feel controlled by food; Eat sensibly in public and then make up for it when alone; Feel excited thinking about times alone with food; Hide the “evidence” of binges; Find that eating makes you feel better but that afterwards you feel guilty and depressed; Eat to escape worry or trouble.
If you are Anorexic you will likely: Have extreme weight loss due to reduced food intake; Feel fat despite increasing thinness; Have obsessive behaviour with food, dieting and with exercise; May have chronic fatigue; Frequently feel cold; May have stopped menstruating.
If you are Bulimic you will likely; Have recurring episodes of binge eating with out of control feelings during the binges; Have self-induced purging using laxatives, vomiting or excessive exercising; Have frequent weight fluctuations; Diet and then binge and purge in a continuous cycle; Be extremely secretive about your bingeing and purging behaviour.
For all those with disordered eating there are feelings of guilt, shame, futility, worthlessness, disgust, low self-esteem, perfectionism, a strong need for control of people and situations and feelings of inadequacy and inferiority.
If any of the above behaviours sound like you, or someone you know, remember that although it is scary to admit you have an eating disorder it is also very freeing to be able to identify that there is a very good reason for the things you do around food. Furthermore, there is every reason to expect and to hope that you will be able to overcome these behaviours and lead a life that is f
ree from food and weight obsession. If nothing else, please recognize that you are really only looking for love and nurturing when you are using food compulsively or restricting your food intake. The best and most consistent place for you to get that love and support is from yourself. Focussing your efforts on building a strong, trusting relationship with yourself is the best use of your time and energy without a doubt. Once you have trust in yourself and in your worth as a person all those feelings of shame, guilt, perfectionism and the need to control (to name a few) will disappear. I assure you.
If you would like to read some books on this subject I recommend:
- When women stop hating their bodies; by Jane Hirschmann and Carol Munter
- Food for Love; by Janet Greeson
- If life is a game, these are the rules; by Cherie Carter-Scott, Ph.D
Michelle Morand is the Founder and Director of The CEDRIC Centre in Victoria , B.C. The CEDRIC Centre offers group and individual support for eating disorders and related issues at their Victoria location and also provides one-on-one counselling to those living elsewhere in Canada and in the U.S. over the phone or via e-mail.