*Content warning: this post discusses eating disorders and may be triggering to some readers.*
It’s difficult to quantify the damage done by an eating disorder.
Popular methods amongst the recovery community include sharing transformation photos, lowest body weights, harrowing images of bones jutting out under overstretched skin, calorie goals, hospitalisation stories. In contrast, depictions of eating disorders that make it into mainstream media are seen in movies such as To The Bone; thin, white women eventually learn how to eat cake and see themselves for the conventionally attractive beauties they are, maintaining a good physique whilst gaining just enough weight back so they look vaguely human again.
These depictions are popular, I expect, because they are – pardon the pun – easily digestible. They are success stories, and happy ones. They do not force the public to think too hard or feel too much. They are accessible.
The reality is a lot harder to portray. Maybe more accurate measurements of this epidemic are its death toll, the amount of lives wasted, calories counted and time lost. In staring down the barrel of my own recovery, that last one tends to bother me the most. How many seconds of my life have been wasted? How many hours on the bathroom floor or in front of the mirror? How many days where I couldn’t leave the house? Birthdays, celebrations, days of school or work, movies, dinners, coffee dates, all taken from me.
For eight years, my life was defined by my eating disorder. It ruled every part of my day. All I thought about was food and being thin and my own self-loathing. Nothing else mattered. Books, music, friends – they were nothing compared to the thought of being thin. Every moment of my existence was ruled by food and my relationship to it. A journal entry from the height of my disorder reads: “I don’t want to face tomorrow or the next year or the rest of my life. I just want to be thin. I just want to be dead.”
With this illness comes an overwhelming sense of bitterness; that if things had been different, if your life had been different, if your body had been different, maybe you could’ve had a chance at being normal. Maybe you could’ve avoided the pain and starvation and humiliation and just existed. Then again, maybe not.
It used to be hard for me to understand why this happened to me, why my feminist mother’s teachings weren’t enough to insulate me from this worldwide epidemic. But I’ve come to understand that there is no escaping it. Every facet of our culture is saturated with objectifying, monotonous imagery of thin, predominantly white models; the only women in the world who are seemingly happy, loved, successful. Young women and girls are conditioned to admire and look up to these models, purely based on their appearance.
Our bodies have become currency, something indicative of our worth and how deserving of respect we are. ‘Fat’ and ‘ugly’ are the first insults hurled at women online, because to be unattractive is to lose your right to be treated like a human being.
I did not make these connections by myself. There is nothing random, isolated, or ‘insane’ about eating disorders; they are careful, calculated responses to a world that teaches young people, particularly girls, that beauty is their responsibility, that it is something they owe the rest of society. In the words of Erin McKean, it is the ‘rent you pay to exist in the world as a woman’.
To treat those who suffer from eating disorders as though their illness is absurd and unfounded is to ignore the very culture we live in, the culture that creates and perpetuates eating disorders. Every magazine, movie, and Instagram model is telling us that what we look like is not enough, so that we buy their e-book or workout program or waist trainer or flat tummy tea. We must step outside of this never-ending cycle, think critically and realise that this market counts on our self-hatred. These people do not want us to be happy, because it’s pretty hard to sell useless products to someone who is at peace with who they are and the life they lead.
And so they convince us that we are the problem, that it is us, the consumers, who are ugly, who have too much backfat, who eat too much gluten or carbs or whatever else. And this is where the eating disorder gets its foot in.
There is a point in many people’s experience with an eating disorder (I say ‘many’ because the experience of an ED is different for everyone and does not always fit a specific category, weight, or definition) when you reach your goal weight, the one you wrote in the notes section of your phone and in various notebooks and in countless calorie counting apps. It is the moment you told yourself would be worth all the pain and the hunger and the loved ones you lost or hurt. And in the end, it is a moment of utter devastation, wherein the reality of what you are doing slaps you in the face and you realise you are not happier, you are not better, your life is the same and you don’t feel different. You are still starving. You still hate your body. Nothing has changed, even though your ED promised and promised and swore up and down that everything would.
This is the same lie we are fed by the beauty industry and the diet industry. But somehow, when their promises fail us, we blame ourselves. This has to stop.
My illness is still breathing, still begging for life even as I try to beat it away. Remnants of it are still stuck between my teeth and in the corners of my brain; I am a veritable expert on calories, on exercise, on any diet plan or appetite suppressing trick under the sun. My disorder exploits any weakness it can find to try and fight its way back into power. This is the reality of diet culture. It is not inspiring before and after pictures or drinking lemon water in the morning. It is guilt and dread and a life defined by what you eat and how you look. It is laying awake at night listening to the sounds of your body cannibalising itself. It is a lifetime of deprivation and self-destruction that keeps us from ever growing or developing or achieving anything meaningful.
Through plant-based eating and a lot of hard work, I have begun to heal despite the billion-dollar industries that try desperately to pull me back into their evil cycle of restrict, binge, purge, repeat. But we need to shift our focus from recovery to prevention – we need to identify and isolate the industries that perpetuate these illnesses, and hold them accountable for this growing death toll. Because these people and these corporations do not care about our health. They do not want us to feel better, get better, or ‘look better’ (whatever that means). They want us to starve.
Nobody deserves that. So take a minute and try and step out of this increasingly commercialised void, and remember that you matter, and you are not alone.
If this post was triggering or upsetting and you need help, support or just someone to talk to visit our page Support Services for a list of places you can contact.
If you think you or someone you know might be suffering from an disorder, you can find support by visiting the Butterfly Foundation website or the National Eating Disorder Collaboration website for more information on help in your local area.
To learn more about the different types of eating disorders and symptoms click here.
Stella is an 18 year old high school student, and a founding member of Fitzroy High School’s Feminist Collective. She’s passionate about politics, activism, writing, and music, and has previously written for Young Vagabond and Sheilas.