95% of people affected by eating disorders are women between the ages of 12 and 25. 1 in 5 women struggle with eating disorders. 15% of women in the United States who have not been diagnosed with an eating disorder display substantially disordered eating habits and/or attitudes.
These statistics are staggering, but sadly not surprising. Together, they all say basically one thing: disordered eating, chronic dieting, over-exercising and other manifestations of body image issues plague many, many women.
I am, like the "many, many" I allude to, one of these women. No, I don't (any longer) identify as anorexic. No, I am not bulimic. No, I don't exercise excessively. In fact, I eat three meals a day, I like to snack and eat dessert and other conventionally "unhealthy" foods. I drink alcohol socially. I don't order salad with dressing on the side, and I prefer whole milk to skim.
But there's no doubt that I am among the many women out there plagued by body image issues and bizarre attitudes about nourishing myself. At various points in my life, I was so restrictive about eating that I lost my period, and my social life. At other points, I ate "normally" but exercised too much. Sometimes I looked and acted completely normal but was completely consumed mentally with how awful I felt or looked. In those times, I felt even worse because there seemed to be such a disconnect between how I saw myself, and how the rest of the world thought I saw myself (in addition to many other misalignments in my perception of myself, and of the world).
But I'm not here to write a hackneyed, self-victimizing personal essay about my life's trials and tribulations, nor do I really feel like going into detail about my neuroses, eating quirks and anxieties. Instead, I am writing this to expand my own idea, and everyone's idea, of what it means to struggle with disordered eating.
It's often more nuanced than the classic scenarios we think of: someone not eating at all, someone bingeing, someone being an "exercise bulimic." These extreme cases are, of course, common, and completely urgent issues to be thinking and talking about as a culture. But having issues with one's eating and one's body image can be much more subtle and hard to detect. That can make them feel even more dangerous sometimes.
Sure, the term "orthorexia" has recently emerged on the scene to identify those who have an "unhealthy" obsession with healthy eating. This often includes adopting particular dietary habits or lifestyles — going raw, vegan, gluten free — things we typically think of as healthy, and adopting them to excessive, "unhealthy" degrees. (I'll note that these dietary habits are by no means orthorexic in and of themselves. But there are cases of this that I have observed, and experienced myself, first hand). It's really convenient to point to a "healthy," admirable trend to explain your self-destruction, and to get validation from others in the process.
Part of the reason that it's hard to talk about eating disordered is because using the very term "disorder" is alienating: who wants to be "diagnosed" with a "disorder"? This holds true particularly those of us with control issues, who want to be left to ourselves and our neurotic habits that give us a sense of order amidst the disorder all around us. Disorder? Me? Never.
For me, one of the greatest struggles was reconciling my totally screwed up mode of looking at my body and my way of caring for myself — through food, mostly — with my strong sense of being a feminist. How could I tear my body and self-esteem apart, but also be a feminist? It made no sense to me.
As I've learned to acknowledge, talk about, and work through my body image issues, I've realized that OF COURSE I can be a feminist and struggle with these issues. Realizing the value of interrogating why I might deny myself enjoyment — whether through actual food restriction or through permitting myself to enter the endless mental cycles of self-loathing — has been essential for becoming a more self-aware feminist and a more self-accepting individual.
Since acknowledging that I didn't have to be underweight to have issues with my body, I have a gained a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be an empowered woman, in all areas of my life. I'll share a particular quote I read in the essay "Hunger" by cultural critic Naomi Wolf, who has looked closely at the relationship between sexuality and anorexia. Wolf explains that "the anorexic…is weak, sexless and voiceless, and can only with difficulty focus on a world beyond her plate." When I read this along my journey, I realized that to be a feminist would be to actually engage with these questions, not deny my struggles and retreat further into my own world of self-denial and voicelessness. I needed to focus on the world beyond my plate.
Having a distorted body image is a tricky thing. It doesn't mean you think you're fat all the time, or that you are always struggling with negative self-esteem. Having weird eating habits that you're unhappy with doesn't mean you have to identify as having an eating disorder. But maybe you do. Either is fine.
The key is owning whatever it is you are happy with in yourself, and whatever it is you are unhappy with. Rather than judging yourself for the things that need work (or perhaps worse, denying them), you can take a step forward by filling yourself with the curiosity of what it might be like to work on them.
The work is hard. So think about why it's hard. Your mind and your body will be learning, and learning together. You'll be learning your way to being a more empowered person (and feminist) regardless of your gender and regardless of your eating habits.