Eating Disorders. How many times have we seen them depicted in a Lifetime movie or scrutinized in the tabloids? We may know what "too skinny" looks like, but do we actually understand how to define "disordered eating" in the people we hold close? Or even within ourselves?
As a society, we are still fed a "dumbed down" version of disordered eating. We stereotype it in certain images: the underweight girl isolating herself, or pushing food around the plate for everyone to notice. Because of this, we so often wait until someone has reached rock bottom before intervening.
While every disorder is specific, these are six real signs of disordered eating in general, written in collaboration with real women fighting ED recovery.
1. You have ritualistic behaviors.
Every patient has their own version of ritualistic behaviors. In rehab, I remember there was a big sign over the cafeteria door that listed the behaviors we were either allowed or not allowed to exhibit while eating.
Rituals vary depending on which cycle of the eating disorder is the most prevalent at the time. We often don't recognize that eating disorders, as with alcohol and drugs, fluctuate. For a drug addiction, it might be cocaine to heroin. For an eating disorder it can phase from exercise bulimia to binge eating, from binge eating to restriction, and/or from exercise bulimia to bulimia.
In months of restriction, you will cut and minimize food. While this is a fairly obviously disordered trait, people are often naïve to just what lengths people will go. For example, I cut grapes in half, ate veggie burgers without the bun. picked cheese off my salad, pushed avocado out of my sushi roll with chopsticks. The list goes on.
On the other hand, during binging cycles I would methodically pick out the food I would eat. I'd scale the store trying to decide which food meant more to me, which food was worth the guilt that would ensue and then eating it frantically, from one item to the other and back. Ice cream to cookies. Donuts to ice cream. Cookies to donuts...until all was gone and the only thing I could think about was purging it first through the toilet, and secondly through the gym.
2. You have trouble being social.
Singling yourself out in a group is a top sign for disordered eating, and no, I'm not talking about when you're the one friend in your group who wants sushi instead of Mexican food. I'm talking about the times you're on a road trip and there's six of your friends hauled up in a car on your way out to go camping. It's breezy, the window's are down, the mood is jovial, when someone suggests you stop and eat. Now you are tense.
Eating in public becomes increasingly difficult, not only because you can't be flexible due to the sodium content at a fast food joint, but more so because of the pressure to remain "sociable" in a group while also meticulously counting and observing every shred of food to make sure the cook didn't douse it with an excess of olive oil, butter, or salt.
Due to this, you are the person that always has an excuse as to why you're not eating a full meal. Oftentimes you'll show up 20 minutes late to avoid the appetizers or take it a step farther and go about meticulously stuffing fries in you bra, almonds in your sweatshirt pocket, or chicken down the toilet (all of which I witnessed in rehab, despite having to remove our jackets at the door).
3. You feel possessive around food.
You are not someone who will split a meal. Sharing food is like when your roommate invades your closet and wears your favorite dress without asking. You need control over what you've chosen to eat. You don't wait till you're hungry and stop when you're full, listening to your body.
You can't accidentally eat a piece of lettuce with too much dressing. You can't take a bite of your wrap without making sure all the excess tortilla has been picked off, and you can't stand sharing with the person next to you as they dirty, combine, and toss around your food.
And, to be fair, it's not always just because you want to separate and divide it to satisfy your personal, anorexic-themed game. We talked about this a lot in rehab: the irrational irritation that festers every time you're out with friends, when a plate of pita bread and a bowl of hummus is placed in front of you and you watch as five other greedy hands at the table move to snag their piece of bread, and their spoonful of hummus.
The feeling you have that grows within you screaming that someone is taking something from you. This is part of the eating disorder cycle. You deprive yourself of bread, snacks, and sweets -- but eventually you snap. Once you "allow" yourself to have a piece of pie, you've opened Pandora's Box, and find it's hard to close again. It almost feels as if you've snapped because you felt trapped and taunted by everyone dangling their bad food habits in front of you.
4. Special occasions and social events make you anxious.
You have a hard time adjusting to events that involve food and beverage. July 4 th is a nightmare. Thanksgiving is hell. You do not enjoy buffets.
This, in turn, becomes the reason why no one will call you and say "Hey, can you pick up something from the store?" People know that if they ask for cheese, you'll come back with non-fat Laughing Cow Cheese instead of a block of cheddar, or cherry-lime flavored seltzer instead of lemonade.
You're afraid that by eating something tasty once at a special event, by allowing yourself to forgo your "food prohibition," you'll never get back to that same mental spot that whispers "You're a better person than all them for holding out." There is a majestic amount of pride when you can sit in a group full of six people and observe the self-control that you have in only eating one tortilla chip while the rest eat 10.
5. You think there are "bad" foods and "good" foods.
To you, every food is black and white. Fast food is bad. Veggies are good. Obviously. But when you've spent eight years standing in grocery stores with your hand on your hip comparing the nutrition label between two brands of whole-grain bread, "bad" and "good" takes on a whole new meaning and level of specificity.
You've learned not only to group food items, but food brands as well. Food is your number one enemy. You trust nothing. You're even cutting your bananas in half because you read somewhere that bananas are being grown bigger than ever before.
6. You drink too much liquid in order not to feel hungry.
Coffee is the true friend of an eating disorder. It gives you energy when you're malnourished, fills up your stomach when you're hungry, and naturally, comes with a side of a cigarette and a bathroom break.
This goes for alcohol as well, although this depends on the person. I drank to forget I was hungry, to forget I was sick. I disregarded the calories in alcohol so long as it gave me the sense of feeling full, and I've found this more common in the 20s-30s age group.
So much of the damage of an eating disorder, disregarding health, is that it prevents a person from ever fully feeling engaged to the present moment. It's like when you're talking to someone and you can see them eyeing the television screen from behind you: you never feel attached to anything else longer than an hour or two except your disorder.
The more candid those of us in recovery become about the games we play, the more we can help society comprehend what we're going through. Perhaps then, we will have a better means of fighting it within ourselves and as a community, accepting that eating disorders mask themselves in all different ways, and for all different kinds of people.