My Life of Disordered Eating
An Essay By Sarah Sparks.
Today I got up at 7:30am and by 8:00am (okay 8:15, so I was a little late! I was having one of thosemornings) I was heading out the door and on my way to class. I raced straight from the bus to class and did not stop. My class ended at 12:30pm and I had to meet with a student I tutor right afterwards for an hour, then make the hour commute home and stop for supplies as the local grocery store. I didn’t get home until close to 4pm. Between 7:30am when I woke up to 4pm when I got home I didn’t eat anything. And I don’t mean ‘I only had a piece of fruit didn’t eat anything’, I mean I didn’t eat anything at all, all day except for a couple of glasses of water. I forgot to eat today and this isn’t the first time that’s happened.
And the reason I can go an entire day without eating: I have an active eating disorder. There. I said it. I’ve become so acclimatized to shutting my hunger signals off that I can ignore them and totally forget to eat because my body will no longer send my brain the proper signals saying, ‘Hey! Hey! You’re hungry, dummy! You should eat!’ Frequently this means I remember to eat when I suddenly start feeling very sick and it dawns on me I forgot to eat at some point during the day.
You would assume that I, as a post-secondary educated, ex-burlesque dancer, well-read, well-informed woman who is an active member of the feminist and body/fat positive movements that I would not engage in such behavior. That I, of all people, would not fall prey to the dreaded and oft still secreted shame of the ‘eating disorder’. You’d be wrong.
This is not healthy. I one hundred percent do not condone this type of eating regime or weight loss method (as a fat positive advocate I don’t condone any weight loss method). Not eating is not a healthy way to live. It’s hard on your body and hard on your digestive system, but it’s also a really hard cycle to break. It’s easy for me to forget to eat because my body just doesn’t send me the proper messages anymore. Any doctor or nutritionist will tell you the healthy way to eat are several small balanced meals over the course of the day so you are constantly feeding your immune system and metabolism. I don’t forget to eat these days because I’m trying to lose weight but rather because of the fallout of an extreme diet regime from my youth.
I willfully and purposely developed an eating disorder when I was a teenager. I went on my first diet when I was 13 which was the same diet my mother was on (the trend at the time being low fat diets, low carb diets weren’t fashionable until I was in my 20s). Coming from a family of fat women, my mother transferred a lot of her body and weight issues onto me and we dieted together in an effort to fit some imaginary model of the perfect thin woman (as an aside: I love my mother and we have a great relationship but we both grew up in a fat hating world in a family of fat women and that lead to generational transmission of body identity issues so I don’t judge my mother for any of her actions). By the time I was 16 we had discovered diet and fat blocker pills and my grandmother, mother and I were all taking them. My mother and I stepped it up a notch and started using starvation diets as a way to lose weight.
I had the goal that I really wanted to be thin for high school graduation. I didn’t want to be tortured anymore at school for being fat, I didn’t want to be ugly anymore and I wanted to be thin in my prom dress. I thought nobody would love me if I was fat and all my teenage hormone-addled brain wanted was someone to love me. I over-exercised, stopped eating, and greatly reduced my calorie/fat intake when I did eat, took handfuls of diet pills and watched the number on my scale like it was the only thing that mattered in my life. I did get thin for my grad and everyone congratulated me but even at my thinnest I would have still be considered over-weight by many people. It took extreme and unhealthy measures for me to get that thin and most people would have said I was doing something healthy (I wasn’t). Nothing I was doing at that time was healthy. I was putting my body through undo stress and trauma to just get thin.
My starvation/diet pill regime had some immediate health impacts at the time. I was always tired and falling asleep in class because I was depriving my body of the calories it needed to create energy (this impacted my school performance of course, even if you are smart it’s hard to get anything out of your classes if you’re asleep in the back). I lived on caffeine to stay awake and alert which is not good for you at a young age. Caffeine can affect how you absorb calcium and other nutrients (which I was depriving myself of anyways) which can further affect your bone development. I learned to like the pain of an empty stomach. I developed anemia. It got hard to focus on studying when I spent most of my waking hours focusing on not eating when my body really wanted me to. I felt sick.
Now at 31, I live with the fallout of that eating disorder. People rarely talk about the bad consequences of dieting and eating disorders except in extreme cases like bulimia and anorexia. I was never bulimic or anorexic but I made serious impacts on my lifelong health. I decided I would never diet again in my early 20s but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had a long battle with my weight and disordered eating. I was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome this summer but have probably had it since my early 20s. My gastroenterologist told me that my disordered eating is directly linked with the tummy problems I’m having now. I can’t eat without some sort of tummy distress like acid reflux or stomach cramps. My hunger signals don’t work like they should and I can get really sick when I forget to eat. I have to take medication every day to avoid getting an ulcer. My teeth have bad acid wear on them from the acid reflux sending acid up my esophagus and into my mouth (not eating can cause your stomach to over-produce acid). Rapid weight loss at a young age like I had could lead to bone and joint problems as you deprive your growing body the nutrients it needs to develop when you are young. I suffer from low levels of calcium and vitamin D (my doctor noted they were ‘alarmingly low’) which affects my mood, health and energy levels. I now have to avoid certain foods because they trigger my acid reflux or my IBS.
The media goes on and on about how being fat makes you unhealthy. I don’t really believe that. Dieting makes you unhealthy and creates bad relationships with your food that can lead to long term health problems. None of my health problems are related to me being fat but they are related to the things I did to try not to be fat. I would probably be a healthier person now if I had never gone on a diet when I was young. I would probably still be fat but I wouldn’t have created situations where my body would respond by getting sick because I wasn’t treating it very well. These are the real consequences of extreme dieting. I had to take intense, unhealthy measures to get skinny. Just take a minute to think about that. That means my body didn’t want to be skinny and it was trying to tell me something. It was trying to tell me skinny is not my natural healthy state and I had to make myself sick to get thin.
I still struggle with my relationship with food and still starve myself sometimes (it’s usually unintentional but it’s still not a healthy way to live). I still eat junk food. I still worry about what I’m eating. I still live with health problems. The disordered relationship I developed with food in my youth still haunts me this very day. Every day I struggle to call a truce between food and myself. Every day I get up in the morning and I have to remind myself that I should probably get something to eat.