Disordered eating: a hidden and misunderstood battle

Content Warning: the following article discusses potentially triggering issues concerning disordered eating and eating disorders.

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Verywell Health marks disordered eating as, ‘a range of irregular eating behaviours that may or may not warrant a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder’. Disordered eating can be triggered by all kinds of causes. It can often start as a need for control, stemming from social beauty standards or norms, body dissatisfaction, or even certain traumatic events.

Eating disorders have some of the highest mortality rates among psychiatric disorders; they are also insufficiently discussed. Disordered eating is even less discussed. It doesn’t have the scary sounding label of anorexia nervosa so it doesn’t carry the same level of urgency, or the same degree of intervention. I argue that this is where we make the first mistake.

My personal experience of disordered eating began in veganism. I had already tested the water with vegetarianism. I have always had a certain sensitivity towards animals. Various vegan YouTubers, that I’d binge watch relentlessly, all attested to the effortless slimming effects of the diet. These women were often models, living in tropical climates and eating exotic fruits. Their lives looked perfect. One could surmise that I had equated their perfect appearance with the qualities of their lives, albeit unknowingly. Thus, I followed suit and adopted the diet. I was 14.

My view of eating disorders was strictly limited to that of a frail young girl

It began with the removal of certain food groups. I had complete control over my own meals, and required the authority, often adjusting socialising to fit my dietary needs. My emotions were based upon my self-image, and thus I developed damaging methods of regulating my moods. My routine was rigid, and I became reliant to a militant degree upon it. I struggled to concentrate. I was constantly reclusive and irritated, I had no self-confidence and needed frequent validation. It didn’t occur to me that I might be unwell.

My disordered eating hideously exposed itself on a flight home from a family holiday. We were too rushed for dinner, so mum said she would buy us food on the plane. The vegan options were limited, and not to my taste. My tired mother grew frustrated and forced a pot of noodles in front of me. The sheer passivity in the decision-making process of my meal had paralysed me. I couldn’t eat it. I didn’t know why, but I knew that I couldn’t eat it. I cried quietly at the meal I deemed ‘unsafe’. That response was entirely rational to me at the time. This is the ugly reality of disordered eating.

Over the years, naturally, these habits worsened. My mental health began to reflect my physical health.  From disordered eating, I had developed a disorder. The change was gradual and unsuspected. My view of eating disorders was strictly limited to that of a frail young girl, completely malnourished from lack of food.

The pursuit of health and wellness should not correlate to thinness and control

At 16, I hadn’t had a period in almost a year. I didn’t detect the danger of it. My behaviours had been so normalised, so hidden, and so misunderstood, that I had unknowingly developed amenorrhea.

I see much disordered eating around me. It begins so innocuously, wanting to slim down, or ‘tone up’ for a holiday…the list goes on extensively. For some people, it remains just as innocent as wanting to get a bit healthier. Health should be encouraged; this is not up for debate. My problem lies in the normalisation and repetition of disordered traits as being healthy. The line between the two is so fine that many will slip and will never seek the help they need, before it becomes a disorder. The pursuit of health and wellness should not correlate to thinness and control.

It is not normal to frequently diet and feel anxious around specific foods. It is not normal to create rigid routines and rituals around food. It is not normal to feel guilty about what you eat. It is not normal to constantly think about food, or negative thoughts about your body. It is not normal to create feelings of control through food.

My healing was gradual. It began once I had identified that there was a problem. The openness in discussing this topic to such a degree is a new thing for me, and it has taken time. I no longer feel dominated by those thoughts, and it is a beautifully liberating feeling. I acknowledge that my body is healthy and strong. I recognise that food is wonderful, brimming full of culture and experience. Half of my problem was that I kept it hidden. The more we talk about disordered eating, the more likely we are to understand it, and to overcome it.

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