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  • Casey Stern

Disordered Eating: How Disruptive And Dangerous Eating Behaviors Masquerade As “Normal”

Food has always been integral to my happiness and my identity. I grew up in a family of “foodies” who all adore cooking and tasting delicious things (we don’t go sightseeing on vacation, we go restaurant hopping). I’ve lived my whole life with a deep appreciation for food. I’ve also spent the last few years consumed with a passion for baking and all things pastry. Food was always an uncomplicated joy for me.

But things got complicated when I started thinking about calories. Very quickly, that was all I could think about. I developed a fixation on weight and body that I’d never had before. I would obsessively count calories, trying to minimize my net consumption for the day—a much more acceptable way of saying “eat as little as possible without passing out.” Sometimes I would over-exercise, telling myself it was only okay to eat more if I burned it all off at the gym. Sometimes I would lose sleep because I “lost control” and ate a brownie after dinner. On particularly bad body image days, I would cry because my legs were too fat, but I was fueled by my apparent success on good body image days. I was hungry more often than not, which caused a slew of other physiological problems, like fatigue, headaches, and nausea—but that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst part was that food, something that had carried only joy and love for me in the past, had become my biggest source of anxiety, distress, and heartache.

Then a few months ago, an old friend of mine posted a piece that she’d written for her school’s online publication. In it, she described her struggle with weight, food, and body image, outlining a number of behaviors that were uncomfortably similar to mine. She used a term I’d never heard before to describe these behaviors: disordered eating. Not an eating disorder, she explained, but “...if you find yourself googling ‘how do you know if you have an eating disorder?’ repeatedly, you probably have some sort of issue that needs to be addressed.” She was right. I do not have an eating disorder, but I definitely had an issue that needed to be addressed. One of the biggest challenges of disordered eating is the fact that no one talks about it. It exists in a diagnostic grey area. While mental illness is still highly stigmatized and not talked about enough, people tend to be aware of eating disorders and the seriousness they carry. On the other hand, before I read my friend’s piece, I had never heard the term “disordered eating,” and I wasn’t convinced my behaviors were dysfunctional or abnormal. This is largely because, well, they’re not really abnormal at all. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, over one-half of teenage girls and one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy behaviors to control their weight. This should ring true for anyone who lives in a culture where dieting, idealizing thinness, labeling foods as “good” and “bad,” and calorie restriction are totally normal—that is, most of us. When I started talking about disordered eating, the number of women who told me that my words resonated with them was staggering. If you consider the sheer quantity of “food = fat = bad, weight loss = skinny = good” messages constantly infiltrating our mental space—infinite ads with skin-and-bones women, social media posts about fat-burning food and exercise regimens, casual comments your friend makes about how gross she is for eating another cookie, even more casual comments about how “you look so thin!”—is it really so hard to imagine how the majority of us turn to disordered behaviors to control our weight? Graciously, due to a wonderful support system and some serious work on my part, I’ve made significant progress on my road to reclaiming my relationship with food. Talking about disordered eating has been a huge part of my healing process, and my hope is that the more we bring this insidious cultural phenomenon to light, the more it can be for others, too.