I've Never Had a Healthy Relationship With Food—and I'm Actually Okay With That
During National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, one woman shares her lifelong struggle cycling between extreme dieting and binging.
Never have I ever done anything in moderation.
As I write this, I am on my fourth cup of coffee, and I have no immediate plans to slow down. Meanwhile, I am over halfway through a pack of gum I just opened this morning, and will likely have chewed the last piece before I leave work tonight. Knowing this, I considered bringing in only a few pieces of gum and leaving the rest of the pack at home. But I would rather have no gum than only some gum. I have to have all the gum or no gum at all.
While this instinctive, black and white mentality applies to just about every aspect of my life—from caffeine and gum to work and romance—my first and last all-or-nothing relationship has always been with food. Since my chubby childhood, I have worshipped at the altar of thinness and became a practitioner of binge eating. I am trapped in the ultimate Kate Moss paradox: I think everything tastes as good as skinny feels, and I think skinny feels really, really good.
As a result, my eating habits have long fluctuated between overindulgence and restriction, occasionally punctuated by purging behaviors and arguably excessive exercise. Do I have an eating disorder?
While I’ve never sought out an official diagnosis, it’s unlikely I would be given one. Recent revisions to the DSM-V’s diagnostic criteria have made it easier for struggling individuals to receive an eating disorder diagnosis, but even my most intense episodes of restriction and purging have seldom been significant enough to qualify.
Pressed for a label, I would say that I don’t have an eating disorder, but I am a disordered eater—a phrase I’ve borrowed from writer Melissa Broder, whose work has often explored the notion of disordered eating as distinct from eating disorders. Like Broder, I have found that the term disordered eating seems to work for me.
It’s not hard for me to resist food altogether. It is extremely difficult, however, for me to stop eating once I’ve started. I don’t want to eat in moderation because the anguish of having some and wanting more isn’t worth it to me. If I’m going to eat, I want it to feel unlimited. But if I am going to indulge, I also have to compensate.
What does this compensation look like? Typically, it shakes out to fasting during the week. I allow myself unlimited coffee, gum, and light grazing of whatever free food happens to come my way—so I can save up for unlimited social eating and drinking on the weekend. Today, I will probably have a fifth coffee before I leave work and head to the gym, where I’ll do two to three hours of cardio and then grab a handful of the free Tootsie Rolls they keep at the front desk on my way out.
I acknowledge that my system has its flaws. But after years of grappling with feelings of shame and guilt about my body and eating habits, I have finally struck a balance. Somewhere between dieting and a diagnosable eating disorder, I have found my safe space. I will never be a normal eater, but I have found a way to accommodate my need for indulgence while maintaining a weight with which I am generally happy. If that method sometimes involves subsisting entirely on gum and Diet Coke for a few days at a time, that feels like a fair compromise to me.
I remain unapologetic about my disordered eating because it works for me. Also, I believe the shame I once felt over these behaviors was no less harmful and no more deserved than the shame my chubby childhood body used to bring me. That said, I don't recommend this behavior. When friends struggling to lose weight ask me for advice, I still balk at the idea of suggesting, “Hey, have you thought about just not eating for a while?” For all the faith I have in my system, I can’t be certain that it’s not harming me, and I definitely can’t be sure it wouldn’t harm someone else.
The only thing I have learned for certain throughout my lifelong quest to marry my love for food and my love for being thin is that diet and fitness are intensely individual. Potential health risks aside, I can’t promise my system would even be effective for someone else. Ultimately, my suggestions may be as unhelpful for others as “everything in moderation” is for me.
In our current body-positive era, I recognize that much of what I've written here could be considered problematic. I’m not supposed to tell you that I feel better at 110 pounds than I do at 140. I’m not even supposed to admit it to myself. But maybe body positivity is about more than blindly accepting the imperfections in your body. Maybe it is enough to accept the imperfections in your relationship to that body.
Existing in my body is the hardest thing I have ever done, and I have to do it every day for the rest of my life. Existing in my body when it's between a size zero and two is a little easier for me. Disordered eating allows me to do that, at what I’ve calculated to be a reasonable cost. It’s the closest I’ll ever come to having my cake and staying skinny, too.
I will never be the poster girl for body positivity. I will never love my body unconditionally. But after many years at war, my body and I have found a way to coexist.