Awareness Vital in Eating Disorder Treatment

Rose Stoloff, Editor-in-Chief

Trigger Warning: This article contains discussion of eating disorders.

Over the summer I found myself sitting in my bed at three in the morning writing an email to my mother, confessing to her that I had been living with an eating disorder for the last three years. That night, while trying in vain to fall asleep, something clicked in my brain. I was done hiding my disease, done suffering alone and ready for help. Her response the next morning: “I already knew; I love you.”

My eating disorder crept up on me during the summer before my sophomore year at Oberlin. It snaked its way into my life so maliciously and silently that I never even recognized it for what it was. I wasn’t planning on losing weight; I never wanted to change my body. I started restricting what foods I ate and how large my portions were because I was developing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. But my habits soon became obsessions, and in a matter of months I weighed as much as I had when I was in fifth grade.

A year and a half after reaching a healthy weight, and seven months after receiving formal treatment and therapy at the Cleveland Center for Eating Disorders, I still have a hard time talking about and admitting that I am a recovering anorexic. In fact, this op-ed will likely come as a surprise to all but a few friends.

Anorexia is much more than a number on a scale or a last-ditch effort to lose five pounds; it is a biological, irrational state of mind that has the highest death rate of any mental illness. But like most mental illnesses, eating disorders are still clouded in shame, making them both hard to talk about and hard to recognize. Next week, Feb. 22–28, is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. This year’s theme is “I had no idea.” According to the National Eating Disorder Association, the week will be geared toward educating people about the importance of catching the early, often-overlooked warning signs of eating disorders.

My mother once told me that if you are pregnant, it is as if every other woman on the street is pregnant too. The same was true of my eating disorder. Before my own experience I never thought about eating disorders; now I see eating disorders, disordered eating patterns and unhealthy relationships with food and bodies everywhere. At meals, every time somebody proclaims that they shouldn’t have eaten those French fries or that they don’t “deserve” that cookie, I cringe. I worry when members of my cross country and track team casually remark that they haven’t had their period in months, something I lost for a year to anorexia. I am resentful of the new “health” app on the iPhone that tracks how many miles its user has walked in a day. And I can no longer set foot in a co-op because I am triggered by the way people discuss their food restrictions with pride and the shaming that often occurs for taking more than one’s “cooperative portion.”

Catching disordered eating behaviors before they have the chance to spiral into full-blown eating disorders is crucial and the focal point of NEDA’s awareness week. I have seen acquaintances at Oberlin and close friends display patterns of unhealthy behavior, and I have mostly been too cowardly to say anything. I am not suggesting we police each other’s eating habits. That could easily backfire. But calling people out on microaggressions in reference to others’ food choices could go a long way.

My cross country team has a salad obsession that I am regrettably complicit in. But a plate full of vibrant vegetables, beans and hard-boiled eggs has become so commonplace that when a teammate of mine had two slices of pizza for dinner, two of our other teammates stared critically at her plate, asking if that was what she was really having for dinner.

I doubt my teammates meant any harm. Before my own experience I likely made similar comments. In fact, my cross country teammates are generally more conscious of issues of body image and eating disorders than many people I know, and I credit much of my recovery to my experience on the team. But I should have said something to my two teammates about the devastating effects that this tiny comment could have had on some individuals. Part of the process of recovering from an eating disorder is learning to confront “fear foods.” If someone had judged me for eating pizza, I likely would have thrown my meal in the trash in exchange for a salad.

I have been thinking about writing this piece for a long time. More than anything, this is my way of coming clean about my eating disorder. But I also hope that maybe it will convince others to think more critically of the way they discuss food, bodies and health.