I think of it as something that I’ve weathered, like a storm that has pummeled my life on more than one occasion, or a wound that I’ve attempted, with varying degrees of success, to stitch on my own.
I’m not the right authority to tell you what exactly disordered eating means clinically, but I can tell you what it looks like.
A high school locker filled with “Chewy” brand granola bars, overflowing at the end of the year, spilling onto the floor and around your feet. Because you didn’t eat the lunch your mother packed you for 180 days and, instead, kept stuffing the granola bars into your locker – out of sight, out of mind.
A confused classmate who, after four weeks of taking your sandwich every day without question, looks at you and says, “If you aren’t eating it, why don’t you tell your mom to pack you something else?” Note to self: Find someone new to take the sandwich.
A concerned friend, noticing that you always came to lunch empty-handed, offering you his food every day until, finally, after hearing “no thanks” one too many times, looks at you and says, “Are you anorexic?”
Well, no. Sometimes I’d go weeks, months at a time eating less than an apple a day, maybe a Pop Tart if the headaches got too bad. I’d become something of a shell; a frightening, pale apparition. But when I found a calm eye in the midst of the storm, I’d start to eat again, and my face would resume its normal rosy color, and my scrawny body would return to a less alarming shape.
No one knew what to make of it at the time.
When my anxiety, panic, and depression caught up with me, my need to restrict became overwhelming. Habitually and thoughtlessly, like clockwork, I’d stop eating again, and watch my body shrink before my eyes. It was never just about being thin. It was about managing the only thing in my life I had absolute control over.
The excuses would roll in: I’d forgotten to eat. I didn’t like to eat. I didn’t need to eat. I was too stressed to eat. I was too anxious to eat. I was too sad to eat. Anything I could tell myself to justify the behavior and gloss over it.
When the inevitable wave had passed, and I resumed a healthy eating schedule, I shrugged and said to myself, “See? You’re fine.”
It happened again, and again, and again, the number on the scale a reflection of the tumultuous roller coaster I was on.
It wasn’t until I sought help for bipolar disorder that my complicated relationship with food unraveled, and the phrase “disordered eating” was tacked on by doctors, a footnote that seemed to haunt me.
“It’s too early to say if it’s an eating disorder,” they told me, “and not all the criteria are here, but no doubt, it’s disordered eating.”
What they meant by this eluded me, the consequences for my life unclear.
Was it a consolation prize for my seemingly random bouts of starvation? A participation ribbon, like the ones they gave you just for showing up to Field Day in elementary school? Disordered, but not quite a disorder? Where does that leave me?
And while I’m by no means suggesting that an eating disorder is a coveted prize, I couldn’t help but feel like the “disordered eating” label I’d been given was somehow a failure on my part.
It was an in-between space where I found it difficult to heal, and difficult still to find community. I was not entirely sure if I belonged in spaces for those who had “real” struggles with eating disorders, fearful that the bronze medal of “disordered eating” somehow disqualified me. Similarly, conversations about food, body image, and eating habits never seemed pressing enough to bring up in bipolar circles that I frequented, where things like suicide, self-harm, depression, and mania all seemed more urgent and more relevant to discuss.
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While doctors sought to validate my struggles with food by giving me this label of “disordered eating,” I felt more isolated than ever. Seeing it as “less than” or “secondary,” I pushed this part of my struggle under the rug – out of sight again, out of mind.
It was only recently, years after that footnote was added in my file, that I heard myself utter once again, “Eating is so fucking stressful sometimes.” I muttered it as I stared down my dinner with disdain, wishing I didn’t feel so conflicted about it. I loved food, yet getting me to eat was sometimes as painful as pulling teeth.
It was then that I remembered that phrase, tucked neatly beneath that rug and noted elsewhere in that file: “Disordered eating.”
And it was in that moment that I realized I would need to pull it out from hiding. I couldn’t stuff it in a locker, or hand it off to a classmate, or throw it away inside a brown paper bag. I would need to give it the attention, validation, and exploration it deserves, as a very real part of me and my journey toward self-love.
More Radical Reads: 6 Ways My Parents Unintentionally Taught Me Disordered Eating
It’s a reality, and a painful one, no matter what it’s called.
Whether it’s a “disorder” or it’s “disordered,” the impact that struggles with food have had on my life and on the lives of others is all too real, and it’s time we make space for those conversations. No matter what the diagnosis or the lack thereof, our struggles with food are never just a footnote.
It’s part of the story. And it’s a part of the story that needs to be told.
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[Headline image: The photograph shows the torso and arms of a person sitting at a table made of dark brown wood. They are wearing a white t-shirt with a little bit of black hair visible near their shoulders. Their left hand is resting in the crook of their right arm, and their right hand is holding a fork that they are putting into a red cherry tomato on a white plate. Next to the plate is a small glass of water.]
A very well-written, thought-provoking article, Sam.
Wow, I related to your story SO much. I too stop eating when I have depression and anxiety, but don’t have anorexia. I too have been in that gray area of needing help but having none available– eating disorder treatment wouldn’t fit, but depression treatment didn’t address it. I guess for me it’s been a journey toward acceptance: disordered eating is a part of what I struggle with. It is uncommon, people don’t get it, including psychiatrists, but it happens. I try to stop shaming myself for it. I used to feel like when my weight was low I was hideous and skeletal, or that when women would compliment my (dangerously low) weight that I was harming self-esteem and body image and being a bad feminist. Now I just try to learn and relearn how to care for myself, how to eat. Anyway sorry to ramble. Just thank you for sharing, it is nice to remember I’m not alone in this.
Thank you for posting this. I, too, was given the “disordered eating” label halfway through college. Though I feel differently about weight and eating than I did then, it doesn’t change the label’s existence in my world. I’ve never heard anyone else use the phrase, and it’s a relief to find solidarity in the in-between.