Opinion

Disordered eating: starting, stopping, and moving forward

From February to early April of my senior year of high school, my eating was disordered.

I would eat an apple or a pear in the morning on my way to school and drink water all day to stay full---then eat a big dinner with my family and purge myself in the bathroom. I was playing tennis regularly, but I started swimming laps mornings and afternoons, too. I weighed myself every day. I kept a food diary and tried to estimate how many calories I’d burned or purged to determine what I could eat next.

After graduation, with Columbia in sight, I decided I had to stop. I knew that my habits weren’t healthy. I wasn’t losing weight, anyway. I was afraid of losing my teeth. I was afraid of my family finding out. Most of all, I was afraid of being forced to get treatment I felt I didn’t need and subsequently delay my matriculation at Columbia.

A Spectator columnist wrote in 2010,

These disorders, however, extend beyond just “not wanting to get fat” and physically inhibiting weight gain. It is an obsession brought on by a host of unconscious and debilitating mental processes. For example, potential triggers of an eating disorder could be feeling that no one likes you, feeling that you don’t like yourself, or feeling as if you have no sense of control. The desire to be thin stems from the socially constructed emphasis on slimness as a mark of beauty, which may seem like a perfect way to accrue friends to someone who feels like a social outsider. For a person who feels a loss of control, the ability to refuse the food your body naturally desires provides a needed sense of empowerment.

I call my particular situation disordered eating because I am reluctant to call it a diagnosable disorder and dilute the severity and significance of an actual psychological and physical eating disorder. I have had friends who have had full-blown eating disorders from bulimia to anorexia who received treatment, are still recovering, and face their demons every day. But ultimately, my experience isn’t unique---it reflects our disordered culture around food.

Disordered eating, whether full-blown or just a flirtation, is so normalized that we don’t even realize when it’s happening around us. Friends, roommates, classmates, sisters. Subtle comments, skipped meals. It doesn’t take much to go over the edge, but we should be able to stop ourselves and stop each other from going on an unhealthy spiral.

Liz Lemon provided girls with the self-confidence to not have to justify to anyone, including ourselves, that we love food outside a salad bowl. Healthy eating is a healthy relationship with food that includes moderation, balance, and a positive sense of control, rather than an exclusive diet of carrots and quinoa. I love that Jennifer Lawrence is at least starting the dialogue about women and food, although it needs to progress. The prevailing expectation that both women still provide for us is that we can love food as long as we are skinny and fit the mold of what society calls beautiful. Lemon and Lawrence are still minority voices when it comes to healthy eating.

Winter vacations, spring break, summer, and back to school in the fall are all reasons we convince ourselves to go on diets or lose weight with a set goal in mind for how we want to look. And we never seem to get there.It goes beyond wishing we had what we don’t, whether it’s something bigger here or smaller there---it’s an issue with self-acceptance, self-confidence, and self-love.

I enjoy food again because I'm comfortable with my body, but it's also because I enjoy cooking and eating out with friends and family. I learned that the normal ebb and flow of anxiety in my life can be controlled in other ways besides hurting myself. I hope that everyone who has suffered such a dark period can emerge stronger, healthier, and happier.

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anon posted on

Thank you for these articles. Although I found the heavy linking a little exhausting, the number of Spec articles on eating disorders have helped me realize that being a college student with a history of disordered eating doesn't mean I'm alone. I wish this stuff were in the news more often, since it affects so many people every day of their lives.

As someone who as definitely struggled with with very "disordered eating" but no diagnosis, I think this is incredibly important to bring up. Just because you don't meet the diagnostic requirements for an eating disorder does not mean that you do not need and deserve help. The biggest step in my recovery was realizing that the immense mental energy that I was wasting on food anxiety was a problem worth facing.

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Anonymous posted on

Thank you for keeping the conversation going.

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Paulina Pinsky posted on

Amazing.

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Anonymous posted on

Beautiful job, Daniela. It's never an easy topic and you handled it gracefully. Proud to be your friend.

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nickparker posted on

Daniela, thank you for this brave and well-written post. really great job

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An Alum posted on

Daniela, thank you so much for putting yourself out there and sharing this with the Columbia community. It inspired me to share my own story with you as well:

I came into CC with a preexisting ED/disordered eating behavior. I had refused treatment in high school because I thought it was a sign of weakness, something to be ashamed of. Needless to say, I was not at all prepared for what lay ahead in my four years at Columbia. I was immersed in a world full of constant triggers, stigmas, and cut-throat competition. I felt a complete lack of support and trust in both my peers and the faculty (professors, health/mental services, advisors, etc). My symptoms got worse, and my academic and extracurricular standings plummeted. The more it consumed me, the more ashamed I felt, the more I ignored the glaring issues and tried to push on.

I knew that I needed help but I felt that there was nobody to turn to. As opposed to some other controversial issues, I never saw disordered eating being addressed in a public manner on campus, and therefore not a "worthy" mental health issue. For 3 years, I perfected the art of hiding my symptoms. As you said in your article, the signs essentially invisible to those that don't know. I could find neither the courage nor the words to convey to anyone the way ED was like a parasite in my mind. It took over my thoughts and emotions. It was like getting a daily pummeling of depression and verbal abuse. I wasted my time and money, letting a once in a life time educational opportunity slip through my fingers.

After realizing that I was quickly approaching rock bottom, I reluctantly began treatment my last year at school while simultaneously trying to mend my academic record. It was an extremely difficult balance to reach to say the least and there were so many times that I wanted to stop therapy. But just as I had pushed on before, I continued and slowly began finding the strength to break free from the grips of this consuming mental illness. By the end of my time at Columbia, things had finally turned around a bit.

While I'm not 100% better, I'm happy to say I've come a VERY long way since graduating. I continue with my therapy diligently and am moving in the right direction. I simply never knew life could be any different so I didn't think getting help would change much. Seeing the person I am today I greatly regret that I waited so long to get help. I don't know that many people will ever hear my story, but I wish I could tell people at Columbia and Barnard not to waste their time pretending, deflecting, and rejecting issues. I wish I could tell them it's okay to admit something is wrong, not only in terms of eating but in terms of any obstacles, mental or otherwise, they may encounter. In the process of recovery, I've finally found the kind of support that I had lacked at Columbia and felt honored to have influenced others to begin their own recovery as well. I hope that someday the Columbia/Barnard community will likewise find a way to support their students in a way that allows each and every individual to have a chance at reaching their full potential.

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