“I’m too smart to have an eating disorder”
This is Part 1 of my ongoing series on my eating disorder recovery. Please note this article contains descriptions of disordered behaviour and may be triggering to some. Reader discretion is advised.
It took me three years before I admitted to myself that I had an eating disorder. Three years of counting kilojoules, of finding creative strategies to eliminate “unhealthy” food from my diet without my family finding out. Three years of hyperventilating and crying at my reflection, of compulsive checking of my wrists and hipbones, of walking in a strange wide-legged stance so that my thighs wouldn’t touch. Three years of not wearing a swimsuit in public, of avoiding the reflection of my naked body. One year of throwing up after every meal, of hiding cups filled with sick under my bed until everyone was asleep and I could tip them down the toilet.
How can you have an eating disorder and not know it?
I believed that I was too smart and self-aware, too feminist — to fall for the patriarchal beauty standards of society. I was not like “those anorexics”. I didn’t want to be stick thin. Everything I did was normal and justified and healthy.
I was, of course, in denial.
Denial and shame are the biggest barriers to recovery that a person with an eating disorder will have to overcome. Both factors are influenced by a person’s desire to control their own self-narrative. Denial is a protective mechanism against cognitive dissonance — the jarring feeling of incongruity when something that one is doing is at odds with something else they believe. Shame results when one fears that others will see this inconsistency between their self-image and the behaviour causing the dissonance.
As I’ve discussed in a previous article, cognitive dissonance is a powerful driver for subconscious behaviour. Leon Festinger, who first described the theory, identified that the closer a belief is to someone’s self-image, the more likely it is that they will try to find ways to resolve the cognitive dissonance through denial strategies rather than admit that they were wrong.
This proved to be true in the development of my own eating disorder.
It started innocently enough. I have always had a sweet tooth and a proclivity for reading rather than exercise. When I was sixteen I would study and eat M&Ms while I read. Combined with a late puberty — the clothes that I had up until then fit into with ease started to become tight as I developed curvy hips and thighs. After some cruel remarks from my family members, I decided I wanted to become healthy and lose some weight. Swapping out M&Ms for frozen berries, going for long walks while listening to music and plotting my novel. I started asking my mother to buy me a salad instead of a burger when we went out to lunch. After all, I genuinely love fruit and vegetables, so eating carrots and hummus for both breakfast and lunch is just something I’m doing because I enjoy it, right?
I never intended to develop an eating disorder. I have never wanted to look like the stereotypical anorexic. I wanted to be five kilograms lighter than what I currently was. But it didn’t stop there. Instead it morphed into wanting to be five kilograms lighter than whatever I currently was. A moving goalpost that never allowed me to feel peace or satisfaction — but one that allowed me to persist in the delusion that I wasn’t ill for years, as little by little the obsession took over my mind, until literally every. second. thought. in my mind was related to the eating disorder.
People who haven’t had an eating disorder may think I’m exaggerating, because at the same time as all this I was living what to outsiders would appear to be a full life — I was a high achiever academically, I was creating art and writing, I was running a massive Facebook feminist community. I had friends. None of whom knew that this was going on as the background to every thought, poisoning my happiness and making it impossible for me to immerse myself in an experience to the full.
I was an expert at hiding it, not just from them, but from myself. The cognitive dissonance came from knowing intellectually, that it didn’t matter what people looked like, that true worth is on the inside. That things like a “thigh gap” were an invention of the fashion industry and completely arbitrary. That my thoughts and behaviour were irrational and making my life worse.
The cognitive dissonance was the knowledge that if this was true (and I knew it was), then I must be a hypocrite to be restricting and purging and obsessing over my weight. I must be weak. I was in denial to protect myself from this feeling.
I finally took an online quiz and as I filled it out and knew as I was doing so what the result would be — I started crying, because I was finally admitting to myself that I was deeply sick. I felt shame, because I knew what I felt and how I acted was irrational. And yet I felt compelled to do it, and I didn’t know how to stop.
Self-awareness was not enough, however. My shame kept me from seeking help. The shame of not being able to “fix myself” with all my intelligence and willpower. The shame of telling people to “love themselves” when I couldn’t feel this way myself.
It would take another year before I would I seek help from my parents. I cried to them and admitted “I have an eating disorder and it makes me hate my body”. That day, they reacted supportively, hugging me and saying they would help me. But days and weeks went by without further acknowledgement from them about what I’d told them.
The disordered part of me was glad.
Then one day my mother and I were clothes shopping and she told me to try on a pencil skirt. It couldn’t fit. I started to panic and teared up. I told my mother that this kind of skirt was triggering me. Then she confirmed my worst fears — berating me publicly that I was “putting on this attitude as a part of my persona” and that I needed to just “steel myself and get over it”. This event reinforced the shame I felt about seeking help, told me that I was in fact weak as I’d always feared. I never asked my mother for help again.
I went to my dad, and he said he believed me that I had a real eating disorder and that he would look into getting me therapy. But after that one conversation about it he never brought it up again. Perhaps he was in denial himself. The cognitive dissonance of being a doctor whose daughter had an eating disorder, was perhaps too much to acknowledge at the time.
And so I went back to hiding it, to pretending in my family that I wasn’t sick, and we engaged together in the fiction that everything was fine. Meanwhile I researched methods to recover from eating disorders, and started to attempt ways to make myself recover on my own. And indeed some of these methods reduced the severity of my symptoms considerably, feeding the belief that I was able to recover by myself, with no help from anybody.
This too, was a form of denial. One that would take me longer to realise.