TW: eating disorders
It’s been some time since I was in the worst of my orthorexia. I have written about this twice before on my blog, but the last time was in 2016 and I think it is important to bring it up again. For those of us who have survived or are surviving eating disorders, the struggle never ends. This is my experience at least. Once you take on an unhealthy, obsessive mindset around something and stay that way for a while, you can always fall back into it. I do. Although I no longer cry over eating sweets or work out over two hours daily, I still often have obsessive thoughts about eating and exercising.
For a little background of my story, in mid-2016, at the age of 18 years old, I discovered I had orthorexia, which is defined as the obsession to eating pure. While researching for this post, I also discovered another condition called anorexia athletica, which is an eating disorder characterized by excessive and compulsive exercising. I realized before I conflated these two conditions, which are different from each other, but both of which I have suffered from. When I was in junior high school I got really into fitness and healthy eating (which I know is really bizarre for a child), and my passion turned into an obsession. In high school I went vegan and thought I was on the path to the “perfect” diet. I tried raw vegan, no sugar, gluten free, oil free, and many other ways of eating that I heard promoted online because I believed they were better than what I was doing, even though I was already eating so well. In high school and the early years of college I worked out for a minimum of two hours a day. I didn’t have my period for over a year in high school, and I didn’t question it for many months, until I went to my doctor and she told me I had something called “the female athlete triad,” which is a combination of three conditions: disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis. This is when shit got real. She told me that if I were to continue working out so much and eating so little I would be on a fast track to various health issues, including weak bones and osteoporosis, infertility, my uterus could fall out, and I could even die. I wasn’t having a period because my body was burning more calories than it was taking in, and my internal processes were not running correctly because my body was in starvation mode. She told me I either had to stop working out for a little bit or start eating more. I agreed, but had no idea how I could possibly muster doing either of those things. Exercise was an integral part of my identity, and I didn’t have the appetite to eat more. Besides, I didn’t want a period. When I told my mom about this, I played off the severity, until many months later when I realized I had an eating disorder.
When I finally found resources on orthorexia and what I was going through, I was moved to tears. I didn’t feel so alone. I found so many others suffering with the same obsessive lifestyle I did. I was finally aware I had a serious problem, and I could finally start working to fix it. I didn’t want my life to be controlled by healthy eating and exercise anymore. I wanted to enjoy life, and restrictive eating and compulsive exercise was not how I was going to do that. So midway into my college career I started working against the thought processes I had formulated for so long. I disappeared from social media for a while to heal, but reappeared at the end of 2016 to post a selfie of one of the first times in a long time I genuinely felt happy and free while working out. The response was very supportive. I was learning to speak the word “orthorexia” aloud. I was moved to share my experience with others. I wanted people to know that anyone is susceptible to developing an eating disorder, and they are not always obvious to others. I released the pain and mental suffering I experienced for years, and set myself on a path to a healthier lifestyle-this time, mentally.
It’s been three years since I put words to my pain from my eating disorder, and I have improved greatly. Recently I got ill at the end of a week of traveling and I did not work out for four days. I was disappointed, depressed, and wanted to work out despite my extreme fatigue. But someone who might have previously forced themself to work out or wallowed in self-pity because they couldn’t, accepted their body’s call for rest. I told some friends how upset I was that I couldn’t work out and they reminded me how irrational and cruel to myself I was being. This has been very helpful for me in all of mental health issues: speaking my thoughts aloud, either to close friends or just to myself, so that I could realize how irrational and unhealthy they are. Once I bring my ideas out into existence, I can recognize how negative they are and let them go. Luckily I have a wonderful partner who has grown to be very aware of my capacity to fall into obsessive healthy eating and exercise and he reminds me to be easier on myself, to enjoy a sweet once in a while and let my body rest after a long week. Healing from conditions like this is so much harder alone. When I was silent about it, I was suffering immensely. I had no validation of what I was going through. I was even praised for my obsessive habits by people who had no idea the amount of mental struggle that was behind living so strict a lifestyle. Being open about it has been the best thing I could do to get better.
I don’t think I will ever truly feel “healed” from this. I have anxiety and have the ability to think very compulsively, and this is something I constantly work to minimize. I still struggle with these disorders. I still feel insecure when someone is stronger than me, or fitter than me, since I have been working out at least 5 days a week for the past five years of my life. But I am not an Olympic athlete. I am not on a sports team. There is no reason I should have developed the female athlete triad, and that should have been a big clue to the way I was running my body. I have always been my own motivator, which is great for a lot of reasons, but in terms of working out, it means I never think I have done “enough.” I can always work out longer, push harder, be stronger. And that’s true for everyone, not just me. The only people who need to be the absolute strongest, fastest, and fittest they can be are athletes. I am not an athlete. I am someone who wants to live to at least one hundred years and look great and feel confident doing it. The lifestyle to do that has been ardently adopted by me and I will never give up on it, so there’s no need to push myself to a point that transcends what I need for my health.
My whole thinking on working out and healthy eating has shifted. I thought before that I should do those things mainly for appearances, and so I could feel superior to people who didn’t have as good of habits. Now I realize how horrible that is. I have realized also how problematic my thinking was, which I still fall into, that I thought being fit made me more valuable and beautiful. That is extremely fatphobic. Thanks to Instagram, I am more well-versed in fatphobia and the common ideas many of us believe that are fatphobic. Fat people are not necessarily unhealthy. They don’t necessarily need, or want, to lose weight. Fat people may eat healthier than me, and work out too. I had so many misconceptions in my head and feared more than anything becoming fat if I let my habits go, but that is so insanely offensive to fat people, who are as beautiful, powerful, and valuable as anyone else. I consider myself beautiful and love my body and appreciate all the assets I have toned with exercise, but that doesn’t mean I can’t also respect the bodies of those who are not as fit as I. Making exercise a key part of my life is my personal choice. Not everyone has to do it. Of course it is great for your health, but as human beings we have the freedom to decide how we live our lives. Many of my close family members and friends do not regularly exercise or eat that healthy, and while before I looked down on their decision to neglect healthy habits, now I detach myself from others’ lifestyles and just focus on living the healthiest one for myself. What others do for themselves is no business of mine.
I still struggle, mostly with the compulsive exercise rather than clean eating. I have improved my obsessive thinking by starting to do workouts not on my own. I got really into POPSUGAR Fitness videos on YouTube a while ago and they really help me not work out for hours, because they’re short and very vigorous. I also just started going to the gym, which is great for me because again I realize how abnormal it is to work out for hours, and because I can focus on certain goals each day, like building strength with weight training or endurance with running. Working out with a friend is also really helpful because they help me complete a workout in a normal amount of time. I eat gluten free because of my digestive issues, and eat mostly whole foods like starches, fruits, veggies, and grains. Being with my boyfriend who enjoys chips and ice cream every now and then has helped me loosen up my diet. I do enjoy unhealthy foods once in a while, and I have no shame in that anymore. Before if I ate something unhealthy or a “large” amount of anything, I would eat alone so no one else could see me and judge my habits. I judged others’ habits so harshly because I thought others were doing the same to me. The truth is most people don’t care. Before I believed the purpose of eating was for only for health and never for pleasure, but I think that idea is a load of triggering crap now. I would only eat bland, super healthy foods before and planned my meals obsessively. I had to “stay on track.” There was no pleasure in eating. I am here to say that eating should bring us pleasure. It is a huge part of our lives: a means of connecting, sharing culture, and often a labor of love. We should enjoy what we eat, and eat food that is good for our bodies too. Having pleasure makes life worth living. I could write a whole other post about this, but I also thought before that it didn’t matter if I was happy, as long as I was leaving a profound impact on the world. I stopped believing that once I realized how long I had gone without having genuine fun or laughing. Being happy and experiencing pleasure give us the motivation and energy needed to be change agents in the world. Being a numbed, starved soul makes it a lot harder to work so passionately and selflessly to benefit others. We can both care for our own souls and for others, both enjoy the unique lives we live and realize there is more to our purpose than personal enjoyment. We can celebrate and dance while we exist, but do the work to make sure our legacy doesn’t die with us. Life should be enjoyed.
Still being in this state of “healing,” I have noticed so many disturbing cultural trends that are both triggering for me and I assume others who have survived eating disorders, and also contribute to the ideology that gives people eating disorders in the first place. It’s no one’s fault I suffered but my own; however, I do think our culture is obsessed with fitness, health, and appearance, and the influences around us can lead us onto unhealthy paths before we even realize it. Instagram is a huge perpetrator of this, which is why I seriously limit my time on there. When I was working through the worst of my issues, I had to take a break because everywhere I looked on Instagram there were photos of people’s abs, perfect salads and acai bowls, and incredibly hard workouts. This is especially an issue in the vegan community. I went raw vegan based on fake science, because Instagrammers and Youtubers convinced me it was the way to go. That is extremely dangerous- I have read many stories of people who got very sick on raw diets. I have definitely learned to look more into everything I see online. It’s not Instagram’s fault that social media is like this, it just is. The nature of social media is for users to show the best parts of themself and leave the rest unmentioned. I have later found out that many health and fitness “gurus” I looked up to suffered from eating disorders too. My role models were promoting health and fitness from a mentally unhealthy place of obsession! Let that sink in.
We have to be very careful with the influences we surround ourselves with. When I say triggered in regards to my eating disorder, I mean things I see or hear will make me fall back into the obsessive way of thinking that wreaked havoc on my body. It’s not just online either. In the past year I got into the idea of intermittent fasting, and while I mostly follow it by keeping a small eating window, I do not stress over exact times because it can lead me to obsessive eating patterns again. I have to be careful of the people and media I surround myself with, so that I don’t take in an overwhelming amount of promotion of a certain lifestyle or eating pattern. I often overhear people or find myself in conversations with people who are bragging about their eating and fitness habits, or are even saying fatphobic things. They have no idea the impact this has on me. Before I probably would have tried to make my routine seem better than theirs and prove I was fitter, but now I usually don’t say anything about myself. I’m not in a competition with anyone. I am so happy with my routine and I love my body and caring for it, and I don’t need to prove this to anyone.
If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this article it’s to be very careful of the way you talk about many things, like health, fitness, and even mental health, around others, because you never know who has trauma around those things and could be triggered and spiral into their illness again. It’s not always easy for the person suffering to speak up and ask people to stop talking this way either. It is so ingrained in people’s brains, and I feel like it would take a lot of explaining to get them to see health and fitness as something that should be good for all parts of you, and not just your physique, like I too used to overly focus on. It’s not our faults; it just reflects the society we live in. But we do need to take responsibility to think better and act better on these things. To be kinder and more accepting to our own bodies and to everyone else’s. To watch our language around others whose histories we are unaware of, and to whom our words may come off as shameful or judgmental. I am only in control of myself and my own healing, but it would make a lot less people suffer if we all put in the work to be more body positive, less fatphobic, and less problematic in our ideologies on healthy eating and exercise (among many other things).
No, there is no such thing as “clean eating,” or a “perfect” diet. No, a little bit of sugar once in a while will not kill you. Yes, sugar is unhealthy. Yes, it is okay to eat it. No, you are not less valuable if you do not work out or eat healthy. Yes, you are an autonomous being who is free to live your life as you choose. No, you are not better than anyone because you have stricter habits. Yes, everyone deserves to know they are beautiful. Yes, our beauty standards are a load of crap. Yes, social media can negatively impact your psyche and you should log off when needed for your own mental health. Yes, your mental health matters. Possibly more than anything else. Yes, you matter. No, you should not feel immense stress and pressure to eat and live healthily. Yes, working out can be fun and is great for you. Yes, if you are anyone you know are suffering from an eating disorder, help is out there. Follow the link below for resources. Stay aware. Love yourself.
This is the original post I made in 2016: https://laughinginloafs.wordpress.com/2016/07/26/coming-clean/