Emotional Eating Disorder: Am I Eating My Feelings?
What is emotional eating disorder?: any of a range of psychological disorders characterized by abnormal or disturbed eating habits (such as anorexia nervosa).
Perhaps I should begin by admitting that this piece is way behind the deadline. I committed to writing about it right after I wrote about Anthony Bourdain, thinking it would be a natural segue to reflect on my own relationship to food. I can now say with confidence that my mind is much quicker at making logical transitions than it is at processing all the emotional baggage that comes with it.
I’m hardly alone in having a complicated relationship with food and my body. I watched plenty of Oprah growing up. I’m familiar with the tropes that are trotted out over and over in women’s magazines: stories of fat-shame contrasted with celebrations of weight-loss “success,” tips and tricks to “improve” one’s diet, alongside cautionary tales about emotional eating disorder, and weight-loss “miracle cures” often facing recipes for the most decadent desserts! (For your family! I guess readers of women’s magazines were supposed to bake the cake and then eat a salad?)
Last year, scholar, professor, writer and pioneering Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay released a book titled Hunger, subtitled A Memoir of (My) Body. Dr. Gay had already shared pieces of her story in her books, essays,and interviews – having immigrant parents with high expectations, surviving sexual assault as a teenager, being one of the few black students in a school for gifted students, etc. – but at an event in Chicago last fall she candidly discussed how difficult it had been to write Hunger. Even though our personal narratives around weight gain and loss have more in common than not, it remains a deeply personal and difficult subject.
Pain for Breakfast, Shame for Dinner
When I was four or five years old, a doctor told my mother that I was obese and would grow up to be extremely overweight, unless we started tackling it right away. This started a series of painful conversations at home that centered on my being fat. Images from Hollywood in a newly liberalized India only served to magnify deep-seated concerns about how I would be treated in a world that already jumps at every opportunity to devalue women.
Being thin was supposed to be a foolproof route to confidence, desirability, educational and professional opportunities, and a life of success and power. In retrospect, it just seems tragic that even educated professionals like my parents and millions of others of their generation, who have very little direct experience with political power or material success, became totally convinced that thinness, of all things, held the key.
As a teenager, I started to become depressed and anxious, started to self-harm, but managed to pass as mostly normal thanks to my good grades. It was as if a thick blanket of shame had fallen on me and become fused with my skin, alternately suffocating me and providing cover as I snuck away treats to gorge on later. Meanwhile, my weight kept increasing and continued to be a constant topic of discussion, with words like self-control and discipline and willpower flying around like stubborn mosquitoes.
Even if my parents didn’t bring it up, I remember the almost casual way in which others would comment on it. They’d bring it up with my parents, talking about me in the third person as if my oversized t-shirt were an actual invisibility cloak. Occasionally, I would venture that maybe the eating was just symptomatic of a deeper problem. Like the totally unwanted male attention that I had done nothing to provoke, or the pressure to be perfect, or the pressure to pretend there was no pressure. Nothing too crazy, I was just being a teenager who was sometimes researching suicide on early internet chat rooms.
My arguments only seemed to make the others dig their heels in and insist that all of these problems would be solved if I just lost some weight. They always had good intentions, of course; they were only concerned. Long before Health at Every Size, Intuitive Eating, and the twilight zone where weight loss pretends to be only about health, not size, the concern about my weight triggered all of my bullshit receptors. It seemed totally obvious to me that the only real concern anybody had was that it would be difficult to get me married off, but I never ventured this theory because I didn’t want it confirmed.
A Pound of Prevention
We now know that diets don’t work, that the body responds to calorie restrictions by slowing its metabolism, which makes it harder to keep the weight off. We know more about emotional eating disorders, how they develop, and why they can be very hard to beat. (Hint: Unlike cigarettes or alcohol, quitting food is not an option.) Little girls don’t learn to hate their own bodies and instead of avoiding weight gain at all costs, we should be teaching them to listen to their own bodies and respect their desires as well as their satiation. Eating is a natural response to hunger. Eating or starving out of a need to numb oneself is not a failure of willpower.
Like a labyrinth one walks over and over, the process of learning to live in one’s body, listening to it, building body trust, and recovering from an emotional eating disorder is a lifelong endeavor. As such, it can be an additional burden over and above our everyday responsibilities. A significant part of the challenge is to acknowledge that we have a greater responsibility to ourselves, our bodies, and our healing than to anything external to us. Like with all self-care, the experience of recovery and what it enables for our growth matters more than what it might look like to anyone else.
Resources For Emotional Eating Disorder
In addition to the articles and websites that are linked in the text, these books were the most useful to me when I was starting to come to terms with binge eating in college:
- Eating In The Light Of The Moon by Dr. Anita Johnston
- Health At Every Size by Dr. Linda Bacon
- Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
If reading books requires too much of a time commitment, here’s a fantastic podcast that provides a range of perspectives from the body-positive world: Every Body Podcast. (Also, thank you for taking the time to read this article!). All the interviews together cast a wide net with overlapping conversations about body positivity beyond ED recovery. One of the many things I discovered through the podcast is that you can decline being weighed at your doctor’s office if you’ve been weighed recently and haven’t experienced any sudden changes.
This may seem minor, but it’s not. Even the most well-intentioned concern trolls have to acknowledge that if obesity is a major public health concern, then the first obstacle we need to overcome is (some) patients’ fear of the scale and (some) doctors’ failures to see past the fat and not ignore genuinely life-threatening symptoms.
Lastly, if you just want to add a boost of body positivity to your Instagram feed, here are some of my favorites: @beatingeatingdisorders, @projectheal, @with_this_body, @decolonizing_fitness, @reclaiming.the.wild, @benourishedpdx.
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