Food, Fat and Fear: Recognizing an Eating Disorder and Recovering

In the U.S., 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a life-threatening eating disorder during their lives. Many of those millions will never seek help and will die from the disorder. The No. 1 contributor to the development of anorexia and bulimia is poor body image, and that is one of the many reasons we fight for girls and women to understand we are more than just bodies to be looked at, fixed, and judged.

About the Author: Our very own Facebook administrator, Keighty Brigman, LMSW, recovered from an eating disorder and then moved to helping other women recover from their own EDs. Here, she shares her expertise on how to decide if you have an unhealthy relationship with food and/or a distorted idea of where your worth comes from. If you recognize your own thoughts and behaviors in this post, we’re here to help you break free.

My heart was racing in my chest. The sweat was pooling on my palms, and though I could hear my mother talking, I couldn’t make out the words she was saying. Instinct, self-preservation, something had me nodding and responding enough to let her think I was paying attention, when the only thing that had my focus was the internal battle occurring in my brain.

Do it.

Don’t do it!

Just do it. It isn’t a big deal.

You don’t deserve it.

Think of how good it will be.

Fine. Just do it. You aren’t good enough to say no anyway.

With the pressure I felt to make the right decision, fighting between my will and my primal instinct, both at complete odds with one another, one would assume I was conflicted over a major life decision. But the back and forth wasn’t over school, a profession, a relationship.


It was over a peach.

Though it was many years ago, I can still remember the simultaneous sensation of pure ecstasy and utter anguish as I bit into the sweet flesh, and while it was the only thing that I had eaten that day, the many justifications of how much exercise I’d done already, how much I would do still before going to bed, quickly melted under the self loathing at my sense of defeat.

I’m not stronger than a peach, I thought.

I’m pathetic, I thought.

No wonder no one loves me, I thought.

Recovery followed a time after that, and since then, I have had the immense honor of working with dozens of women experiencing the mental prison known as an eating disorder. “Eating disorder” is such a broad, generic term that entails both a wide variety of symptoms (those for Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, and Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder), and also is experienced by a wide variety of women: professionals, adolescents, those with dark and troubled upbringings, those with picture perfect families, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, daughters, athletes, introverts, and partiers. They were women teaching Sunday school, and women who always had their nose in a book. They were women winning medals in gymnastics, and women trying to figure out how to afford to go back to school.

And just as the experiences of the women varied person to person, the way they looked also varied. Advertisements and movies would have us believe that an eating disorder looks like a thin layer of flesh on jutting hip bones, and while I certainly saw plenty of those, I also saw women who were short, those who were tall, those with shaved heads and those with hair that went on for days. I saw women who looked like they could take a punch, and women who you wouldn’t give a second thought about if you saw them at your kid’s bake sale. There were women who, seeing them on the street, would not cause you to stare in wonder at how they were still breathing.

In short, they looked like everyone else.

The difference, though, was the intense fear they felt — saturating every moment — of gaining weight. It was the intense relationship between what the number said on the scale and how they felt about themselves that day. It was the periods of eating more food in one sitting than what is normal, and then getting rid of it—through purging, excessive exercise, or restricting food intake over the next few days. It was the constant mental tape playing, calculating how many calories have been consumed versus how many have been burned.

On the outside, they may look like anyone else. But emotionally, they are clawing for survival.

Surviving in the throes of an eating disorder is to live in a place where there is no happiness. There isn’t room for anything positive, because the eating disorder convinces you that such goodness is far outside of the bounds of what you deserve. If you feel like you may be experiencing an eating disorder, please know you are not alone, and while it seems impossible that it can ever get better, it can. You can get to the other side of this, and you deserve to feel better.

For those of you who may be teetering on the edge, or heading on the path toward the awful pit eating disorders create, here are some things to ask yourself:

• Do I eat less (significantly less) than the people around me?
• Do I avoid social gatherings that I know will involve food?
• Do I make excuses to avoid eating, even though I have not eaten in a while?
• Do I fixate on the calories various foods contain?
• Do I have a list of “bad” foods? “Good” foods?
• Do I eat to avoid feeling negative emotions?
• Do I feel guilt after eating?
• Do I weigh myself daily/multiple times a day, and do I have an emotional reaction each time I read that number?
• Do I tell myself, “I’ll be happy/successful/loveable/worthy when I’m at ____ lbs”?
• Do I make plans to “make up” for foods that have been eaten, either through purging, excessive exercise, or skipping meals?
• Do I feel out of control when it comes to food?
• Do I seek control through the foods I eat?
• Do I find myself thinking about what I have eaten, what I will eat, how much exercise I’ve done, what exercise I will do, etc. at times when I am trying to focus on something else?

If you answered “yes” to any of these, it suggests you have an unhealthy relationship with food and/or an unhealthy idea of where your worth comes from. Culturally speaking, the pressure on women (and yes, men too) to look a certain way can make it easy to internalize negative ideas that can result in these unhealthy thought patterns, and those thoughts can escalate to an eating disorder. It can become easy to write off any of these as something one simply does to be thin, to diet, to be attractive. But there is no room for beauty and no opportunity to feel beautiful under the heavy veil of constant self-criticism, and any space given to entertain thoughts degrading your self-worth is too much.

You deserve better. You can get better.

For more information on eating disorders, you can visit www.nationaleatingdisorders.org, which includes an online self-assessment and tools to find professionals in your area who can help. There is freedom in health, both in mind and body. May you have the courage to demand it.

Running from Self-Objectification

When we grow up surrounded by appearance-obsessed media’s “Weigh Less, Smile More!!” and “Perfect Your Parts, Perfect Your Life!!” headlines plastered everywhere, those messages rake in billions and get us nowhere closer to real health and happiness.  Instead, these messages become so normal — SO unquestioned — that we believe and act as we’re told. The point here is not to villainize makeup or hair care or any industry, but to understand the ways these ever-present messages ask us to view ourselves. That view: An outsider’s gaze – from the outside looking in on ourselves. It’s called self-objectification and it’s a normal part of most females’ lives whether we know it or not. Years ago, this cool scholar, de Beauvoir, understood this point. She pointed out that as girl grows up, “she is doubled; instead of coinciding exactly with herself, she also exists outside” (1952). Foucalt  talked about self-objectification as a way we imprison ourselves: “There is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze, a gaze which each individual under its weight will end by [internalizing] to the point that [she] is [her] own overseer, each individual thus exercising surveillance over, and against [her]self” (1977).

What research and real-life experience make very clear is that when we can begin to see ourselves for more than our parts and respect our bodies as instruments that can do amazing things for us and for those around us, we get much closer to finding health, fitness and happiness. But in the meantime, millions of us cannot break through the constant messages telling us to survey ourselves at all times and spend all the time, money, and energy necessary to perfect the parts of us in need of perfection.

Can you even fathom what that is doing to females everywhere? It stunts our progress in every way that really matters. It keeps us from getting awesome grades, reaching for the coolest possible jobs, raising our hands in class, playing sports and exercising, running for political offices, loving each other and loving ourselves. And that’s not just Beauty Redefined’s take on things. Research shows us that when we live “to be looked at” in a perpetual state of self-consciousness about our looks, we are left with fewer mental and physical resources to do what can really bring happiness. We perform worse on math tests, logical reasoning tests, athletic performance, we have lower sexual assertiveness (the ability to say “no” when needed), and we are left anxious and unhappy.*

And the reason Lindsay and I do what we do with Beauty Redefined is because there is so much power in understanding these truths! All hope is not lost! Actually, there is SO MUCH hope to be had. We know the power and potential of females everywhere to break free from lies that constrain us and move on to happiness and light and love and success.  We know this as scholars, as activists, and on a very personal level. Have you read our post on ditching weight loss resolutions in favor of more health-focused goals? The first resolution we highly suggest is there for a reason — I’ve been testing it out and I swear on everything important to me that it works!

Resolution #1: Set a true fitness goal: If you’ve held yourself back from running, biking, swimming, etc., because you felt self-conscious about what to wear, how red your face gets from the workout, sweating in public, (the list goes on), it’s time to set a goal and fight to achieve it!  Make this goal about your abilities and you’ll be much less inclined to care about what you look like doing it.

Here’s how I know it works:

I’m on the far left 🙂 I faced all my fears – sweat, red face, running, etc.!

In the years since Lindsay and I founded Beauty Redefined, my body confidence has improved by leaps and bounds, but a couple of years ago, I realized one way I was letting self-objectification hold me back from awesomeness.  You see, I’ve never loved running. Before that point, the most I’d ever run outside was one mile.  Somehow, in October 2012, I got talked in to running a half marathon.  If you’d have told me before then that I’d run 13.1 MILES outside, I’d have laughed in your face. But when I signed up for that Halloween half marathon with a few amazing friends, I knew I had to begin training.  I was terrified. Not only is running really hard on both a physical and mental level, but I realized I was possibly more terrified of being looked at while running. I spent the first few weeks of training on a treadmill at my gym, hoping no one was on the stair climber right behind me to stare straight at me.  I felt self-conscious that my face got really red from hard workouts. I felt self-conscious that I wasn’t wearing the right outfits for running. (Is spandex a necessity?!?!) I felt self-conscious that the runners next to me were going faster and farther and they were thinking I was lame.  When I forced myself to step off the treadmill and run outside, my fears only escalated.  Now I was stressed about all the people that were watching me run past their cars, and I chose parks that weren’t heavily populated instead of busy roads. 

But as I trained and built up my endurance, something inside me changed.  Instead of picturing myself running, I started just running. I stopped worrying about being a good vision of me and I gave myself all of me.  Before, I used to do cardio in an effort to burn fat and fit into those jeans I’ve been keeping in the back of my closet.  Now, I do cardio to build up my endurance, get my heart rate up, and prove to myself I can do it.  I used to do weight workouts and sit-ups to tone up the parts of me I thought were just awful to look at.  Now I do strength training to build muscle I use to carry myself through long runs and workouts – and it really helps.  Running now makes me feel really happy because I can set a goal and get there, and working toward that goal allows me to release all those happy endorphins, feel more energy and motivation, and see what my body is capable of.  I have quite literally begun to run away from self-objectification.

And research backs up my own experience. A U.S. National Physical Activity and Weight Loss Survey found that body size satisfaction had a significant effect on whether a person performed regular physical activity, regardless of the individual’s actual weight (Kruger, Lee, Ainsworth, & Macera, 2008). So, those who were satisfied with the way their body looked were more likely to engage in physical activity than those less satisfied.  The problem is, research also shows us MOST females are unhappy with their bodies – even disgusted with their bodies.  The “I feel too fat or too ugly to work out” mentality is rampant and it keeps us from moving, living, doing, and being.  But guess what?! When we push ourselves to break free from that prison of being looked at and just move, something miraculous happens. Just like my experience of learning to run from self-objectification, studies show us that when females engage in physical activity, increased self-efficacy, or confidence in your abilities and your body, is the beautiful outcome.

So our Resolution #1 is there for good reason — it can lead you to real health, happiness, and confidence in a  way that working toward a number on the scale or a clothing size never, ever will. My New Years’ resolutions used to revolve around clothing sizes, measurements or numbers on the scale, and I don’t think I’m alone in realizing that even if the number got smaller, it had little to do with my actual health or happiness.  I can look back in old journals and see that sometimes I resorted to extremes in eating and exercising to get to that random number I thought would bring with it all the joy I could imagine: “If I can just lose this much weight, I’ll be SO happy!” or “I’ll love myself if I can just lose this many inches.” But personal experience, academic research and body image advocacy have taught me something very different: An arbitrary number is never the key to happiness, confidence or even health and fitness. A fitness goal focusing on achievements can help you break out of that harmful mindset that maintains a fixation on the look of our bodies, rather than how we feel and what we can do.

So here’s the goal: RUN. or swim. or bike. or dance. or jump rope. or climb stairs. or do sit-ups. or push-ups. or play basketball. or soccer. or volleyball. Just MOVE and LIVE and BE and step outside the prison of watching yourself being looked at. Using your body as an instrument for your benefit, rather than an ornament for others to admire is a crucial step to developing positive body image. Now get out there and use it! 

Need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, with PhDs in body image and media.

*Fredrickson et al. 1998; Fredrickson & Harrison, 2004; Gapinski, Brownell, & LaFrance, 2003; Hebl, King, & Lin, 2004

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