When society assumes we all want, need, or should “fix ourselves”

In my second year of grad school a professor from another department contacted me about joining her research team. Her project was aimed to “empower girls, while placing emphasis on eating in normal and healthful ways, developing increased levels of self-esteem and media/advertising literacy.” Sounded great! I was eager to start. Then we met to go over the details of the project and things took a major turn. Children participating in the program would be instructed to go through a workbook of food pictures and draw happy faces next to the “good foods” and sad faces next to the “bad foods.” They would be required to keep daily food records that would later be judged (by us, the researchers) as simply “healthy” or “unhealthy.” And finally, the kids would either be rewarded or punished based on their BMI via a very flawed token economy system. The kids taking part in this program were between 5 and 12 years old and selected solely because they came from families of a specific income bracket and region of Los Angeles, thus putting them at high risk for obesity.

Now, obesity is a major public health concern in this country; there is no denying that. I’m not going to be one of those people who whines and cries about how the anti-obesity campaigns are to blame for the “rising epidemic” of eating disorders. No kid is going to develop an eating disorder simply because she participated in some shoddy program like the one described above. Eating disorders stem from a complex combination of genetic, personality, and environmental factors, not a single trigger. However, repeated exposure to these messages (i.e., fat = bad, thin = good, an entire diet labeled as unhealthy because of one “bad” food) can take its toll and lead to a very disordered relationships with food. And of course “disordered eating” and “eating disorder” are two very different things, but patterns of disordered eating can certainly put people at greater risk for developing eating disorders.

I think these messages are sometimes even more harmful to those already in the grips of an eating disorder, and especially those trying to recover. The messages we get on a regular basis about food and weight are often in direct conflict with the messages fed so forcefully in eating disorder treatment programs. How many times was I told the following while in a treatment setting?

  • There are no “good” or “bad” foods.
  • Everything fits, anything in moderation.
  • Dietary fat will not make you fat, it’s an essential nutrient. It makes your hair thick and shiny. Yay healthy fats!
  • Being underweight is associated with more health risks than being overweight (some studies say)
  • This is all fine and good behind the walls of a treatment center but as soon as you settle back into the real world all of these messages go out the window. Foods are definitely “good” or “bad,” every food does NOT fit, and dietary fat (or dairy, or gluten, or carbs, or whatever the current trend) WILL make you fat. According to everything you hear and read. Confusing much?

    For most of my life I really disliked (and in the worst times, all-out feared/avoided) not only eating in the presence of others but even just talking about food in specific ways. I was completely obsessed with food and thought about it all the time, but hated discussing it or even acknowledging its existence to others. I was not one of those anorexics who loved cooking for others or wanted to work with food for a living; food was a completely private thing for me. Obviously my avoidance of social eating situations didn’t work in treatment settings when meals were almost always eaten in groups, but that was somehow less terrifying (in a social sense) because there was the understanding among us that we were all there for a reason and were in a way being “forced” to eat. Secretly though, I think most of us were actually relieved to finally be given permission to eat…

    I never got much out of outpatient treatment because I refused to talk about food in any specific way. I wasn’t trying to be difficult I just could never allow myself to be vulnerable to the possible judgement, even from the people who were probably least likely to judge me. I had similar reservations about discussing specific numbers (calorie amounts) or weights (my own)– basically I was terrified of anyone having access to specific numeric data to judge me by. When asked to try to explain this, I would use the example of my long-time constant fear of being “caught” in a grocery store or restaurant either buying or eating food (or even just looking at it, really) and having people see me and think, “Eww, why is she eating that? Someone as [fat/lazy/gross] as her should not be eating [insert pretty much any food]!” And of course upon hearing this people would tell me how crazy I was for thinking such things… I had never been overweight and was usually quite underweight when having these fears. I can understand this now and even back then I think I rationally knew people weren’t ever looking at me and thinking “fat” or “this girl shouldn’t be eating” but the fear of being judged based solely on what I choose to eat is still pretty real.

    A couple months ago a friend of mine posted a very provocative post on Facebook in reaction to seeing an overweight woman in a grocery store with a cart full of “junk food.” This friend of mine (who I will now refer to as the Food Police, or FP for short), made extremely judgmental remarks about how she wanted to take a picture of the woman with her cart because it was just so funny! She blasted the poor woman– a complete stranger– for being “gross and stupid” for eating such bad foods while being “so overweight with acne.” FP thought it would be even funnier to take a picture of the two of them together with their food, because FP was a thin clear-skinned vegan with a cart full of kale and baby carrots. Oh the contrast!

    At first I was quite furious and wanted to call up all the therapists over the years who ever told me “no one is judging you for what you eat” and use this as solid proof that people definitely were and are judging me! I better never let myself be seen in public with food ever again. But… no. Calm down. I now have the wisdom of knowing that FP is the weird one here. Honestly, FP probably does judge me for eating pretzels (sodium), Greek yogurt (dairy), or even drinking Diet Coke (those damn unnatural chemicals), but I know most people probably couldn’t care less.

    I’ll be the first to admit I am a highly sensitive person. Not everyone with an eating disorder is so outwardly affected by these things. In fact, many people I know with eating disorders don’t relate to this at all. They have no problem discussing the details of what they eat and may even prefer social eating situations in an effort to feel and appear “normal.” And yet, I have no doubt that even those who appear unfazed by it all are still absorbing these messages on a deeper level.

    There seems to be a widespread generalization that everyone in this country is overweight, lazy, and in need of a drastic body and nutrition makeover. I, like so many others, bought into the Fitbit craze last year and purchased a shiny new purple Fitbit Charge HR (which I no longer use because it quickly made me fear for my sanity, but that’s a blog for another day). One of the first things I noticed when I set up my account was that it just assumed anyone who bought a Fitbit was looking to lose weight. I was immediately asked about my weight loss goals. Just for kicks I decided to put in a ridiculously low “goal weight” (a weight even I’ll admit I probably wouldn’t survive long at) and I got the following message, “Good luck achieving your goals! In order to reach ___ lbs in two months, please sustain a _____ calorie deficit, or adjust to a _____ calorie deficit to reach your goal in just one month!” Welp, that was awkward! My new Fitbit just wished me well on my path to probable death! Obviously it was just a stock message, and obviously I was not serious when putting in my “goal.” I just wanted to test my suspicions. I can now easily distinguish the messages that are meant for me and those that are not, but what about that 9, 10, or 11 year-old who grew up being scolded for every “bad” food she ever laid eyes on?

    I realize the population of people who may internalize these messages and react by self-destructing is very small compared to those people who either (a) don’t give a damn or who (b) may actually benefit from them. I’m not suggesting we ignore the nation’s obesity problem all for the sake of not upsetting a small subset of people. I am suggesting we go about the problem in a different way, although I’m not sure what that is yet. Maybe we could start by not asking 5 year-olds to draw sad faces on pictures of ice cream cones?

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