For a long time, I thought I just had a problem with my weight, food, and my body. I wanted to weigh as little as possible, eat as little as possible, and have visible abs. Those were my goals for my “health.” I had no idea what it meant to heal an eating disorder.
I didn’t understand why I struggled so much with perfectionism around eating. Or why I wanted such control over what I put in my mouth and what the scale said in the morning. I thought I was broken. And this was just a sickness that manifested itself in my mind, body and heart. I thought I was crazy because everyone else around me seemed to have a “normal,” stress-free relationship around food.
It wasn’t until I dug deeper–dug past the food, my weight and my body themselves—to find my bigger why.
Why eating disorders and chronic dieting aren’t actually about food
Many women say to me, “I just need to lose X pounds.” Or, “I just need to cut out X food group.” But that’s not the whole story.
If your eating disorder was just about the weight, you would feel happy after losing the 5, 10, 50 pounds to reach your goal weight.
But chances are, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we won’t be. We’d want to lose more, be thinner.
At my thinnest, it was never enough. Never mind I weighed less than what was appropriate for my body. Or that I was working out seven days a week and restricting calories. Never mind I felt weak and couldn’t focus or think about anything other than food. Let alone focus on any thoughts at all.
If you’re chasing a goal weight, please know that you are actually not chasing that weight. Because when you get there, you won’t feel any better about yourself. And here’s why.
The SALV(e) we all need to heal an eating disorder
I came up with this acronym totally by accident, if we’re being honest. But it applies perfectly to those wanting to heal an eating disorder, disordered eating, and dieting.
As I said before, I eventually came to understand the reasoning behind my incessant drive to be thinner and thinner. It was directly related to my need to be the best. My driving perfectionism.
I grew up believing the prettier you were the more valuable you were. And pretty also meant being thin. So the thinner I was, the prettier I was. And the more perfect I was. If I was perfect, I could shield myself from bullying and criticism. In my mind, no one could hurt me if I was thin. And by extension, perfect.
I finally understood that instead of losing weight or eating less food, I needed to start uncovering what created this drive to be perfect in the first place.
And how I could find value in myself without being perfect.
I needed to disassociate thinness from worthiness and perfection to heal the eating disorder.
It took years, I’ll admit. But dealing with the root causes of self-worth and perfectionism healed my issues with food and my body for good. No amount of weight loss could change the way I felt about myself. Doing the internal work of re-parenting my inner child and cultivating a sense of intrinsic worth was the only thing that was going to do that.
Through my recovery and my current job as a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor (in training), I know we can only heal our issues with food, body and weight with a SALV(e).
This includes physical, mental and emotional safety. For many, manipulating their bodies is a way to augment their presence in the world or shrink it down to near invisible. Both of which, typically, are responses to trauma. Emotionally and mentally, we want to feel we’re safe to be who we truly are. Regardless of our size. We want to know we won’t experience verbal or physical threats for the way we look.
Our need for acceptance is evolutionary. When we hunted and gathered in packs, if we were left by our group, we’d either starve to death or be eaten by a predator. That same need for acceptance lingers today. Studies even show that human connection leads to a longer, more fulfilled life. If we feel we’re not accepted because of our size, we try to manipulate it in order to be “part of the pack.” Because it is unsafe to not be.
Similar to acceptance, the presence of loved ones creates a longer, happier life. In our fatphobic society the media only shows thin, young and beautiful women in leading lady roles “getting the guy.” It’s understandable we believe being anything other than that will leave us alone with a clowder of cats. And I’m sorry for the binary example, but it’s the most prevalent we see in society today. We believe we’re unlovable if we don’t fit the mold for which love appears to be reserved.
Validation (not external)
We want to know we’re worthy. That we matter in this world. With social media, it’s so easy to see the big, sexy success stories, not realizing just how rare those are in a world of eight billion people. We want the A, the gold medal, the raise, the body compliments. This tends to happen when we don’t have any intrinsic worth. When we don’t believe we’re worthy regardless of our accomplishments (or lack thereof). But we are.
We don’t need to win awards or have the perfect body in order to claim our rightful place in this world.
Knowing your Why
So what’s your “why”? My strategy for figuring it out is playing “The Why Game.” Ask yourself why you want to lose weight. If it’s to be “healthy,” which sounds like a noble goal, ask yourself why you equate thinness with health. Studies actually show greater longevity in people who are slightly overweight (a nonsensical BMI term, but I digress). So does thin actually mean healthy, or has diet culture convinced us of that so we can continue to buy their products in the futile attempt to weigh less than we’re biologically meant to?