Ten Things my Anorexia Demon Tells Me

And how I get him to shut up.

I have an eating disorder. And I speak about it this way because eating disorders mess with your head. You never get over an eating disorder: you’re never cured. So my relationship with food is better now, but this is something that lurks for me. I know it’s there. I’ve beaten it back for now, but there may come a day when it breaks out of its chains and comes for me.

Eating disorders are also really hard to name and talk about. Part of this is because no person with body dysmorphia or anorexia or bulimia or any sort of binge-purge thing will either immediately understand it as a disease or think that it’s bad enough that they should get treatment. I have actually never received medical treatment for my eating disorder and at my worst my illiac crest was clearly visible and I had to pin and belt size zero clothes just to keep them on. And yeah. I was in constant pain. But I’ve heard from other people with eating disorders that they didn’t feel that they had any right seeking medical help even when they were getting devastating headaches and heart pain. One woman told me she was finally hauled in by her mother or her sister and discovered that her headaches were because her brain was atrophying because of her eating disorder. I didn’t know that could even happen. And yet she had to be hauled in because she didn’t think she was sick enough to seek care.

The other part is due to the psychological component and the fact that eating disorders disproportionately effect women. There’s an idea, and several people said this to my face when I was at my worst, that we’re “just trying to get attention.” Before I get into this list I just want to say two things: 1. If our society is so devoid of positive attention for women that we’re willing to kill ourselves for it or there is a perception that we would be willing to do that, that in and of itself is deeply problematic and a problem with society rather than women. And 2. People with eating disorders go to great lengths to hide the disorder. I wore multiple layers of clothing and made sure to be seen “eating” in public. Others will do stuff like hide food or time breaks for purges when no one will notice. That’s not attention seeking behaviour.

But, I’m not really here to explain this to people sceptical of my worth as a human being, I’m here to help other people defeat the demon.

So here’s a list of all the things my demon would say to me and how I told it, on no uncertain terms to STFU.

  1. Lols, ur fat.
    This is probably the most common thing for an inner demon to tell someone with an eating disorder. And it’s the most effective. It works even when you’re dangerously underweight because eating disorders usually go hand in hand with “body dismorphia” or being unable to realistically evaluate your body as it actually is. For me this worked because I have a tiny little pooch over my lowermost abdominals. I know now that this is a normal morphological variation and I’d have to have plastic surgery to get rid of it, but to someone with an eating disorder it’s super evil bad fat that must be destroyed.
    This one’s also the hardest to fight for all the same reasons that it’s the first one to come up. What worked for me is anatomically rationalising why I weigh as much as I do. I’m a human and humans are primates. We are made up of water and bone and muscle and organs and we have in us entire ecosystems of microbes. That last is pretty gross, but all these things have matter and create weight. So when I added up how much my organs probably weigh and how much my bones and muscles weigh and what my blood might weigh I realised that actually, no, I’m not fat. I’m just human as opposed to a wraith of the air.
  2. You don’t have enough money to eat and also make rent.
    There’s this pervasive idea that particularly anorexia is the disease of the wealthy woman. This always cracks me up because in my case I tend to have my worst bouts when money is tight. It became a game to keep my body more or less biochemically intact while eating as little as possible. I had figured out a way to “live” on a severely reduced caloric intake which often did not exceed 200 a day. That meant that I could effectively spend pennies on my grocery bill, but it also meant I was slowly dying.
    Thing is, no matter how poor you are you ALWAYS have friends. When I started getting better it was because my friends just gave me food. There would be leftovers after conferences and I’d gather up the snacks or a friend would just hand me their leftover pasta. It is true that I had basically no money, but my friends didn’t want me to die. Once I was able to accept that, I started to get better.
  3. The reason they didn’t believe you about the sexual assault is because you’re fat.
    Like most women I’ve been sexually assaulted and harassed. It sucks. It’s not because of anything I did, but it’s what happened. Problem is our society also sucks and every time I tried to get help no one believed me. Some people flat out told me I was too fat to have been sexually assaulted. I range from a size 12 to a size 0, but regardless of where in my mad weight fluctuations that happened, literally no one is “too fat” to have been sexually assaulted. That is an absurd idea and I think I’ve honestly experienced more sexual harassment when I’m at my chubbier than when I’m skinny.
    But more than that, you shouldn’t punish yourself for someone else’s idiocy. Someone may try to tell you this, but if you come in the next time having lost 20 lbs. they’re just going to paint you as psychologically damaged. I know, because that’s more or less what happened to me. Anyone who says that to you does not deserve your respect and you should absolutely report them. I REALLY wish I had.
  4. Wow, you eat three times a day. How pointless is that?
    Okay, so this one … this one was weird. Basically what happened is I was in graduate school trying to balance a million and seven things and I’d get hungry but I couldn’t really eat and be in a library. So I convinced myself for about a week that eating is irrelevant. I stopped when I nearly fainted while driving. You need to eat.
    So, the way to get around this one is not just the fact that … I mean … yeah, you need food … but also the fact that changing your work environment or taking little breaks is actually beneficial to your brain, concentration, and efficiency. I’m one to talk, but you really shouldn’t eat at your desk. Eat a salad if you’re concerned about your weight, but you do need to take breaks, and you cannot efficiently consume all the nutrition you need for the day in one go, so just do your brain a solid and have your lunch break and dinner break and a healthy snack from time to time.
  5. If you gain weight, you’ll have to buy new clothes.
    This might be a personal one. I hate shopping for clothing and because I never have money I hate spending it. So I live in perpetual fear of holes in fabric or my trousers being too tight. One time while I was writing I got a request for a job interview and realized the day of that I’d gained a bit. I ended up getting that job, but oy did I feel awful.
    This one I don’t have a solid escape from just yet, but what I try to do is clothes shop with purpose. I hate it, so I’m not going to overspend, but I do my research ahead of time and determine exactly what I need and how much I should expect to pay. Then I start with sizes I know will be too big. That way if it fits I go, “oh this fits, I guess this brand runs small!” And if it’s too big I get to go, “oh dear, I guess I totes def lost weight. I’ll have to try the next size down.” It’s a silly little trick, but it works.
  6. If you lose weight you can fight in a lower weight class.
    This one again might be a little personal, but I do think it can apply to any women who workout or have a sport they like. Ballet has long angered me because some schools require dancers to maintain creepy low body weight. In fact it’s so low in some cases that despite having been positively skeletal and actually thinner than most ballerinas during one of my escapades I still would have been too heavy. In my personal case I used to do a lot of martial arts and particularly for Judo and some Karate competitions they do weigh-ins. Annoyingly, I tend to place at the lower end of the middle-weight division. At my happiest weight I’m usually about five pounds too heavy for light-weight.
    I do know a few serious competitors who will sweat those five pounds off right before they go for their weigh in which, hey, if that works for you and you can do it without killing yourself and your coach knows you’re doing it, okay cool. It REALLY doesn’t work for me.
    And the thing is, any advantages you might gain from losing five pounds before a competition or keeping your weight artificially low might be offset by some pretty serious health issues. Anorexics, myself included tend to get faint or have cardiac or respiratory difficulties when they’re doing sports. You can’t win a fight if you faint halfway through it. Kinda doing your opponent’s job for them there. But even worse, if you have a prolonged eating disorder, your body’s going to cannibalise your muscle and bone. You won’t be as strong or as fast and if you take too much impact your bones can just snap. This isn’t theoretical. There was a college basketball player who couldn’t afford to eat and was training super hard and so his bones got brittle and during a game he suffered a catastrophic fracture to his tibia.
  7. Don’t you want to look like [celebrity] do you think she would eat that apple?
    Some celebrities have eating disorders. And this is hugely problematic because particularly teens will mimic their behaviours. This is essentially how eating disorders become “contagious.” You see a celebrity being rewarded for basically just being beautiful and you try in whatever way to mimic their beauty with the hope that you’ll catch their “magic.” I’m not just spit-balling here, this is an Anthropological concept.
    But the thing is, while I can’t say that no celebrity is a celebrity just for being thin, virtually all of them have something else that really made them famous. Debra Messing is hilarious, Lady Gaga is a spectacular performer and rather good musician, and many of the super skinny actresses out there are — well — incredible actresses. So yeah, some of them may struggle with eating disorders or just their image in general as that’s a big part of their actual job, but skinny is not their only or even primary thing.
    Moreover, there’s a lot of A-list celebrities that are not rail-thin. Beyonce’s fit — I really couldn’t describe her as fat at all, but she’s not disastrously thin. Tyra Banks made a big deal out of the fact that she had a few extra pounds from time to time. Lizzo is rapping her ass off and it’s going to be awhile because she’s got a huge butt. And I am here for it. She looks great and she is fabulous.
    But lastly it is so so SO bad to try to compare yourself to anyone else. Firstly, you may not see it but everyone else is holding themselves up against you, and secondly unless you are Lady Gaga, you probably shouldn’t be trying to eat like Lady Gaga. Probably shouldn’t dress like her either but that’s a whole ‘nother thing.
  8. If you eat that it will hurt your stomach.
    This one might also be specific to me but I’ll go through it anyway. I’m a bit of a cat. If I eat the wrong thing, or if I eat too quickly, or too much I can just randomly barf it right back up. I swear to you I’m not trying to do this; it just happens. There are a few things that irritate my stomach like cucumbers and raw bell peppers that I absolutely cannot have unless I want to have just the worst cramps. But I also get a little barfy when I’m nervous. Before my viva my supervisor tried to buy me a big lunch and I had to talk her down to a small wrap because I knew if I tried to eat more than that I would be sick.
    So, mileage may vary on this one, but the way around it is to just take your time when you’re eating and eat small things. The wrap ended up working for me because it was enough food that I wasn’t hungry and not so much that the stress of being viva’ed could hit my stomach.
    Don’t eat things that you’re allergic to or which you have an intolerance for, but if you’re like me and actually possibly feline just take a smaller portion, eat it slow, and see how you feel. Remember, you have to eat something.
  9. You’re not actually sick. Everyone says you look great. Think of how sick OTHER people are.
    As I said before you should never compare yourself to others. My big issue with this is that my mom was a giant and I kinda take after her. You think I’m kidding but my mom was 5'11 and super strong. I’m not that tall, but I have stealth muscles. And muscle weighs a lot. The eating disorder means I fluctuate all over the place, but I’ve been skeletal and clearly underweight but still weighed about 50 kg and I’ve also had a BMI in the “overweight” range without actually having enough fat to classify as overweight. Now, extreme eating disorders start cannibalising tissue, so at my worst I was feeling pain in my axial skeleton meaning a few more weeks and I would have lost that muscle and had a precipitous weight decline, but the fact that I was feeling pain in my actual bones was enough.
    Anorexia and bulimia kill. These are deadly disorders. They can stop your heart, atrophy your brain, and generally wreak havoc on your body. And as with all diseases the earlier you get treatment the better your prognosis. If you wait until you’ve had a heart attack before you get help for these diseases you might die. It does not matter if you *think* someone else is worse off than you. If you’re sick, get treatment. I tried to kick this on my own and I’m telling you you don’t have to do that. This isn’t a misery contest, I don’t care about how heavy you think you are, if you have a troubled relationship with food think of the people who care about you and get yourself some therapy.
    But I also want to talk about the idea that people with eating disorders “look” healthy. At my worst I was wearing clothes that would cover up my exposed upper ribs and I was putting several layers of sweats or yoga pants under my trousers to give the illusion of muscle and fat. That, and if I didn’t do that my pants would fall down and no one wants that. I also refused to go out without makeup. So yeah, some people were deceived by my healthy person disguise, but I put a lot of effort into that. Moreover, people who spent time with me did comment that my bones were poking through my skin and that my face looked hollow. I was trying to fool people and not really succeeding. Probably the same can be said of you if this is your excuse. Take down that veil.
  10. No one cares that you eat so you shouldn’t.
    This one hit during my adolescence and it really is just the perfect thing for a teenager. I dropped roughly 30 lbs. in a month and my poor mother was beside herself. At the time I was in musical theatre so I had the ability to hide the fact that I wasn’t eating. But this is just it. I was intentionally hiding that I wasn’t eating and my mom was super upset when she found out. The same is going to be true of you.
    Yeah, no one’s generally going to sit over you and make sure you consume every morsel of food on your plate three times a day, but this doesn’t mean they don’t care. Mom was *trying* to give me space. Once again, you overcome this by allowing yourself to accept love from your family and friends. We often associate food and love and I know I will make food for people I like. My poor boyfriend wishes I would stop because I’m making him fat.
    If you get into this mode it’s not because you’re “seeking attention,” it’s because you’re preferencing other people’s needs ahead of your own. We’re human. That happens. But instead of thinking of it as, “no one has explicitly told me that I should eat,” think of it as, “I want to be a good friend/daughter/sister, so I’m going to take care of myself in order to take care of others.” What you can also do is invite people to eat with you or cook for your family. This gives you face time with people who care about you and lets you focus less on the fact that you’re eating and more on the people you love.

What I really want to stress here is that eating disorders are always going to be with you, but that’s not your fault. You are not a bad person; you just have a little jin whispering nonsense in your ear. You can’t “just get over it,” and it’s not “all in your head.” If you resonated with any of the things I wrote here it doesn’t matter who you are or whether you’re right now super skinny or experiencing heart issues, you deserve help. I never got therapy specifically for this and it’s really by the grace of God I’m alive. But that doesn’t mean you can’t go to the doctor if that will help. And if you don’t think it will, try to take my advice and see if you can’t renegotiate your relationship with food.

Eat healthy and exercise tons because that’s good for you. But make sure you are actually eating properly and if at all possible get yourself away from that scale.

Doctor of Palaeopathology, rage-prone optimist, stealth berserker, opera enthusiast, and insatiable consumer of academic journals.

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