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Invisible Eating Disorders [No you can't tell a girl with an eating disorder just by looking at her]

Posted Oct 01 2012 9:43am

Looking them up and down, comparing their physiques to that of the people next to them, checking for a pinch of jiggle or an ounce of wiggle, trying to define “perfect” ab definition and, always, measuring the breadth of their smile against the depth of their ability to deprive themselves in pursuit of an elusive goal (“we can’t tell you exactly what it is but we know it when we see it!”), I didn’t want to judge them. I tried not to. I really did. But then again that’s the whole point of a bodybuilding show.

This past weekend I was invited to watch a beautiful friend compete in the “figure” division of a bodybuilding competition and document her journey for Shape. So I spent an evening with an auditorium full of people weighing and measuring the Grecian beauties on the stage as they stood under spotlights in tiny sparkling suits, posing and turning so we could see every angle, every cut, every hard-earned muscle. And hard-earned they are: my friend’s austere diet and intense workouts required an amazing amount of discipline and dedication. By this weekend she looked perfection, so much so that when she took second place my jaw literally dropped. I couldn’t see any difference between her and the winner. As I squinted to find whatever minor flaw the judges saw, all I could see were a row of some of the most beautiful creatures I’ve ever seen in my life. How do you judge between a Monet and a Picasso? (Scratch that, I’ve never liked Picasso and his weirdly angular boobs. How about a nice Renoir instead?).

While second place is amazing – She qualified for nationals! Woot! – I spent the rest of the night trying to puzzle out the deciding factor. My friend has a remarkably sane attitude about the whole process (she is probably one of the calmest, most grounded women I’ve ever met) but my demons came back faster than you can say ”I miss my hip bones!”… which is exactly what I said to my photographer on the way out. Because how do you spend an evening comparing beautiful women to each other without eventually throwing yourself into the mix? It’s the main reason I stopped reading fashion blogs frankly. After spending the last few years trying to learn to appreciate people – myself, especially – for things other than the shape and size of our mortal shell, I had really hoped I was past all that.

Then I got home and found one of the most poignant e-mails I’ve received in a long time. It was a wonderful wake-up call:

“Hi Charlotte! First off, I love your blog. I’ve enjoyed reading about your escapades and adventures. You’re one of the people who inspired me to start my own blog! I’m thankful for your honesty about tough topics. So I’m going to perhaps over-share a little, but I think you’ll understand :)

I’m recovering from an eating disorder. In my case, I was restricting my daily intake to roughly 800 calories per day. At the height (lowest point!?) of my madness, (which took me a year to build up to and lasted two months) I was Bodyrocking, and running 30+ minutes, 5-6 days a week. I was tired all the time; my skin, hair and nails were a mess.
But here’s the strange thing: I didn’t lose weight. Bodyrock’s promises of flat abs were never fulfilled. No matter how hard I worked, I never saw any definition anywhere. This lead to frustration, which I released by running harder. Everything blew up when I injured my foot in August. The doctor ordered complete rest, or I would never run again. Thankfully, my parents intervened for forced me to take a break. (I’m 17, still at home, and they love me enough to lay down the law :) Through this past month I’ve been able to embrace some of my “forbidden” foods, increase my food intake and let my foot heal. Now the doctor has given me the ok to start exercising again, but I feel lost. One month of no bodyrock or hard running (just gentle walks, doc approved) and my body is still the same.
Have you ever heard of this happening? I know there are tons of bloggers who are recovering, and that’s great that they were running marathons and had “perfect” bodies by today’s standards. But what about me? I’m not fully recovered (yet!) I still have days when ED whispers in my ear that if I only had stuck to my rigid lifestyle a little longer, I could have gotten the body I wanted.
Am I an odd case? What did I do “wrong”?”
It made me cry. First, I wanted to reach through the computer and hug her and exclaim “Nothing! You did nothing “wrong”!! You are amazing and beautiful and everything right!” (Okay, first I wanted to commend her on her writing skills. Seriously I grade 17-year-olds’ writing for a living – SAT essays, holla! – and I couldn’t help but admire her complex sentence structure and appropriate punctuation. Obviously she’s smart beyond her years.) Obviously she’s smart in other ways too. I admire how she was able to see the wisdom in her doctor’s advice, be grateful for her parents’ intervention and follow the prescribed rest. At 17, she’s smarter than I was at 30.
But none of that was what she asked me. She asked if she was an “odd case” to which I have to answer with a resounding no. I remember when I first started training and was introduced to the concept of using body fat percentage as a better measure of health than weight. As a girl who had been so obsessed with the number on the scale, this felt freeing. But only for a little bit. I remember a trainer telling me that if I could get under 16% body fat then I’d see visible abs for sure. Diligently I worked myself down and… no abs. “Every woman is different,” he shrugged. “Maybe you just need to lose a little more.” I lost a lot more. I made myself sick (more on that below). And I never, not once, had defined abs.

Here’s the thing, darling reader: Our society is warped. Twisted. A veritable fun-house of fat and thin mirrors when it comes to body image. One on hand we have Kim Kardashian, queen of curves, compelled to exclaim in an interview , “I look a lot bigger on TV. When I meet people, the first thing they say is, ‘Wow, you’re so much smaller than I thought’. I look about 15 lbs heavier. I’m only 115 lbs, and everyone thinks I’m like 130 or 140. It’s bizarre. I’m a US size 2!”

On the other hand we have Kai Hibbard, a finalist on Season 3 of The Biggest Loser, interviewing about how the show gave her an eating disorder to the point where she was eating 1,000 calories while working out 5-8 hours a day. Says Kai about the consequences of her experience, “It gave me a really fun eating disorder that I battle every day, and it also messed up my mental body image because the lighter I got during that T.V. show, the more I hated my body. And I tell you what, at 144 and at 262 and at 280, I had never hated my body before that show.”

Kim Kardashian and Kai Hibbard, I am not (and not just because my name doesn’t start with K) but I really sympathize with their feelings about being on TV and dealing with the resultant body image woes.

I’ve gotten a lot of interesting feedback from my 20/20 piece a few years ago but one of the most common comments I’ve got is some incarnation of “But you never looked that skinny.” The implication of course is that I wasn’t skinny enough to have an eating disorder. I first encountered this during my pre-interview process with Fox News . The producer kept asking me for my “skinniest skinniest pics, the ones that show the most bones.” I knew what they wanted. They wanted to see a 64-lb walking skeleton with a nasogastric tube and furry arms. Because that’s good television. From the very beginning I told them I never got that thin but sent them some pictures from that time period. They weren’t satisfied and kept phoning, texting and e-mailing me for better pics all the way until I’d boarded my airplane. If I were more technically savvy it would have driven me to Photoshop, I swear.

The Skinny Pics Debacle Take 2 happened after the 20/20 interview taped, but before it aired. The producer for the segment e-mailed me many times asking for better shots with the implication being skinnier shots. But it wasn’t limited to just TV people with their characteristic penchant for extremism. My own family joined the chorus. In an e-mail to my uncle about the piece, my father wrote, ” I saw her frequently through the whole time period in question and yes, she was slim, but she was healthy, energetic, and happy (as far as I could see), and so I was never worried. I admit freely that she cares about food in ways I don’t, but hey, different strokes for different folks.”

I love my dad dearly and consider him a great friend as well as a great father but his seeming dismissal of my illness stung. Friends and acquaintances jumped on the bandwagon as well – some by comparing me to the super-skinny Johnny of the 20/20 piece and others by comparing me to popular TV or movie stars. “Well, you were thin but not like Angelina Jolie thin. And she doesn’t have an eating disorder.” To my crazy mind all of these comments came out sounding like “You weren’t thin enough as a normal girl and you certainly weren’t skinny enough as an anorexic/orthorexic. Even when you’re bad you’re not good enough!” How sick would I have to get before people thought I was actually sick?

At the time I had a BMI well under 18.5 which is considered unhealthy according to the standards set by the World Health Organization. But in a world where Kate Moss and Victoria Beckham subsist at about a 16, I did look kind of porky. And it wasn’t just low weight. I lose my period when my BMI dips below 19 – a fact I’ve discovered on several occasions in my post-pubescent life. Amenorrhea is indicative of such poor nutrition that the body feels like it cannot support a baby. I had low iron, whacked-out electrolytes, vitamin deficiencies, a suppressed thyroid (which made me gain ten pounds despite exercising like a fiend), heart arrhythmias, hair loss and stress fractures in my shins that, like you, took me off all exercise for two months. But worst of all was the mental damage. I was depressed, neurotic and withdrawn.

It’s true that I didn’t break any bones, lose teeth or end up in the hospital with a tube up my nose – a fact for which I am deeply grateful. But I did hurt. It’s just most of the hurt was emotional. And that’s the wound I’m still working on healing.

One of things I love most about this Reader’s e-mail is how she points out how easy it is to fall into this trap. We think if we’re not exercising six hours a day then we don’t have a problem. We think if we’re not super skinny then we can’t have an eating disorder. But a lot of women with eating disorders look “normal” to us because we are conditioned to appreciate only extremely thin women.

My point in this whole sad story, dear reader, is to help you see that nothing good comes of comparing yourself to others – to “bloggers with perfect bodies who run marathons”, to movie stars, to friends who compete in bodybuilding shows. I can honestly tell you that all you would have gotten from sticking to your “rigid lifestyle a little longer” was sicker. Even if you did somehow magically end up with the body you always wanted, I can guarantee you that you wouldn’t have been able to see it. One of the worst parts of an eating disorder is that no matter how closely you approximate the fickle standards of catwalk beauty, you will never feel beautiful. You will never win that game. And you have everything to lose from playing. You didn’t send a picture with your e-mail (and I’m not asking for one!) but I’m willing to bet that you already have a perfectly beautiful body. Don’t waste two decades of your life like I did trying to fix something that doesn’t need fixing.

I’m posting your letter here because I have an amazing group of readers and I want you to hear this not just from me but from a chorus of strong, beautiful women and men telling you that you are one of us. Already. Just the way you are. (And I’m also posting this here because I can guarantee that you are not the only girl thinking this today – you’re just the only one brave enough to write it:))

Love, love, love,


Your turn: I’m calling on all of you sweet, smart readers now – how would you answer this letter? What would tell this girl (or your own 17-year-old self)?

*Note: I just realized that by including my bodybuilding friend in a post about eating disorders, some may assume that I think she has one too. I totally don’t! Like I said, she is wonderfully sane. I only included that anecdote to show you how easily my thoughts still go to disordered. This is not meant as a commentary on her or on bodybuilding in general. 

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