“The term ‘starvation diet’ refers to a specific number of calories a day. I was on one-third of a starvation diet. What do you call that? One word that comes to my mind: ‘suicide.’” -Marya Hornbacher (Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia)
A common misconception about eating disorders is that they stem from vanity and a desire to be thin for the sake of being beautiful. I love the Marya Hornbacher quote above because it conveys that eating disorders often stem from self-loathing and are a severe form of bodily self-harm.
Restricting, bingeing, purging, and over-exercising are just as self-destructive, painful, and physically and emotionally damaging as cutting or burning oneself.
The only difference between cutting and disordered eating as mechanisms of self-harm is that the self-inflicted wounds caused by eating disorders are not always visible externally. Sadly, when the wounds are visible in cases of being very underweight, the eating disorder sufferer is all too often praised for “perfecting” their body.
When I was entrenched in my eating disorder, I legitimately believed that I did not deserve food.
I did not believe that I was a good person who deserved to have my appetites fulfilled. It was not only my appetite for food that I thought did not deserve to be satisfied; I denied my appetites for love, support, and pleasure as well, isolating myself from my friends, family, and activities I enjoyed.
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Restriction was a punishment of sorts: punishment for not living up to my own impossible expectations and for feeling emotions that I was ashamed of and fearful of.
Sometimes, bingeing was similarly self-destructive for me. There were times when I binged to cope with emotions such as anger, sadness, and loneliness, but at other times I punished myself through bingeing when I was angry with myself. As I ate and ate and ate, I thought about how awful and panicked and ill I would be afterwards and how I deserved the pain.
It is crucial for friends and family of people struggling with eating disorders to understand how an eating disorder is a form of self-harm because it sheds light on the kind of support that is helpful vs unhelpful.
When I was underweight, well-meaning friends would tell me, “You look so much better when you’re at a healthy weight; you look so ill.” Luckily, no one ever said to me a phrase that is all too often said to women with eating disorders: “Guys like a girl with some meat on their bones”. These statements are at best rude and irrelevant, and at worst, damaging.
Eating disorders are not about vanity, so it is often irrelevant to the eating disorder sufferer whether or not they appear attractive to men/women.
Also, since people with eating disorders inflict pain upon themselves through their disorders, they may thrive off of being told that they look ill. They may be satisfied to hear that they are “successful” at being sick, because they feel that they deserve to be sick. They may also be satisfied to hear that they do not look attractive because they feel that they don’t deserve to look attractive.
Similarly, trying to encourage a person with an eating disorder to stop restricting/bingeing/purging because of the health consequences seems like a very logical approach to take and is always said with love and concern and the best intentions, but it is counterproductive. People with eating disorders know they are doing harm to their bodies and they want to do harm to their bodies. When I was told that I would eventually die if I did not choose recovery, at first I did care. I valued my life so little that I thought to myself, “This is working; there is no need for me to change anything”.
Based on my personal experiences, my best advice on how to support someone who is struggling with an eating disorder is to show them that you love and value them.
Rather than pleading with your loved one, “Don’t you want to be healthy?” , tell them everything that you appreciate about them and that they deserve health and happiness. Ask them how they are feeling about life and themselves so you can guide them through difficult emotions and help them refrain from negative thoughts about themselves. It is also important to take the focus off of physical appearance because it almost always does more harm than good. Besides, by this point you know that appearance is just a symptom of an eating disorder and not what it is truly all about.
Thankfully, recovery can help people with eating disorders improve their relationships with themselves in addition to their relationship with food.
Today in recovery, I truly believe that I deserve a life of health and happiness. I do not wish to self-harm through restricting or bingeing because I have learned to love and appreciate myself for who I am. I still slip up sometimes, but I always pick myself back up. Through recovery, I have developed a sense of self-respect and a commitment to self-care, and I am incredibly grateful for that.
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