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If I received a dollar for every time I heard the words, “But it doesn’t look like you have an eating disorder,” I’d be rich. Same with, “But you don’t look like you’re depressed,” “But you don’t seem anxious,” and “You don’t look disabled.”
It is a dominant view in our culture that we can tell exactly who a person is, what their values are, and what they are thinking and feeling based on how they look.
In the eating disorder community, this often shows up when people with eating disorders are faced with the assumption that they cannot be struggling with a restrictive eating disorder if they are in a larger body or in a body that is not categorized as underweight. Often, people in larger bodies are stereotyped as eating excessively and exercising rarely, when the exact opposite is frequently true.
Although I am a person with thin privilege, I am often faced with the assumption that I am completely “recovered” from my eating disorder or that I no longer struggle with disordered eating or body image because I am weight restored. Additionally, because I am successful in my graduate studies, it is often assumed that I do not struggle with anxiety or depression.
This kind of viewpoint has also affected me as a disabled person.
Nonverbal language is often assumed to be universal. Eye contact is assumed to show interest and attention in conversations, standing up straight is assumed to show confidence, and standing/sitting still is assumed to show calmness. Conversely, lack of eye contact, not standing upright, and fidgeting are assumed to be signs of anxiety, insecurity, inattentiveness, and/or dishonesty.
However, many disabled people cannot make eye contact, sit/stand still, or stand up straight for a variety of reasons that do not say anything about their mental state or personality. Still, the observable characteristics of the body are assumed to tell the “truth” about a person.
For me personally, these assumptions in the past have been a major contributor to my eating disorder and other ways I have tried to subjugate my body.
There have been times when I have desperately wanted my pain to be visible and observable, for people not to make the assumption that I am not struggling because they do not notice it.
I also desperately wanted to appear neurotypical and send the “correct” nonverbal cues, even though eye contact and sitting still are sometimes difficult for me. For so long, I conceptualized this as a mismatch between my mind and body; I felt that my physical body did not accurately reflect who I was as a person, or how I felt at any given moment.
For a long time, I felt that as long as my emotional pain around my body image and eating was not observable, it was not valid or deserving of care.
I felt trapped in a body that did not visibly express my pain and chose to work to make my pain visible on my body. (I want to also acknowledge that as a person with thin privilege, my pain was eventually recognized and I received help for my disordered eating. Many people in larger bodies are praised for disordered eating and encouraged to keep going, due to the false notion that a larger body is unhealthy and needs to be shrunk.)
As I have written about previously, finding and exploring the theory of Embodied Cognition has been a major part of my ongoing recovery.
The theory of Embodied Cognition does not separate the mind and body and acknowledges the ways that our cognition is shaped by our physical sensations and perception. I have ceased to conceptualize myself as a mind trapped inside of a body and started to think of myself as a bodymind. My cognition, emotions, physical sensations, and observable bodily characteristics are all valid and important parts of who I am, and no one of these is more important than the others. No one of these parts holds the truth about who I am as a person, and no one of these parts is lying either.
It is very important to me to be able to express that my cognition, emotions, and physical sensations (my selfhood) extend far beyond what is physically observable and visible from an outsider’s point of view. The words I say, the thoughts and emotions I experience, and even this article I’ve written are all just as much a part of me as the amount of body fat I have or how many meals I eat per day.
Instead of trying to shrink my body, I have worked to surround myself with people who do not make assumptions on the basis of how I look or what is observable on the outside of my body.
In order to promote a culture that is conducive to eating disorder recovery and destigmatization of mental health, I believe it is necessary to acknowledge the expertise of each individual over their subjective experience.
Our bodyminds carry our truths, whether they can be measured or not.
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Emily Cutler is a Jewish, queer, disabled graduate student living in Tampa, Florida. She is passionate about creating a world in which people of all sizes and abilities are valued. In addition to her graduate studies, Emily provides training and consultancy on mental health, suicide prevention, peer support, disability advocacy, and the Health At Every Size paradigm.
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