There's no question that I have tremendous empathy for anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder. Knowing what it's like, I wish anyone who has starved, binged, purged, hated themselves, or self-harmed well. These are terrible illnesses to manage and my heart aches for anyone in the throes of any illness.
My empathy for anyone having a hard time, however, doesn’t negate the anger I feel when I see individuals, some who probably mean well and others who are clearly opportunists -- those who prefer being seen over doing what’s right -- post misleading information or outright misinformation about either these kinds of disorders or their recovery.
Unfortunately, with the Internet, anyone can dump a heap of words into an article or blog post, proudly waving the newest word salad shooter, and act like he or she is some kind of expert in a given field.
I see this all too often when it comes to eating disorder recovery. What a shame that with a recent movement encouraging others to share their story, whatever it might be, there wasn't also a disclaimer insisting that people be both honest and considerate. As a result of a world that's more focused on appearance and less and less on skill and good intentions than ever before, we're stuck with individuals cramming their falsehoods in our faces under the guise of a bona fide university lecture.
People who desperately crave attention don’t think about how their words might affect others. Their main concern is increased notoriety. They want to be pointed at and adored, and many will take a few crooked steps to achieve this.
With everyone being able to declare themselves anything they want these days, even editors who are hired for publications when, for example, they don't know the difference between who and whom, incorrectly use it's instead of its, have never properly used a semicolon in their lives, and don't think there's a difference between every day and everyday, it's easy to understand why misconceptions about illnesses so quickly and easily spread. It's alarming what some running journalists and their editors present, especially when it comes to content related to eating disorders.
In a 2007 article, for example, one author of a piece on female athletes and eating disorders mentioned triggering numbers, incompletely or wrongly defined anorexia and bulimia, and suggested coaches should identify eating disorders in athletes by looking at the runners' bodies, which wouldn't really help detect any other disorder except possibly severe anorexia.
Remember, how someone looks and even what someone weighs doesn't tell a complete story. According to ANAD, less than 6 percent of people with eating disorders -- about one in seventeen -- are medically diagnosed as underweight. Then again, this is a writer who made a fat-kid reference in a failed joke attempt on social media, so her understanding of these illnesses and her compassion for anyone struggling appear to be lacking. And, despite more authors avoiding potentially triggering numbers these days, information on eating disorders presented in running and other magazines is still quite often inadequate at best and potentially harmful at worst.
Disclaimer: I make mistakes, a lot of them. Long before it was established that numbers can be triggering, I wrote my first book and used them, but I have never published content online without a warning if I feel anyone might be triggered. I’m also not an editor and don’t consider myself a great writer. I have dyslexia, which is why I would never consider taking a job as an editor and also why I tend to blog more than actually write material to submit to publications.
My content is truthful, though, and my goal has always been to help others find a way through the darkness of an eating disorder. But more recently, my goal has shifted to include pointing out frauds and those who, intentionally or not, give people the wrong idea about what it’s like to suffer from a potentially deadly disorder.
It's one thing to lie to yourself. But when you lie to the public, you risk harming specific individuals in a venerable community.
Mark Twain was correct when he said that a lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots. Twitter and social media in general speed up this process even more so. Just the other day, a political pundit reposted a statement about Trump that was obviously false, though with news relating to Trump it's often hard to tell. Still, this was far-fetched enough to cause any normal, rational person to say, "Hang on, there, Billy," and look to Google for some clarification. Instead of this person's followers questioning it, though, they all started retweeting it and commenting on it as if it were true.
That episode and countless like it demonstrate why someone with a very large platform presenting herself as an expert in dealing with eating disorders despite having no credentials can end up doing a lot of people a disservice, and can even cause harm by giving out misinformation: That misinformation spreads so quickly and within a community in desperate need of true information and rational, compassionate guidance.
While I'm not surprised that misinformation spreads, I find it strange, given the availability of information on the topic, how many individuals still insist that there's no big difference between disordered eating and an actual eating disorder. I just read another article in which the author brushed over the difference and lumped the two together, no-big-deal style. There is a difference, and it's important to know that because there are different approaches for dealing with each. And once a person crosses into eating-disorder territory, it can be extremely dangerous and could require more immediate and intensive care.
Disordered eating is playing with fire, but having a full-blown eating disorder is like walking into the flames. Both should be addressed and taken seriously.
I've mentioned before that when Lauren Fleshman and others like her imply that eating disorders are illnesses that mentally tough people can more easily avoid, they give people the wrong idea about these kinds of disorders and recovery.
Imagine being in the throes of such a dark and overwhelming illness and seeing someone with a large platform suggest that people who struggle lack mental toughness. But errors in judgment when it comes to content can be more subtle than someone confidentially and incorrectly suggesting she's mentally tougher than those of us who have struggled.
There's no doubt that having an eating disorder makes life more difficult and decreases your chances of truly excelling in a given area. A chef who doesn't taste his food for fear of weight gain won't be as successful as one who can adjust flavoring in the moment, just as athletes who are improperly nourished will likely suffer injuries, possible muscle weakness, and might also experience emotional burnout more quickly than someone who's well nourished. But nowhere in any of this are signs of a lack of mental toughness. It's important to distinguish between the harmful effects or side effects of these illnesses and grit or fortitude, which isn't usually lacking in those who struggle, especially distance runners.
It's actually not uncommon to see dishonesty, even in recovery circles. When you think about it, it's not all that surprising since those with eating disorders become skilled at lying and manipulating, just like any other addict, in order to keep engaging in the behaviors that feed their obsessions and compulsions. Much of the time, subtle fibbing online comes from people who let slide with their words that they are still unwell, but post images of themselves sitting in front of a plate of pasta pretending to eat mounds of those high-carb ribbons. It can also come from writers who publish articles in which they push the idea that they eat loads and loads of junk food, just massive amounts of it while sitting on the couch, and isn't that hilarious and cute?
It gets old seeing that shit, and it's not nearly as funny as the images of women laughing alone with salad but equally unrealistic to think that an image of some food suggests complete recovery or happiness.
What and the amount of food people eat is all relative. I used to call what looks like a snack to me now a huge meal when I was sick, and sometimes I would exaggerate descriptions of my portions when I wanted to get concerned relatives off my back.
Strangers on the Internet don't need to know what or how much you eat. There's such disregard for people struggling by individuals who claim to want to be part of the recovery solution, but nobody needs to see your "what I eat in a day" video or read about how many bags of potato chips you eat while sitting on the couch. It’s just not helpful, and, as I've mentioned before, I’m excluding people who share fun recipes or post nice images of a meal they fixed. That's innocent enough and not what bothers me. I’m talking about people who are trying to push a narrative, either to fool themselves or the public or both.
Nobody promoting recovery needs to imply that getting well means eating nothing but junk or massive amounts of a given food. True recovery is about so much more than what you eat. It’s about honoring your body, having compassion for yourself and the struggles you have endured, feeling emotions, healing past trauma, being more flexible, and engaging more fully in the world. It's about living, not simply eating something because training hard gives you that right.
That's another problem with people who may mean well but entirely miss the mark: Too often, food is presented as fuel but with the implication that it's really the reward, a treat for expending energy instead of a necessity, sustenance for living, not to mention a way to connect, to enjoy life, and to honor family or cultural traditions.
Nearly every athlete-turned-writer I have seen publish a piece on eating disorders, whether they realize it or not, suggests that you can eat "fun" food if you exercise hard enough. What they don't get into is that you need food whether or not you are training. You need it if you're injured to help your body heal. You need it in order to function as a human being.
I often wonder if people who write in a way that suggests food is to be enjoyed more if you're an athlete realize how much they advertise their own insecurities. At least be honest.
With so much deceit in the world, even in the running world -- dopers, cheaters, frauds, grifters, and liars -- trust in society in general is waning. Lying isn't just bad for those witnessing it, though; it's detrimental to the one pushing flase stories. Though the brain of a liar changes and ultimately makes spewing falsities easier, not being truthful ultimately has consequences. When I was in the hospital being treated for my eating disorder, a nurse who was in recovery for bulimia told me the key to recovery is being honest with yourself and others. She was right. lies hurt others, but lying to yourself also causes harm.
This isn't to say that those struggling, me included in all the ways I do, can't be of service to others. My attempt in this post is to point out how unhelpful it is to yourself and others when you're not honest. Self-acceptance doesn't come if you present a false version of yourself to the world, and recovery doesn't come if you take a stance with friends, relatives, and therapists that basically states, "This is who I am, fuck your advice and observations about my behavior!" If that's your plan in life, fine, but don't share it as advice and pretend this is a useful path for others to follow.
Sharing stories can be a really great way to help remove the shame around eating disorders, but not if those doing the sharing are misrepresenting what they are doing and where they are in their process and, in the same breath, dictating how other people "should" manage.
This is not helpful. At all. Recovery is a process, but, as an author, if you "yada yada yada" over the important parts, like whether or not you're truly recovered, the deeper issues that contributed to developing your illness, what helped you recover, and how you maintain recovery through life's ups and downs, you're not contributing very much to recovery conversations.
If your main goal is simply to say you struggled, don't hide the details of where you are in your process behind a plate of never-to-be-eaten pasta. When you let people in and are authentic, that's when true healing can begin. I may have a ways to go, but I'm not hiding where I am behind images of food or suggesting I'm further along than I am by posting a plate of noodles that proves everything's just fucking fine.
|Photo by mahdi chaghari|