Why am I, a queer woman of mostly European descent, talking about the movement to decolonize body image? The answer is simple: because it matters—therefore, it must be talked about. In the United States, November is recognized as National Native American Heritage Month, which makes this as ideal a time as any to further the conversation.
Eating Disorder Stigma
When I walked into a residential treatment center at the age of 19, I saw myself as anorexic. Flash forward almost 10 years later, and I still identified as an anorexic in recovery. This descriptor used to roll off my tongue as if on instinct—it felt purely automatic to view the illness in terms of who I had become, rather than a diagnosis I could heal from. But as I'm about to turn 30 in just a couple of weeks, I have chosen to shed this label once and for all. I no longer call myself anorexic, and here is why I am making that intentional choice from now on.
If I had to wear a name badge in public each day, it would announce to everyone around me: "Hello, my name is Perfectionist." This might seem vain or self-important, but in truth, it's debilitating because perfectionism is a roadblock to eating disorder recovery. The merciless expectations of achievement, the rigorous standards of appearance, and the continuous loop of self-deprecation can form just the right conditions for an eating disorder to take root. Therefore, to heal from an eating disorder, the roadblock of perfectionism must be overcome. This is hard work—but so necessary and worthwhile.
As a young woman, I am unfortunately no stranger to crude—and sometimes coercive—innuendos aimed in my direction. Like countless other women, I have been taught to use car keys as weapons of self-defense, and I know all the tactics designed to repel an attacker. However, not until I was sexually assaulted in 2017 did I recognize the full impact of this type of violation and the residual trauma it causes. Nor was I ready for how this would further exacerbate and complicate my eating disorder. But three years later, the truth remains: my eating disorder makes it difficult to heal from sexual assault.
While these past several months of social distancing have been necessary to help contain the global pandemic, this continued isolation can adversely impact mental health. That is true for conditions across the mental illness spectrum, but I am particularly concerned about eating disorders and suicidal thoughts in the climate of COVID-19. (Note: This post contains a trigger warning.)
The suicidal thoughts that plagued my mind in the throes of my eating disorder recovery were expected. I hated my body. I hated myself. I hated my life and the society in which I lived that kept telling me I was not enough. One thing I did not expect was to still feel suicidal thoughts during my eating disorder recovery. (Note: This post contains a trigger warning.)
Can I share a fundamental, irrevocable truth that you just might need to hear? Your personal identity is more than an eating disorder. Even if you cannot imagine a life without this illness right now, I want you to know that recovery is attainable, and you are capable of existing in a world that does not revolve around your eating disorder. How can I voice this with absolute confidence? The answer is simple—in these past few years, I have been on a crusade to unearth and reclaim my own identity outside the diagnosis of anorexia nervosa; so if I can do this, I guarantee you have the same potential, too.
Before offering my advice, most loved of those in eating disorder recovery want to know how they can help, but understandably, people aren't always sure where to go for it. In this video, I talk about the one thing that well-meaning, but misguided, loved ones would do that has undercut my confidence in recovery.
It's normal to feel afraid in eating disorder recovery. After all, it's scary to arrive at a crossroads between the familiar identity of an eating disorder and the unknown quantity of healing. You have a choice to either remain in the destructive, yet comfortable, patterns of your illness or to embark on a new path that is rife with challenges but leads to freedom on the other side. This decision is yours alone to make, but if you choose to brave that road to health and wholeness, the question then becomes: How do you face down fears in eating disorder recovery?
Dating someone with an eating disorder can be challenging. I know every single one of my past relationships was affected by my eating disorder, and while there are undeniably things I could have done differently, there are also things I wish I'd been able to articulate to my exes to make the relationship easier.a