Doesn’t Every Woman Have An Eating Disorder?

It’s amazing how many of us are obsessed about our weight. This does not, of course, exclude men (men getting eating disorders, too), but it seems typical, almost normal, to see nearly every woman out there on a diet, attempting to lose weight, or at least never feeling satisfied with their body. It’s an unfortunate truth, and it’s a big problem in our society. With all the fat-shaming, and especially a bias against women (see just one of many articles about the subject here), it makes eating disorders that much more common.
We can’t completely blame the media, however. Eating disorders are not caused by the media, but media images/pressure can act as a ‘trigger’ to someone who may be pre-disposed to developing an eating disorder. It wasn’t like one day I looked at a skinny woman on a magazine and thought, I want to be skinny as her, and developed the eating disorder.

I have, for the most part, been happy with my looks. It came down to seeing weight as giving myself worth. I associated a lower weight with faster running times. I saw a lower weight associated with control and perfection (isn’t that what society has brainwashed us to believe?).  It was all about the number on the scale, the times I ran in races, and the place I took. The extra bonus was that I looked thin, of course. And then the downfall was that along with the higher number on the scale, slower times, and falling further back in the pack, I also looked heavier. But honestly, that was one of the least of my concerns (that is, until others began commenting on it more – embarrassing, no?).
My thinner body was a metaphor for something bigger. If I had a thinner body, I could show control, that, especially as a woman, I would not gorge myself or overindulge in food. And then I saw that I could run faster. I remember one time during a race, an opponent passed me in the final stretch to win it. I didn’t give much thought to it, unconcerned because I was so consumed with my own body: She may win this race, but I’m skinnier, so I really win in the end.
I cringe writing that. Of course, the eating disorder warps your thoughts. I was in a different place back then. I had the same weight stigma about others that I am so much against now. I grew up hearing, “fat people just need more control,” and “they just need to eat less and exercise more.” Weight became known to me as a form of control, as something that should be easy to regulate and calculated, and that anyone who was even a few pounds overweight (especially women) just needed to gain more control and self-respect. In fact, I spent my entire elementary-school life handing out healthy snacks for the birthday “treats” (to the dismay of my fellow students) and writing papers for class about health, nutrition and exercise as if I was meant to preach it to the world and “fix” everyone. Even if something bad was happening in my life, at least I was still skinny.
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What Makes An Eating Disorder?

Okay, so not every person that goes on a diet would qualify as having an eating disorder. Some people do realize that they just need to make some changes and work hard to get rid of the excess weight. And of course, almost every person may not be in love with their body and find themselves looking in the mirror with a critical eye. Sometimes we will overeat, sometimes we will under-eat, and sometimes we will have that “fat day.” I feel terrible saying this, but that is “normal.” It’s difficult to meet anyone who is completely confident in their own skin.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I can distinctly remember what it was like to not have an eating disorder. If you were to compare the Rachael from my junior year of high school to my senior year of high school, you would see a distinct difference in how I approached food. I’ve thought about this a lot lately, in fact, as I try to go back to my “normal” eating behaviors. I try hard to harness what I had before. Unfortunately, at this point I realize that ignorance really is bliss, and that I may never eat as “normally” as I did back then.
Junior Rachael ate Nutri-grain bars with abandon for breakfast. She knew there were calories, but didn’t care about them or even think about counting; it would be a waste of time. She didn’t think she was fat. She ate healthfully and had the occasional over-indulgence of pizza and dessert with family and friends (I am in awe of this girl!). She didn’t love how her body looked compared to others (and often looked critically into the mirror or compared herself with others and magazine photos), but she felt that, despite some insecurities, food had little to do with it. She was a happy person, a perfectionist, working hard to get those straight-A’s and run fast for the high school cross country and track team. Guilt about food happened once in a while, but it did not dominate her life.

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And then the trigger: A dose of sister losing weight here, a comment from mom there, and an overwhelming sense of guilt to reach ultimate perfection that sent me careening off the cliff into restriction.
Going into my senior year, fresh out of summer, I began to restrict. But what really triggered it came later in the second semester, an experience I talk about in thorough detail in the book (there’s way too much to explain here).
If I break it all up into pieces like that, it makes sense. It was more gradual than anything, but comparing one chunk of time to another helps to see the differences and where it all changed and how.

Genetics and Personality

Dieting may possibly be the biggest trigger for eating disorders. But our personality and genetics often determine whether we fall into the eating disorder or not once we’ve dieted. I watched a great Youtube documentary  about two journalists who decided to go on crash diets to see what it would be like to have an eating disorder. You can watch it here to see how it unfolds. Interestingly enough, the two women end in different places mentally after their experiment. In fact, I saw this scenerio occur within my own family.
As I mentioned, my sister was the first to lose weight between the two of us going into her junior and my senior year of high school. She suddenly became obsessed with losing the weight, working out, counting calories, and watching her food intake in order to achieve her modeling dream. However, I couldn’t understand this; how could she expose herself this much? She actually talked about her weight loss, tossed around the word “calories” like it was no big deal, and, after a year or so of dieting, decided it wasn’t for her, that the modeling world didn’t mean enough to a girl who just “loved food” and wanted to eat. Good for her!
Me? I felt as if I was the one stuck with it for good. It stayed with me.
Even though my sister and I have most of the same genes, I think it was more of a personality issue that held me in the grasp of the eating disorder. They do say that the perfectionist, hard-working, quiet people are often the ones who get eating disorders. I was a perfect candidate for developing an eating disorder. But I never saw it coming. I never thought I’d have to worry about weight. I thought I was “smart enough” to avoid the obvious signs. I didn’t think I’d have to worry about what I ate with all the running I did. I didn’t think I could really get any skinnier. I didn’t think I would actually buy a scale.
Oh, and then one day I bought one. Yet I still didn’t “get it”!  When we learned about eating disorders in high school, I understood all the signs and symptoms but never even thought it would happen to me.
And then one day, I realized it did. Only, it took over a year for me to realize it.

It Never Truly Leaves You

As much as our society glamorizes eating disorders (just look at our runway models), I have to live every day looking in the mirror with the comparison of the lower weight to the weight I am now, must live trying to ignore the calorie count of every meal, only to succumb to the temptation and add it up later, must battle the most intense cravings I have ever felt in my life (my hormones and brain are still trying to level out, it seems), and feeling as if the entire world is watching me eat all the time.
The worst of the eating disorder with restriction, chewing and spitting, and binge-eating are over, but the effects and impact they have had on my body in mostly my mental state, with some physical frustrations (the intense cravings are the worst) have yet to work themselves out. I will not walk away from this unscathed, but at least I am a stronger person for it.
I only hope we as a society can be stronger, too.

About Rachael

Rachael Steil is a graduate from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan with a Bachelor of Arts. Steil an author, speaker, and a recipient of the Spirit and Outstanding Runner award for the Aquinas College cross country team and has received 6th place All-American accolades in cross country as well as 7th place in the NAIA track nationals.

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10 Responses to Doesn’t Every Woman Have An Eating Disorder?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for another great post, Rachael–it’s both frustrating and comforting to know that these food issues never really leave us. Comforting in that I can totally relate, and frustrating… well, for obvious reasons. Thanks again and keep up the writing, it helps me (and I’m sure others) more than you know :)

  2. Kelly Roth says:

    This was a great post because it rang so true, also thank you for sharing such difficult topics.
    In the media women are constantly conditioned to believe that we need to lose weight and be in control of our bodies. It conditions us to think that the body we have now is ugly and we must work to fix it. There is always that ideal woman: model, singer, actress, whomever, held in front of us like a carrot on a stick. It’s disgusting but it’s considered normal! Men do have that same pressure but no where near the extent that women have to deal with it. Even today, I was listening to the radio and they were reading off some list about how to impress your boss. They were mainly gender neutral but they had one directed at women and that was the tip to wear make-up. That is the only advice for women to get ahead in business. To make sure you look pretty and meet their standards of beauty. Heaven forbid you don’t cover your face! That angered me because they had no male equivalent tip. They didn’t say to get a nice hair cut or to work out. They just made a point of making sure that women knew that they needed to look pretty to get anywhere in life.
    Anyways sorry for ranting. Thank you for your post

  3. Megan Hornyak says:

    I found this post after I found the other one where we already talked about eating sweet treats to reward ourselves and I found it and read it on purpose because it pertained to exactly what you talked to me about and just put the ideas in that I was thinking. I was never obsessed with calories but I was obsessed with how I looked. My older sisters we’re had long hair, did their makeup we’ll, could pull off the look of “the model.” I was always the odd duck trying to fit in. Just recently I did lose a lot of weight and got giddy about till I realized I lost some of my good features. And yet I wonder if any of it matters right? But it does matter, at least it seems to matter for people like me who need to feel they have a grip on every situation they encounter. You see I used to hurt myself in other ways…it seems whenever life was hard I got a tattoo, maybe I pinched myself till I bled, punched a wall or plucked out eyelashes too much. People who feel trapped seem to let it out on their bodies first so they don’t snap at anybody else. It always seemed less selfish to me, but it was still self-obsessed. That’s why I really appreciate what you are doing with this blog. By bringing in others and having this conversation, it truly makes a difference on other people. It’s got me thinking about myself and what decisions I’ve made in my life that were right but wrong on so many levels. I rant about my own experiences because it’s got my brain thinking. I like the end the best when you said it never leaves you, because it doesn’t. I will always want to be the beautiful babes my sisters turned out to be, tactful with grace. But I’m not, we all just have to learn to live with ourselves and what we’ve got, because it’s our life and we only get one shot. But sry for ranting thanks again for your post.

    • rachael says:

      You are definitely not “ranting.” It’s great to figure these things out, and I’m glad you’re learning more about yourself! I’m also glad this has been helpful for you. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Karen says:

    Can I just say that I love all your photos? It’s always so funny to see what other people looked like growing up. I looked at that picture of you as your younger self and thought “where is Rachael in this picture?” Love it.
    Moms. They mean so well, and yet, everything that comes out of their mouths pertaining to any sensitive subject cuts like a knife sharpened more than others. My mom likes to call overweight people “butterballs,” which is THEE WORST. I cringe every time she says it. She’d see me looking in the fridge and say “Karen, you don’t want to become a butterball, do you?” UGGGGGG.

    • rachael says:

      Thanks! Haha.
      Yikes–yes, it DOES seem that the opinions from the ones you love most are cringe-worthy and hurt the most.

  5. Jaclyn says:

    I love this post mostly because I can relate to being on the bitter end of genetics. between my brother and I, my brother lucked out despite having wisdom teeth (I don’t have any!). I got stuck with severe anxiety and depression while he got off free. It’s not fun having to deal with the slight amount of sibling rivalry that comes from something like that. No matter how close siblings are, having to deal with a disorder like yours is difficult to explain or comprehend for someone who has never experienced it before and will never struggle with it the way you did.

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