Disordered eating and body images struggles are complex. It’s not as simple as defining one sole reason as to why one struggles with food and/or their body. It’s also very different from one person to the next.
What is going on in the depths of rigid dieting and restrictive eating?
I speak from my own experience and observation working with others, as well as speaking to others who have been there. The restrictive mindset is one that breeds self punishment. In the fitness industry, yes body image is a commonly huge factor but this is not the case in all restrictive eating disorders. I’ve spoken to people who have overcome extreme cases of anorexia nervosa who explained that body image wasn’t a driving force for them.
Again, everyone is very different - there is not a universal explanation here. I used to punish myself through restrictive eating for several reasons:
I was body image obsessed. From the young age of 4 when I started dancing, I was never satisfied with my body. I finally made peace with accepting my body at the age of 31 in recovery. I’m very grateful for my dance background, however some dance instructors make questionable body comments to young impressionable children. These words can be perceived as hurtful and they can stick in our sub conscious and conscious minds for years afterwards. I used to compare my body to other dancer's bodies. I vividly remember as a child being so distraught during a costume measurement session that my friend’s waist measurement was 18 inches while mine was 19. I used to look down at my thighs when I was sitting and feel disgusted that they looked wider when flattened out upon a chair. I programmed my brain as a child to see myself as “fat” and never good enough.
I used emptiness to dodge my true feelings. By denying myself nourishment, I grew to exist feeling numb for quite some time. My ego perceived this as being easier than truly acknowledging and feeling the challenging emotions I encountered. It was harder. Much of society fears emotional pain, acknowledging their truth, and interpersonal transformation. When we resist pain, it persists. It grows and holds us back from being happy. I hear people all the time when struggling to accept their problems say “But then I have to change who I am!” I learned in my soul searching that ego will guard us and hide our true selves. Self development isn't a matter of changing who we are. It is an opportunity to learn who we truly are and become the strongest version of ourselves.
I lacked the ability to stand up for myself. This I can tie into my past days of binge drinking as I couldn’t seem to turn down a drink, and my susceptibility to disordered eating. I struggled with emotions such as guilt, shame, fear, and self worthlessness. When I was seeking nutrition advice from an under qualified low carb advocate while desperate to prove myself through my physique, a part of me knew cutting carbs out of my diet was wrong, but I went with it because I longed to become leaner and I couldn’t stand up for myself. I didn’t know how to stand up for myself not only because I had low self esteem, but because I struggled with the emotion anger. How does this work? Women are often told we don’t have the right to feel or express anger because it is an “ugly” emotion. When it gets bottled up inside it causes us much harm. It may come out abruptly and irrationally at times after we painfully hold it in. Let me tell you, there is a healthy way to express anger and it is called standing up for yourself! It is possible to clearly state our perspective in order to release angry thoughts peacefully and move on.
I wanted control and fostered this into rigid dieting. I was bullied in my youth, fell into unhealthy emotionally abusive relationships as an adult and as such I blamed myself. Restrictive dieting was an outlet I perceived as a way to prove myself and I saw food as something I did have the power to control. Little did I know back then that I was allowing food to control me! I thought following rigid dieting rules made me “hardcore”, that being ultra lean would impress people, and my ego was guarding me from being my authentic self. I lacked the ability to understand why bullies bully, and I thought being mistreated was just a normal part of life so I put up with it from others as well as myself. I know now that I have the power to control something incredibly valuable - how I perceive situations, including how I see myself as well as how I react to the way others treat me. I learned how to let go.
Guilt, shame and fear. I was so afraid of being wrong, that righteous eating controlled me and I fuelled fear into food. I was terrified of eating carbohydrates partially because I was told cutting them from my diet would lean me out, but also because I was afraid of simply being myself and enjoying the journey of life. I struggled with guilt and shame and I couldn't separate my actions from my character. If I ate a food that I had labelled as “bad” I saw myself as a terrible person. A trait of orthorexia is defining one’s self worth based on the foods one consumes, so when someone struggling with orthorexia eats something “forbidden” the guilt and shame that follow are very painful. There were an abundance of reasons as to why I didn’t see myself as worthy and as such my eating habits became emotionally damaging.
Often disordered eating escalates from misinformation about nutrition. There are many extreme and unhealthy diets out there and these make for huge triggers. However when we dig a little deeper and define what’s happening in the depths of our emotions, we can heal. Once we get to know who we are, face our pain and let it go, we are equipped to leave the rigid diet world behind in a profound way.