When Kate and Sweet Machine went to see Joy Nash on Saturday night, Joy was being filmed for an MTV show about fat-positivity. In an unprecedentedly out-of-touch move, MTV had actually contacted me about doing that show, but I turned them down for several reasons — I’m too old and uncool (I haven’t watched MTV since The State and Beavis and Butthead), I’m far too cynical and thinky, and I’m a bit private. Plus, I was really hoping they’d go for a charismatic person like Joy, who is beautiful and energetic and thrives on publicity.
But I did talk to the associate producer on the phone, and while it handily confirmed for her that I would be no good on TV, it was significantly less decisive for me. It actually derailed me pretty hard. Because she wanted to know how I got over an eating disorder. And I just didn’t know the answer.
Part of the problem, of course, is that the honest answer is “I didn’t.” You never really do. Just as being fat changes your body weight setpoint, disordered eating changes your relationship-with-food setpoint, so that what’s easy for other people (like eating when you’re hungry) is a struggle for you. And it took me a long, long time to get to a place where I even thought that struggle was worthwhile. Even in my first year of graduate school, when I thought I’d left “kid habits” like purging behind me, I was still eating approximately once a day. When I lived alone and got sick or snowed in, a friend would have to bring me food, or I would just go without. My refrigerator was hilarious. At one point I believe it contained half a bottle of white wine gone to vinegar, a box of baking soda, a bottle of water, and a grape stem with a couple of raisiny grapes clinging to it. This particular fridge condition persisted for months. I did eat, but only when it was effortless; I certainly couldn’t be bothered to bother to feed myself. And I didn’t see any problem with this. I wasn’t thin, and I sure wasn’t hungry, so what could possibly be wrong?
But since severely restricted eating is the norm, or at least the hotly-pursued goal, in this society, I was in good company. I can’t speak for every cultural tradition, but I know that if you grow up white, Western, and female, you probably get your feelings about food warped at an early age. It took me years to recognize that hunger and satiety were both worthy goals, and that’s when my relationship with food became atypical — not before, when I thought that recognizing hunger was a failing and feeding it was even worse. So when I have to steel myself up to eat something just because I want it, I’m not just fighting my personal history; I’m fighting decades of cultural history as well. This is true for many people, and that’s part of why the MTV interview threw me so hard — since I couldn’t say how I got over it, and since my particular struggles are so common, I started wondering whether I’d even really had an eating disorder in the first place. That’s how fucked-up the standard relationship with food really is — I questioned whether years of restriction and purging really constituted an eating disorder. Were they not, perhaps, merely a quirk?
I think MTV wanted me to say something easy, something like “I went to Overeaters Anonymous” or “I make sure to eat at least 1500 calories a day” or “I consider the food pyramid a religious icon.” Or even “I went through extensive therapy to reconsider my feelings about food.” They wanted a version of the “I quit emotional compulsive eating by going on Weight Watchers” story; that would have meant that I had a real problem that I was properly atoning for. I didn’t do any of these easy fixes, though, because they’re not fixes: you can’t replace disordered eating with a different kind of disordered eating. If you replace compulsive eating with a restrictive diet, or compulsive dieting with a 12-step program, you’re just giving the problem a new name — like I did when I was a kid and quit sucking my thumb by starting to bite my nails. I got over my eating disorder, to the extent that I did, by just getting over it. I stopped giving food that much importance. I stopped making fat my scapegoat. I let go of the idea that anybody gave a rat’s patoot if I ate ice cream in public. It was slow and it isn’t over, but for the first time in my life I’m not replacing dysfunction with dysfunction.
There are some great blogs out there to inspire people who are struggling. I read and cheer for everything that Good With Cheese writes, even when she’s momentarily losing the fight. We all do that sometimes. This is good, because there’s no easy answer for “how did you get over it”; it’s a long process, and blogs like Good With Cheese make that clear. But while I can’t give a simple answer, I can offer a couple of ways to loosen your dependence on the Holy Regimen:
- Take up a physically and mentally demanding activity. Kate has talked about how yoga put her in tune with her body; I’ve found the same thing with yoga and with dance. And my college fencing team, though as rife with interpersonal drama as any other college sports team, was instrumental in helping me figure out how to relate to my body — and, perhaps more importantly, in giving me the personal discipline to quit dieting. It sounds counterintuitive, but because you’re going against the grain, it can take more willpower not to diet. Activities that require focus and proprioception will help you in a way that watching Oprah from the elliptical never will. (And I love the elliptical, don’t get me wrong.) ETA: The always astute Meowser has pointed out that this needn’t be a “sport” or anything that recalls gym class. Musical instruments, meditation, tai chi, sculpture — anything that requires concentration and bodily awareness will do.
- Take up… anything else. Disordered eating often feels like a compensation for your other shortcomings — fat becomes the scapegoat for personal dissatisfaction. If you’ve got a full life, you have nothing to scapegoat, not to mention no time to count calories. I suck at this one, by the way, but that doesn’t make it any less important.
- Get angry. Read Kate’s blog, read Pandagon, read the news, get on the mailing list for your favorite organization. Social justice causes are, in my opinion, all connected. If you can learn to advocate for something, even just inside your head — if you can become an angry feminist, an angry progressive, an angry animal rights activist, if you can make your issues inflame and motivate you — then you can learn to advocate for your own needs. If you can recognize miscarriages of justice, you can learn to be more fair to yourself.
- Cook, or find someone to cook for you. Yeah, sometimes it is about food. Learning to see food as something besides a necessary inconvenience can make the difference between really letting go of your disorder, or just replacing it with a new dysfunction. When I was generally managing to feed myself, I thought I was okay, but I didn’t really learn what “okay” was until I moved in with someone who cooks for me. This is the second-hardest one for me, and when I’m out of the house I definitely have a tough time seeing food as anything but a burden. But now it’s also a family event, something that is emotionally nourishing as well as physically — not to mention being tasty. And it’s something I still have control over (“no I don’t want peppers,” “yes I do want veggie sausage,” “all I want tonight is orzo”) without having to control it via restriction. This would be even more the case if I learned to cook myself. That one’s too hard for me right now, but if you can do it, it’s a great way to relate to food as a source of pleasure and nourishment.
That’s my answer, or part of it. It’s boring and difficult and people with Food Issues are liable to feel like I’m leaving them empty-handed, with nothing to count or give up or venerate or fret over. But just as you can’t go on a diet and expect to succeed long-term, you can’t go on a dieting diet either. You have to learn new ways to nourish yourself, not new things to deny yourself.