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Debunking Superficial Misconceptions of Anorexia

posted Aug 25, 2017, 3:24 PM by Erica Johnstone

The most frustrating misconception about anorexia is that it is a superficial fixation on appearance or attractiveness. It is not. It is actually not a reflection of society’s drive for thinness. Even in the absence of the media glorification of thinness, eating disorders would exist. They occur in countries that do not idolize thinness, and they occurred hundreds of years ago. Eating disorders happen to use food as a coping mechanism - it is the ‘drug of choice,’ but it is merely one means of allaying anxiety and dealing with insecurity. My point is that emaciation is not the core feature of anorexia though it is the most salient symptom. The association with appearance links eating disorders to a superficial and self-absorbed personality. This egocentricity often associated with eating disorders is what I feared being identified with the most - the idea that my eating needs and my workout schedule in particular were self-centered pursuits. But these were not choices easily rearranged, these were commandments I was obeying. It is not selfishness, which implies self-love and self-approbation. It is quite the opposite. These rigid schedules are demanded as forms of self-punishment and self-deprivation. According to anorexia, you only deserve to exist if you have exhausted yourself and restrained yourself. You must accomplish these activities in order to exist without guilt and self-disdain flooding your mind all day. You feel you have to earn the right to enjoy, and even survive, life.


For loved ones of those with eating disorders, making the sufferer feel guilt or shame for working out too much or not eating what others eat is counterproductive. This produces feelings of guilt, inadequacy, not being good enough, which in turn make the sufferer feel that he or she must self-deprive and self-punish using the tools he or she knows, and those tools are disordered eating and exercise behaviors. Personally, when I feel inadequate or that I am not meeting someone’s expectations, my brain automatically goes to a place of thinking about what foods I can cut out and what exercise I can do more of. This happens automatically, without conscious choice. I think this serves dual functions - it is something the eating disorder deceives you into believing you are good at and capable of, but it also serves as self-punishment and self-denial, which the eating disorder has told you is necessary in order to be worthy of living. This becomes the go-to behavior in any instance of feeling inadequacy or unworthiness. The deeper question becomes why do you feel unworthy and not good enough, why don’t you deserve what everyone else does? It seems a sense of self-hate and a lack of self-compassion although you have the utmost compassion for others.  The key to recovery is undoing this false belief and learning to value yourself and believe that you are as worthy as anyone else. You deserve happiness just as everyone else does.


What cause this feeling of self-doubt, inadequacy, unworthiness? So many things. I think a common thread is wanting badly to be accepted. I have always been very concerned with pleasing and appeasing. So many choices are about making others happy and hoping to not disappoint, and I realize that is the same relationship I had with my eating disorder (ED). Anorexia preyed on my vulnerable predisposition to pleasing others. It swooped in and made me believe that if I obeyed it, I would become worthy and lovable. I wanted to appease it - I wanted to change my body so that it would be acceptable, and then I would earn the reward of happiness, although this is completely false. This exemplifies how ED misleads you. I wanted to be the perfect friend. I felt that I could not contradict or say the wrong thing. I wanted to be seen as perfect because I was afraid that if I was seen as flawed, then I would be rejected. This was not true - I was and am loved with all my flaws, but perfectionism runs deep. I felt that the rejection was the worst possible thing because I would have nothing anymore since I did not have love for myself or acceptance by myself for myself. I needed to love myself and believe in myself. I had to learn how to do this. The process has been long, but I have begun to see that I am in fact valuable, worthy, loved, and lovable. I no longer need anorexia and its elusive, paradoxical promise to make me valuable through my own self-destruction.


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