The entirety of my life once revolved around my weight.
Every thought, action and breath was dedicated to becoming thinner, smaller—invisible.
After my personality and vitality had starved, my physical body began the final act of disappearance. It was during what I thought was the closing scenes of my life that a plot twist stormed the stage: a heart attack. This twist brought trained professionals to co-star alongside my emaciated body. Their actions saved my life and stopped the tragedy I was playing out.
They saw through my performance. They saw my societally-sculpted body not as the embodiment of “perfection” but as the consequence of our consumer culture—a culture that values external appearances over internal well-being. A culture that pushes over 90 percent of American teenagers to diet regularly. A culture that continuously prioritises appearance over health, connection, authenticity, transparency and raw, messy humanness.
As experts in the field of eating disorders, my new co-stars were able to see underneath my charade, to me. Seeing me meant they understood that how I was acting and engaging in the world was not a choice; I didn’t know any other way of being. I was not choosing to starve myself, purge my body hollow, exercise obsessively or be addicted to laxatives. I wasn’t choosing any of those things, but instead, a dictator inside my brain forced me to scrutinize and obsess over my weight every minute of every day.
This dictator makes a home within the mind of every sufferer. This dictator works around the clock at re-wiring and hard-wiring the individual to experience disconnection from their body, their community, and their passions so that the sufferer only hears the words of the dictator.
The dictator didn’t force me to harm my body to be more beautiful, more attractive to the opposite sex, more liked or famous. This dictator inside my mind screamed harmful things I should do to my body, drowning out my authentic self. The authentic self that I didn’t feel worthy of being.
None of my actions were a choice. They were an illness—a coping mechanism that allowed me to disguise my insecurities, pain, trauma, self-hate and complete belief that I was not enough, that I would never be enough.
Eating disorders are not choices.
Eating disorders are not just low-calorie consumption.
Eating disorders are not cries for help.
Eating disorders are not about weight, size or body composition.
Eating disorders are not diets gone bad.
Eating disorders are not just for rich, bored white women.
If we want each person who experiences an eating disorder to survive, we as a culture and a community have to be radically honest about the mental health issues that can create a dictator inside our brains.
Witnessing countless consumption-based advertisements of thin women and freakishly fit men is not what does it. These images simply reinforce a dictator’s presence. Eating disorders are about so much more.
The greatest barrier I faced during the recovery process is the same one that prevents us as a society from offering true compassion to those suffering from an eating disorder: the belief that eating disorders are a choice.
Sufferers are not choosing to prioritise fitting into a pair of jeans over enjoying a cheesy pizza with you—we are just coping. There was point in our past where our eating disordered behaviours offered us a way to survive in the world. Often, we didn’t have the resources or knowledge to cope differently, or in a way that wouldn’t compromise our health.
If our culture is ever to show people with eating disorders that coping no longer requires harming themselves, we must first shake this misconception. In its place, we must begin to offer limitless compassion.
This is an illness.
The cure is compassion.
In recognition of National Eating Disorder Awareness week.
Author: Ailey Jolie
Images: Mike Cicchetti/ Flickr
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren