Don’t Give Up: Returning to Balance After Disordered Eating and Body Dysmorphia

body dysmorphia

A staggering 91 percent of women hate their bodies.* Women and girls of all ages weigh themselves and stare in the mirror, critical of their own beautiful bodies. Their day-to-day routines are disturbed by relentless negativity.
You’re not pretty enough.
Your legs aren’t skinny enough.
Your stomach isn’t flat enough.
Your skin isn’t clear enough.
Never enough.
Those thoughts are exhausting and interfere with life activities, causing many girls to struggle in school or work or with relationships. Those thoughts can lead to disordered eating patterns, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and other dysfunctional behaviors.

My story with disordered eating involves a unique hybrid of body dysmorphia and orthorexia, an obsession with “healthy” eating. I put healthy in quotation marks because my fixation on perfect health led me to my unhealthiest self. I’ll keep this brief, so we can focus on recovery, but you can read my full story on Hungry Girl Runs, my personal blog.

I hopped on the health train in high school and quickly became intent on shedding pounds, even though I never would have been considered overweight. I was sucked into diet culture by magazines, ads and social media, enticed by beautiful images of perfect women and perfect food. Suddenly, I wasn’t good enough for myself.

I developed my own, completely fabricated concept of “good” foods and “bad” foods. I only ate what I thought were good foods and deprived myself of many essential nutrients (not to mention calories) in doing so. About two years into my “health” journey, I weighed 112 pounds at 5-foot-6-inches tall – not severely underweight but underweight nonetheless.

Around that two-year mark is when my eating habits turned into a vicious cycle: restrict, binge, purge, shame. The shame led to even more severe restriction episodes and compensation behaviors, such as over-exercising. My habits worsened for years before I sought help. When I finally did get help, a therapist told me I had orthorexic-like eating behaviors with symptoms of bulimia, all of which stemmed from my body image issues.

The road to recovery was not easy. In fact, I still consider myself to be in recovery. I have relapses in which my inner “mean girl” emerges and tells me all the things I don’t like about myself. I have days when I feel “fluffy” or bloated, and I don’t want to eat. But the important part is that I now recognize these behaviors as dysfunctional, and I can snap out of them with more ease.

There are a few key guidelines I like to remember on days like those, when the struggle seems greater than the triumph. While everyone’s story and situation will differ, these guidelines can help anyone who struggles with food or body image issues return to balance.

Remember the science of nutrition. 
A properly fueled body is a productive body. Food restriction and compensatory behaviors like over-exercising lead to a depleted body. Exercise is a celebration of what our bodies can do, not a punishment for something we ate. And fueling your body with enough calories is your way of saying “thanks” for all that your body can do.

Write down what you are grateful for. 
Think about all the things that are infinitely more important than your body. Your parents, siblings, boyfriend or girlfriend, and friends; your schoolwork, job, and hobbies; your peace of mind. When your inner self is testing you, triumph by writing down things that are special to you. Don’t just think about them – write them down. The act of writing will distract you from negative thoughts and give you a task to focus on.

Make a list of your goals.
What do you want to be? A teacher? Doctor? Lawyer? Whatever it is, write it down. Also write down your short-term goals, such as “I want to write two blog posts this week,” or “I want to ace my biology test on Friday.” Think about how much harder it will be to reach those goals if you’re constantly perturbed by your body and the food going in it. By focusing on your goals, you can cut out negative thoughts and instead zone in on your life’s aspirations.

Practice intuition. 
Listen to your body. It will tell you when it is hungry or not hungry. It will tell you when it needs exercise or it needs rest. Proper nutrition and regular physical activity are critical to health, but consistently pushing past your limits will make you feel burnt-out and resentful toward food and exercise. When we are trying to restore balance, that is the opposite of what we want.

Take a detox from people and platforms that make you feel bad about yourself. 
So many of my restrict, binge, purge episodes were initiated by social media. Simply logging on and seeing all of the “fitspo” I followed was enough to send me spiraling into a pit of self-shame. If you find this happening to yourself, try deleting your social apps for a while. Once, I deleted all of my social apps for nearly two months. When I was ready to return, I felt refreshed and not at all intimidated by my feed.

I hope these tips help you in your journey to restore balance. Never forget that you are not alone, and there is perseverance in your struggle.

Also published on Medium.