When I sat down to write this post, I typed an innocent enough question into my google search bar: “what percentage of young girls have eating disorders?” I was met with a plethora of answers, but as I clicked and skimmed through the .orgs and .coms, the thought that kept coming to my mind was this can’t be right.
There was plenty of information about eating disorders in young girls as well as other age demographics of other genders, but what struck me was how low the percentages I kept seeing were. I can count on one hand the number of girls my age I’ve met that have not, at some point in their lives, practiced disordered eating habits.
If that’s true, then how come all of these websites are telling me that the percentage of girls affected by eating disorders is in the single digits? It didn’t take me too long to realize that the reason for this is because for one reason or another, most girls just don’t get diagnosed.
I consider myself a recovered anorexic, even though I was never diagnosed. I hid my disorder well enough to keep my parents from dragging me to a doctor, but I checked all of the boxes and I know that a lot of other people who were never diagnosed do/did too. Whether your parents refuse to take you to a doctor, or a doctor won’t diagnose you because you “don’t fit the profile” for an eating disorder, or even if you yourself refuse to believe you have one because you don’t fit X criteria, disordered eating is disordered eating and it’s detrimental to your health.
At my age, I and most of my friends have left eating disorders behind us, but the more I go about my day to day life, the more I realize the ghosts of those disorders are all around me. Some of this is the obvious stuff that every person who’s recovered from an eating disorder has to deal with, like always reading nutrition labels or mentally calculating the calorie content of any and all food that you eat.
But some of it is sneakier, and can even be disguised as self-care.
A lot of times when I’ve eaten more than my fair share of junk food, I’ll find myself scrambling to eat massive amounts of raw vegetables or – better yet – drink cup after cup of green tea. The healthy way to look at this is to say that I’m eating vegetables to get much-needed vitamins, minerals, and fiber or that I’m drinking the tea to calm my stomach, but I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t a little voice inside me saying that the fiber in the vegetables might keep my body from digesting all the calories out of the junk food, or that the green tea will speed up my metabolism to “undo the damage” of eating “too much”.
A lot of the jokes I see on the internet and hear from my friends in real life are either derived from, or reminiscent of, disordered eating habits.
“Self care is waiting until 5pm to eat my first meal and it just being a bag of tortilla chips and a Redbull” reads one tweet. “*me, after drinking 3 cups of coffee*: I am beautiful and fast” reads a Tumblr post.
“The only thing I’ve had to eat today is an iced coffee” says the friend to my left, the friend to my right, the girl who sits behind me in math class, the Pope – well definitely not the Pope, but you get the picture and I know you’ve either heard or been the one to say that before.
Eating disorder culture is everywhere, and for someone who considers herself recovered it can be hard to separate trendy jokes from a validating excuse to slip back into old habits.
In just writing this, I see how much caffeine culture is inseparable from ED culture. People who have struggled with eating disorders have a different relationship with black coffee, energy drinks, and green tea, and the prevalence of caffeinated beverages in jokes about mental health or self-care is impossible to ignore once you recognize that.
It’s impossible to know whether the people making those jokes are currently struggling with disordered eating, whether they have in the past, or whether they don’t even know it, but caffeine culture and humor normalizes certain disordered eating habits to the point where someone who’s recovered might not even realize that they’re participating in them.
I think it’s important then to take just a moment to think before you laugh along or retweet a joke like that about why you think it’s funny, because if you’ve suffered from disordered eating, the answer might surprise you.
I can’t speak for anyone but myself when I say that it takes hard work to not revert to old habits. Even with that hard work, sometimes I need to look at what I’m doing and ask myself “why am I doing this?
Is it because I want to or because I feel like I have to? How much of what I’m doing is motivated by what I’ve eaten today?” along with plenty of other questions to distinguish my actual habits and personality traits from the stubborn remnants of my eating disorder, and I hope that anyone who’s recovered/recovering will do the same.1