Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Eating Disorders and Body Dysmorphic Disorder

(Possible triggers: mentions of ED, compulsive eating, anorexia, bulimia, triggers, dangerous relationships, and BDD.)

I started this study quite a while ago, and although I plan to re-survey in the future, I wanted to write about my research and results thus far.

This is a very unusual and personal piece for me, being that it goes into some very private "issues" (for lack of a better word) and various things which I myself would not normally talk openly about with just anyone. I am a writer, however, and I feel that I can best express this in writing.


The first step is to admit that I have somewhat of a"problem" with food, exercise, and the like. This either makes me more of an "expert" to write my thoughts, experiences, and findings on this subject - or it disqualifies me from being able to have a clear head. You can decide.

After surveying many people, several things became apparent to me. The first was something that I've always suspected, but never was sure of until I did this survey: self-confidence does not directly intertwine with one's outer appearance. What I mean to say is that I always thought beautiful, skinny, or fit people automatically had this great self-confidence and knew they were one or all of the above. When a skinny person would talk about how fat or ugly they were, I could never understand why. (Besides the fact that it made me cringe and it would trigger my own issues.)

75% of people who answered my survey felt that they had an eating disorder or habits that would pertain to one.
50% answered that they have had (or did have) an eating disorder for 1-8 years, while 50% have had one for under a year.
80% said that a big part (or the entire part) of the development of their habits or eating disorders came about as a result of a boyfriend/significant other and something that they said.
100% answered that the habits and eating disorder(s) developed pretty gradually, starting with somewhat healthy goals, workouts, and/or dieting and developing into a problem and an obsession.
30% of people who answered said that they felt their sex life or relationship with their significant other(s) was affected by their eating disorder, whether by being uncomfortable and embarrassed, or simply by their physical state affecting their level of sexual interest and desire.
80% said that they weren't actually overweight or fat when they felt that they were.

The above may seem like they are "just" statistics, and may seem a bit easy to brush off. To be frank and very specific, the emotional wreckage that eating disorders cause on people is unanimous. Most individuals who develop eating disorders have a constant discomfort and discontentment with their body and self-image. Regardless of whether they weigh 100 pounds and are in excellent physical shape, are 80 pounds and extremely underweight, or are 190 pounds and completely out of shape, it seems that eating disorders cause people to see themselves as fat or ugly, and to hate their body or specific part(s) of their body.

It's a common misconception that only anorexic or obese looking people have eating disorders. People see someone who is very overweight or underweight and often will assume that these are the only two types of people - the over-eaters and the under-eaters.

The shame and guilt that comes with an ED is also a large stress on an individual, because of the constant attention being put on what to eat, not eat, when to eat, when not to eat, "calorie counting", checking one's body constantly to see if one is gaining weight or appears bigger, fatter, pudgier, etc. The obsession with needing to be thinner, in better shape, or look a certain way can drive one to stop eating, start eating much less, or to binge and overeat.

Healthy habits and somewhat restrictive tendencies can rapidly become obsessive habits, over-the-top exercise routines, and excessive restrictions. Feeling guilty when one eats is one of the consequences of an eating disorder, even at times when one is eating quite healthily and attempting to have a balanced diet. The desire to skip meals or to binge and throw up consumes some individuals, to the point that one becomes unable to eat healthily on a day-to-day basis and take care of themselves properly. Often, it just seems easier or more effective to cut down on calories and general food intake in order to achieve the results of weight-loss.

It seems to be a general consensus that one's parents, friends, siblings, and significant others have a huge impact on how one feels about their body and even how one handles their eating disorder, both at the start and in recovery. Restrictions on their food, friends, and members of the opposite sex made by their friends, family, and significant others tends to trigger one's bad eating habits.

The desire to work out excessively or participate in physical activity exceeds the "norm" for a lot of people who suffer from BDD and ED's. Paired with a lack of proper diet, this can become unhealthy very rapidly. As I, and many others have experienced, the drive to be fit and lose weight can cause someone to want to exercise to fix themselves (or their flaws) ALL THE TIME and EVERYWHERE.

The obsession with looking like one's ideal perfect woman or man can be overwhelming. And it seems like so many of the things that people do and say around you are triggering, even the positive ones. When a friend talks about their own weight or your weight, even in a friendly and kind way, it can be incredibly introverting. Even when someone tells me how great I look or that I look thinner, fitter, better, etc., it can make me feel immediately self-conscious. When others talk about their success with a certain diet, health plan, exercise program, or going to the gym regularly, it can make your own plan or exercise routine feel inadequate.

One person I surveyed, Liv*, was adversely affected by her unhealthy relationship with a boyfriend, who was extremely over-protective of her and what she could and couldn't do. Having restrictions on her friends, especially male friends, created a huge problem. An unhealthy relationship such as the one that was described to me, wedged a block between Liv and her friends, leaving her virtually friendless when the relationship became rocky and eventually ended. This, combined with her shaky home life at the time, created a subconscious desire to change her body in order to get her relationship(s) back to the way they were.

As it does for many, what started as a simple diet "quickly escalated out of control". For Liv, and for many other people who struggled with food and ED's, when one is having problems in their relationship(s) or home life, one's body and what they eat seem to be the only things they are in control of. Being able to decide to not eat anything or not eating hardly at all and seeing changes in one's body gives a person an odd sense of accomplishment. But not having a goal (number of pounds loss, ultimate goal weight, muscle mass gained, etc.) can cause a detrimental effect on one's progress and gains.

Liv described how the loss of a boyfriend's affection and their break-up, combined with the lack of genuine friendships in her life and the rumors he started, were just the start of a mess of problems in the following years. She suffered from anorexia and bulimia (wherein she expressed that she has seen every case of anorexia lead to bulimia) and left her feeling depressed and alone; completely out of control. She described bulimia as being a more devastating, hectic, and shameful disorder because it lacks the feeling of "clean self-control and progress" that comes with anorexia. I have heard very similar descriptions from others that I interviewed for my research, as well as from support groups and the like.

Another important topic I wanted to cover is the way that eating disorders and BDD affects one's behavior and comfort with their significant other, or in their "dating life." Liv, among other women (myself included) felt that it made her more self conscious about her body. There were hundreds of times, she told me, that she didn't go out because of ED related feelings, discomforts, and urges. Sometimes she wouldn't have sex for the same reasons. Many women and men feel more out of place or uncomfortable within relationships, because it's exposing them and what they consider to be their flaws, to their significant others. Usually, one's significant other's opinion is very important.

Liv, like many other women who are not clinically overweight (sometimes not even close) definitely felt like she wanted to be thinner, even if she knew that she was not overweight. She enjoyed the feeling of being as light as possible and being in control. Knowing that she looked tiny, was turning heads, and able to wear any clothes was something that was important to her and many, many other women I have personally interviewed and known myself. This is something that is becoming more common in younger teenagers as well.

Luckily, for many men and women, there is hope and there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel! The shame and secrecy can be blown out in the open, taking away the power that ED's carry with them. For some, exercise (in moderation), yoga, meditation, shopping, and other activities can really help to lighten the energy and improve one's mood.

*all names have been changed for privacy purposes.

A big thank you to everyone who participated in the survey and those who wrote me with their stories.

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