You can’t judge a person by how well they fit the physical norm.
Thousands of men and women who appear healthy to a passerby, close friends, and family are suffering from eating disorders, consumed by the desire to appear healthy and fit, but engaging in extremely harmful behavior to achieve those aims.
More often than not, an eating disorder is a hidden struggle. Society’s harsh treatment of overweight people or those whose bodies aren’t considered mainstream can negatively affect vulnerable people. Body shaming and assumptions about those who aren’t classically beautiful and Instagram perfect can be hard for many to take. Past trauma and relationships can manifest themselves in body issues.
In short, the people you think are healthy outside may very well be wounded and anxious inside. And food may be the tool they use to keep the world from seeing how much they hurt.
Do you suspect someone you love is using food to appear healthy rather than to nurture their health? Look closely and consider the following:
Body Types Are Unreliable
Often people are scrutinized when their bodies are a different shape than what we consider “normal.” The fact remains that some people are naturally curvier while others are prone to carrying a more linear frame. Big, small, short, tall—an eating disorder does not discriminate. The struggle can impact you no matter what your natural body shape might be.
Supported by the media, many people abandon attempts to be fit for the goal of being acceptable by societal terms. Cultural opinion of their figures may drive them to eat very little, wear themselves out with exercise, or purge food to stay thin. Therefore, a proper eating disorder diagnosis may not be made until the condition reaches a crisis point. Loved ones and even physicians may not see the signs of disordered eating as the sufferer’s physical shape aligns with their stereotypical view of fitness and health. In fact, many people struggling with an eating disorder look perfectly healthy until the disorder has progressed to a dangerous state.
“Having it all Together” Can Be Misleading
People struggling with an eating disorder can often appear to have it all together. They might be a successful businessman or woman, the well-organized head of a family unit, or even a prominent member of society.
Eating disorders for many are about control. From the outside, it can look like willpower. Thus, this condition is not only reserved for those who are obviously at rock bottom. To a certain extent, many managing eating disorders develop them because they have a deep desire to rein in some part of their life. Food seems like an easy area of control when relationships, career, or past trauma make life feel uncertain.
People suffering from eating disorders can feel the whirlwind of negativity on the inside but control their bodies with food. “Adopting” an eating disorder grants them control, at least for a while. It can provide a twisted sense of comfort and approval as people applaud their discipline. The truth is that it’s only a façade, and they eventually feel completely out of control.
Normal Weight Can Serve as a Cover
The media and celebrity culture can condition many people to applaud a “normal” BMI or seemingly normal, healthy appearance. Normalcy, as society defines it, can be very attractive for a person with internal doubts or low self- esteem. Therefore, achieving normalcy through disordered eating feels like an efficient and effective choice worth making.
For those on the outside, an eating disorder is easy to miss in this situation. Their loved one may not exhibit any drastic bodily change. They simply seem focused on not allowing any fluctuation in weight or are concerned with maintaining their normal look regardless of how life changes. Family and friends may even praise their ability to remain unchanged without realizing how much it costs the sufferer to maintain their appearance perpetually.
An Eating Disorder Isn’t Simply a Body Issue
The wounds that lead someone to focus on food as a means of emotional control are not visible from the outside. But there are clues that a knowledgeable loved one and experienced therapist can see. It’s important to recognize that the sufferer’s mind must be healed first to stop an eating disorder from doing long-term damage.
If your loved one is obsessed with their outward appearance, look deeper. Ask questions and listen closely. Be slower to praise their desire to be thin, beautiful, or alter themselves for societal norms. A healthy body starts with a healthy mind.
Take the first step…
If you are ready to address your food and body image issues and how they may be affecting your life, I would like to help. Please contact me via phone or email so we can discuss how we might work together to achieve your therapeutic goals as quickly and effectively as possible.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Linda K. Laffey, MFT