Captain Awkward gave advice to a woman who was sick of social diet talk – and a couple of other commenters mentioned office weight-loss campaigns. (I left a comment saying that I need these drives like a hole in the head.) And a commenter responded with her own hatred of office thinspiration and said, “I can’t imagine what it would be like for a person with an eating disorder.”
Many people have written about how difficult it is to quit an eating disorder, because you can’t give up food – or physical activity. Smokers can go cold turkey. People with food compulsion can’t. The kind of adjustments you need to perform are subtler – and the more difficult to calibrate for someone who has spent several years warping their own sense of health and hunger away from reality. But I think the problem is worse.
I’ve said before that it’s important to see eating disorders as different from dieting. An eating disorder is not a tame misguided desire to lose weight; it’s not the same as wanting to be too thin. An eating disorder is a spiraling compulsion that will take over your life and may eventually kill you. Eating disorders require intervention. They do not rest on a spectrum running through excess and moderation; they aren’t related to a healthy or reasonable diet plan and cannot coexist with the desire to regulate your eating habits for the sake of your health. They are never about wellbeing.
Yet they are related to our culture’s sense of dieting. It isn’t just that you can’t go cold turkey on food. You can’t go cold turkey on disordered eating habits. We as a society have a disordered relationship with food.
I’ll give you an example. (My father is a wonderful person and I love him.) Once, when I was trying to explain my eating disorder to my dad, I described my diet during a bad phase. I said that I had spent several months living on a diet that really wasn’t food.
This wasn’t like when Women’s Day maps out a nutrition plan and a fat activist points out that it runs afoul of international treaties, or when a crash diet strips away meals – or when you’re meant to shock your body into diminishing by giving up fat or sugar. This diet, my diet, did not include nourishment. I don’t want to go into detail – CA put that limit on her comments thread, and for good reason – but anyone with a basic sense of human nutrition would hear the list and understand that it didn’t sustain a human. It wasn’t any more sensible than running your car on apple juice.
It was as though I’d said, “I subsisted on Coke Zero and packing peanuts!” Broken down, it consisted of fiber, water, enough sugar to dust half a grapefruit, no grapefruit, caffeine. And when I got really desperate, I’d go and get myself some, like, bread. So, Coke Zero, packing peanuts, and maybe a bagel – nothing on the bagel.
I used this as an example of extreme ill health – and at the time, it threw my body into a panic of starvation. I couldn’t think or function very well, I was exhausted all the time, and I was – this is important – very hungry! I was also quite thin.
I was trying to explain to my father that I had forced myself not to eat for several months – as part of an escalating series of depriving controls that lasted years – and that I was afraid of my own inability to care for myself.
My father, who is a caring and educated man, saw no problem with this diet. He thought it sounded reasonable. Responsible. Because to my father, black coffee and fresh produce (this didn’t always include fruit) and more black coffee says Elizabeth Arden. And if you’re putting sugar in your coffee, you should probably take it out.
This is not because my father is a horrible person – or because my father has no experience with food. This is because we as a culture have no sense of the difference between anorexia and dieting. We don’t draw a line between restricting and starving. We create diet plans that create hunger.
(A lot of them include massive amounts of coffee. One Women’s Day diet plan told readers to substitute as many meals as possible with coffee – and if coffee wasn’t substantial enough, to thicken the coffee with protein powder. Caffeine is to eating disorders as alcohol is to date rape: it’s as effective an appetite suppressant as any pill, and everyone who has ever had an eating disorder has used caffeine to cover lacunae in their diets.)
Office reduction drives are disturbing to me because I recognize them. They’re based on the same fetishistic fasting practices common to people with anorexia. And when I encounter them…on Captain Awkward’s comment thread, I implied that they were coercive. They are. But worse than that, they’re a reminder of how little support people with eating disorders really have in recovery. Not because people are generally callous, but because most people genuinely see no problem.