Today is the second to last day of Eating Disorder Awareness Week. The theme of this year’s Week is “Everybody Knows Somebody.” It’s sponsored by the National Eating Disorder Awareness Foundation, and the goal this year is to spread awareness of the prevalence of eating disorders.
And boy they are prevalent:
One in one hundred American women are anorexic;
One in forty are bulimic;
Eight million Americans suffer from eating disorders– so that makes about 7 million of them women, and 1 million of them men.
If you know more than fifty people, statistics say you know someone.
Eating Disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. They are, in fact, uniquely life-threatening: the mortality rate associated with anorexia is 12 times higher than the death rate of all causes of death for females 15 – 24 years old.
So they’re not a joke. Almost half of anorexics never fully recover, and approximately a fifth of all people who suffer eating disorders die of complications related to the issue.
So what do we do about it?
I know it sounds trite, but I have no better solution. We treat everyone we meet with acceptance and affirmation, and we smile at people and love them even from a distance, and we do our best to hold the spaces of those who struggle. We do not judge anyone; we do not laugh at people for suffering under the weight of these mental pressures; we walk with as much empathy as possible. For people who suffer eating disorders, as well as anyone else.
For eating disorder victims who are closer to us in our lives, we have the unique and important opportunity to love them more specifically. It takes a very long time to learn to accept ourselves as we are, and to let go of whatever demons (which are numerous) make them feel the need to control or to purge or to what-have-you. So one way in which we teach people to love themselves is to be demonstrable about our love for them, and to make them as absolutely safe and comfortable and at home as possible in our presences. Over time, that safe and comfort permeates the rest of their lives, and hopefully their brain spaces, too.
Yet perhaps the most important thing we can do as individuals and as a society is to live by example.
It always baffled me, when I struggled with body image and food, how some women I knew could have some fat on their abdomens and still wear bikinis out in broad daylight. They would smile and laugh like everything was fine, and it was beautiful and amazing if a bit befuddling. What the hell? How could I personally do that? Did I want to? But didn’t I have to wait until I had the perfect body?
No! No one is ever perfect, and no one ever feels perfect. Instead, those women who were laughing and joyful in their own skin, they were choosing to ignore fear and to affirm their own contexts. What if everybody did that? What if we all stopped apologizing for the current state that our bodies are in — whether thin or overweight, young or old, baggy or springy, healing or sick, crippled or toned? What if we owned our natural bodies and our histories, and lived without fear of rejection? What if we dared to be ourselves without criticism or doubt? What if we loved ourselves so much that the world began transforming into a radically affirming rather than radically fearful place?
So it’s a fantasy. I don’t care. And that’s the whole point. For what do we aim, if not the stars?
Eating Disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimina Nervosa come from a wide variety of places and mental disturbances. Different circumstances such as the level of control we have over our lives or family issues or OCD or anything else destabilizing plays as big a role as love and affirmation in eating disorders. So solving those problems is complicated. But the part about love is crucial. Love powerfully does two things: it creates a safe space in which people can work through more complex issues, and it over time teaches them how to radically love and embrace themselves.
As for those of us who do not suffer from explicit eating disorders but suffer daily from disordered eating and body image issues — which may be as high as 50 percent of the general population or even 75 percent of certain populations such as women in college — the answers are much the same. The need for love is so big. The need to overcome fear is urgent. The need to stand firmly in ourselves and love ourselves and never waver in the face of adversity — priceless.
The biggest factor in the epidemic of disordered eating is fear. Fear makes us doubt ourselves; it makes us worry; it makes us try to change ourselves with a neuroticism that can be frightening.
Fear is the opposite of love. Fear tears at the bindings of love, and it makes it impossible to hold on. Fear leaps on the spirit like a giant, voracious spider, and it slices through all of our positive emotions to make us empty and alone. When we are afraid of what people think of us, we lose our ability to live freely. We become defensive; we withdraw into ourselves; and as we sit in ourselves, we worry about the face we are presenting to the world, we worry about our image, and we worry about how we might ever achieve validation.
When we are faced with defensive or fearful people in turn, our walls go up. Walls spring up between people dozens of times every day. This happens in an act of anticipation: instead of anticipating love and affirmation from them, we anticipate rejection, and we tuck ourselves away before we have the opportunity to be hurt.
On days when I am at peace and I love myself, and I feel confident and happy to be in my shoes, I meet everyone’s eyes and smile. I am not afraid of them. They cannot hurt me — I am secure in who I am. And this is the trick to the whole thing. We have to be firm in ourselves. We have to stop apologizing for who we are. We have to accept who we are, and radically, and to live comfortably in our own shoes.
We also have to acknowledge that other people are going through the same process. Everyone wants to be affirmed, and everyone fears rejection. If people are nasty to us, it’s only because of their own personal pain or worry, and not because of our own value. Instead of engaging others in a dance of avoidance and walls, then, what if we lower our own? What if we take that first step towards reconciliation, and what if we give ourselves up as open and vulnerable? What if we stop fearing others, and extend love to them? What happens then? How do they respond to our openness, our positivity, our fearlessness, our love?
If we do not dare to be brilliant, and to think ourselves lovely first, then no one is going to doing it, period.
Someone has to be leaping, and it may as well be you.
The final piece to all of this is that it’s fun to be the leaper. It takes a long time to accept ourselves. But every day on the journey is an adventure. It’s a lesson in life, and it teaches us about the shape of our own minds, our histories, and who we are. It helps us understand our own skin, and it helps us understand humanity. And even more than that, it helps us laugh. Be joyful. Be free. Fly. Share our new groundedness and lack of fear with others. Stare life straight in the face and stop flinching. Look at it instead with fierce eyes, wind in our hair, brilliant smiles, and a body bursting with joy. It doesn’t work this way every second, no. But periodically, and increasingly, and with more and more understanding of the shape of the world. Life isn’t out to get us specifically. We just have to dare to drop our walls, and to affirm with radical and radiant love what it means to be a human being: Love. Joy. Community. Courage. Falling, and getting back up. Running, and sometimes coming in second place. Being in our own skin, and delighting in it. Sharing that love with others, and inviting them to do the same.
I have a friend who once told me that everything we do in life is either an act of fear, or an act of love. What a brilliant way of looking at the world. Open up with love, and let the fear slide.
Be at peace in your own skin, and show everyone else in your life what a joy that can be.
We can build this world. We can heal those around us. We can re-inforce the fractures in our friends, if slowly and with Herculean will. What it takes is the desire to step up. It says saying “I do,” to both ourselves, and to our loved ones. And then to leap, and to laugh, and to love.
Suffer from an eating disorder? Or disordered eating? Or body image issues? Have lived through them and come out on the other side? What’s your story?
Check out National Eating Disorders for more info.