Eating Disorders Kill, But Relationships Heal

tumblr_ln8a7nqrAc1qa7x10o1_400

Fall 2009

Charlotte: Five years ago, the story was much different. Numbness and deprivation had drained my body of life, and vacancy replaced life in my eyes. Every night, I would pray that my heart would keep beating another night. I was spiraling into darkness, snowballing so fast that I wondered when and where I would crash. I eventually did crash, and landed on a ranch in Arizona, of all places. I had no hope but also nothing to lose by giving hope a try at residential treatment.

Janine: For over twenty years, anorexia had been the albatross around my neck. I had attended a long list of hospitals and treatment programs that seemed like one failure after another. As a last chance to evade death, I exchanged the towering evergreens of the Canadian west coast for the Arizona desert. My thoughts were jumbled in a fog of starvation and self-hatred. Anorexia had promised me everything, yet it had left me barely existing.

***

It sounds like the beginning of a bad, if not odd, joke. So this Canadian and Michigander walk into a ranch in Arizona… We, the writers, Janine and Charlotte, would never have met outside the confounds of one specific time and place: residential treatment for our eating disorders in 2009-2010. While our backgrounds were very different, in nationality, interests, and phases of life, we did share the same desperation for something better than living in the torture of anorexia. So we, along with others in our program, embarked on a journey that involved nourishing ourselves spiritually, emotionally, and physically. We cried with one another but also laughed and read books for pleasure. We ate pie on Thanksgiving and talked about identity and God. It wasn’t easy, or remotely close to easy even, but we healed together. We could see the tangible changes in ourselves. We could feel that we were no longer lifeless bodies anymore. Leaving treatment, we had hope again.

068_9A

Christmas at treatment 2009

Five Years Later:

Janine and Charlotte remain best friends. In many ways, our lives are so different now, now that we are less marred by our eating disorder scars. We are no longer treatment friends: we are just friends. We enjoy having adventures together. We have gone ziplining in Whistler, British Columbia (much to Charlotte’s terror/ chagrin) and to Disneyland (twice). While 1000+ miles separate us right now, we are intentional in maintaining our relationship through the wonderful development of Skype. Our eating disorders left us hopeless and incapacitated, but slowly, sometimes at a snail-pace, we have found freedom. In our respective ways, we want to help others out of their struggles within our spheres of influence. We would never have chosen to meet how we did or have anyone suffer in the ways we have, but we would never have changed the fact that out of the living hell of an eating disorder, an amazing friendship blossomed.

janine and i recovery

Charlotte: Treatment was a beginning of a new life chapter for me; not one filled with rainbows, unicorns, popsicles, and the end of all struggling forevermore, but one filled with real emotions, thawing, pain, and joy. In treatment, I felt unconditionally accepted and loved during one of the worst points of my life. I never believed that anyone could love all of me, even the ugliest parts. The abundant love and grace I received helped me emerge out of deep shame so I could deal with the factors that had led to my eating disorder in the first place. In the last five years, I moved across the country and then back to the Midwest and somehow earned two master’s degrees in the meantime. Although I still struggle with eating disorder behaviors at times, I believe there will be a day when that won’t be the case. I am so blessed by loving friends (such as Janine!) and a therapist who deserves an honor. I couldn’t be on this journey without them. Relationships don’t inherently heal eating disorders, but support is an integral part of recovery. While I wouldn’t wish my wild, roller coaster journey onto anyone, it is my story, and I am thankful for the beautifully chaotic mess. It is my story to own and love.

Janine: I catch myself once in a while realizing how different my life is now. A moment during work when I can’t believe I’m back doing what I love. I’m able to bring energy and enthusiasm to my job working with children that I couldn’t possibly have done when my eating disorder ruled my mind. I don’t think twice about eating cupcakes with my little nieces or laughing with friends over dinner. I am no longer numb and terrified all the time. I’m able to feel the amazing and wonderful parts of life and no longer attempt to dissolve into oblivion when the guaranteed challenges arise. Recovery has not made life perfect for me, but I am able to make plans for my life that I never thought possible. Nothing about recovery has been easy but I know it has been made easier by my unexpected and unlikely friendships.

Why The Biggest Loser Sucks… But Why It’s Way Worse Than That

I watched The Biggest Loser in its infancy. I remember Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper personal training the shit out of contestants, but pre-Jillian Michaels making 500 fitness DVDs. I might also note that I watched The Biggest Loser in the worst of my eating disorder. Watching a TV show centered on weight loss seemed like a natural outflow of systematically starving myself. In recovery, I was told that it wouldn’t be a good idea to watch something like that anymore. So I stopped. In fact, I stopped engaging in any pro weight-loss media. Much to my shock, I did not miss reading about what Nicole Ritchie ate for breakfast every day. Because, all those articles are basically the same when it comes down to it anyway. Frankly, I haven’t thought much about The Biggest Loser for several years.

… until yesterday. The internet has been blowing up with controversy about the last Biggest Loser winner, Rachel Frederickson, who went too far in her quest for weight loss. Not only did she win but she became unhealthily thin. People have been freaking out left and right. OMG this person on The Biggest Loser is too thin. She might even be anorexic. Has this gone too far?

I don’t disagree. Competitive dieting can for sure lead to anorexia. I know first hand. My own attempt at dieting resulted in a life-threatening eating disorder. I think that other articles that friends have posted (e.g. this one) have expressed that well. And yes, it is a horrible show. More on that later. I am not disputing any of this.

However, my response is more of a broader commentary on our culture, more along the lines of Carrie Arnold and my friend Lauren.

Why is this the first public outcry we’ve had about this show? Oh sure, let’s starve, shame, and publicly humiliate FIFTEEN SEASONS worth of people, and then when someone is considered too thin, “Oh, maybe that was a little too much.”

Does anybody else find this insanely ironic? Shaming public weigh in’s, people working out until they vomit or pass out, and verbal abuse by the hand of personal trainers for goodness knows how many people, and someone who wins gets too thin… and now it’s too far? The whole freaking point of the show is to lose as much weight as possible. Maybe there is not something wrong with Rachel and maybe something more wrong with the show, and more importantly, our culture.

It reminds me of tabloids. I see these things as I check out at the grocery store, and the stories are always the same: this person is too fat. They are overweight! Let’s have 20 unflattering pictures of them going to the grocery store. Then, actresses who might meet the criteria of anorexia have pregnancy rumors spreading because they drank some water or ate a piece of pizza. There is a very narrow window of pop culture satisfaction with a woman’s body. For the most part, all fat is a matter of repulsion to our modern media. BUT, when someone gets too thin, there is this surprising amount of mock alarm. This person is too thin, mass chaos ahhhhhh.

Our culture has a phobia of fatness. Anyone who is overweight is considered disgusting. That’s why we’ve created a reality TV show that gives them money for becoming “less lazy and more self-controlled” (note: public sentiment, not my own). When someone who is 350 pounds is publicly shamed, yelled at, and forced to vomit to get through a workout, that is acceptable to our modern American consciousness. So much so that it has been picked up for 15 seasons because of popular appeal of the show.

 And yet someone who ends up losing too much weight has gone too far, which is no longer appropriate, and the news story is so popular that is on the trending section of my Facebook page? It is such a weird double-standard. Once you get thin, you don’t deserve mockery and shaming anymore? That is too far. But if you’re “fat,” let the games begin. Vomit during your work out, if that’s what you need to do.

It is interesting how our culture legitimizes and makes value judgments about certain eating/ weight struggles. Anorexia has been in the public eye since the 1980s, but the newest eating disorder, Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is a relatively recent diagnosis (I mean it was recognized before by basically everyone in the field, but now a bunch of psychiatrists said it was legit, so now it’s officially legit). Binge Eating Disorder is thought to be the most prevalent eating disorder in the country. It affects 2.8% of people over the course of their lifetime and can often lead to obesity and other serious consequences such as death. While I haven’t watched The Biggest Loser in years, I would bet that some participants of the show have at some point struggled with this eating disorder.

As a part of eating disorder treatment, I hear over and over, Listen to your body. Love your body. Honor your body. Pretty sure that applies across the board. While I don’t specifically know best practices for treatment of BED, somehow I think that public shaming and fainting during dangerous work outs maybe are not the best strategies for treating a serious biopsychosocial disorder. People with BED can suffer with self-hatred and loathing at their propensity to eat, and behaviors can cycle. One eating disorder can be replaced with another. Are we really that surprised that someone went too far?

I am not trying to minimize the health ramifications of obesity. I understand that people can have serious health issues or prematurely die because of obesity. However, The Biggest Loser enterprise is not the right way to go about addressing this issue. Stigmatization and public shaming of people based on weight is never okay. Eating 500 calories, working out for 6 hours a day, and humiliation are never acceptable. It doesn’t matter what weight you are.

We need to take a step back and realize that the entire way that our culture views weight, eating, and exercise are deeply problematic. Can you imagine a country like France making a show like this? Neither can I. In this country, weight loss sells. Our diet industry rakes in $20 billion per year. So, the network produces season after season, and the abuse and shaming is never questioned.

 I feel badly for Rachel. I really do. I hope that she reaches a stable equilibrium. But Rachel is only one contestant– and victim– of this show. What about the other Biggest Loser contestants who “lose” the competition but develop harmful habits toward eating and exercise that might last a lifetime as a result of the show? Or they are self-conscious about their weight and feel ashamed for the duration of their lives? Yet, their unhealthy habits are discounted because they are not “thin enough” to warrant attention. No one makes stories that go viral about them.

I am concerned about Rachel, but I am also concerned about everyone else on this show, and frankly, I am concerned about the messages people get from watching it. And I am concerned that there are people whose voices are being ignored because they are not close enough to some cultural ideal. It reminds me of this Huffington Post article that was really eye opening to me. Jennifer Lawrence is applauded as a “body image hero,” and I mean, like the next person, I am enthusiastic about anyone who says, “If anybody even tries to whisper the word ‘diet,’ I’m like, ‘You can go fuck yourself.’ “

However, when I read the article, I realized that Jennifer Lawrence is a white, small Caucasian woman who meets a conventional standard for beauty, and she just happens to gloat about eating French fries. But– would a larger actress who says she likes eating be applauded as a body image hero? The author contrasts Lawrence with Melissa McCarthy, an actress with a different, bigger, body type. Melissa McCarthy is quoted saying, “I don’t know why I’m not thinner than I am.” What if Melissa McCarthy went on record saying that she loves French fries? Would there be gifs and tumblrs dedicated to her? Somehow, I don’t think so.

The author, Jenny Trout, wonders: “At what percentage of body fat does a woman earn the right to be a person?”

What is saddest to me about the whole Biggest Loser controversy is that this is what it takes for people to speak out. We should give attention and concern where attention and concern are due– this entire franchise. Rachel is not a far cry from what every other contestant has tried to do– lose as much weight as possible, and if you need to starve or almost kill yourself on the treadmill to do it, so be it.

This show is not okay, but in leaving the critique there, we are missing the public stigma and shaming associated with weight issues. We are missing the fact that millions of people are on their couches eating popcorn watching people almost kill themselves for a quarter of a million dollars. “You can never be too rich or too thin,” as the popular adage goes. The Biggest Loser attempts to handle both.

In my opinion, enough is enough. This show is a horrible outflow of our fat-phobic and paradoxical culture, and it is time that people stand up and call it out for what it is: Bullying. Shaming. Abusive. Unacceptable. It loses. And so do we.