Counting calories. Sticking to a rigid exercise routine. Refusing to eat certain "bad" foods. In our culture, these behaviors are often designated as admirable, even ideal and health-conscious. But, ironically, they may be as clear indicators as any that someone is suffering — physically, emotionally and psychologically.
Disordered eating falls between eating disorders and a healthy lifestyle, yet it is often conflated with both and not recognized for the specific experience it truly is. Here are the lies we need to stop telling about what it's really like.
1. Disordered eating is the same thing as having an eating disorder.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of psychologists, activists and other health professionals, most people today are familiar with eating disorders, which the American Psychological Association defines as "abnormal eating habits that can threaten your health or even your life." Those disorders include anorexia (restricting eating to the point of starvation), bulimia (purging excessive amounts of food) and binge eating (out-of-control eating patterns). But far too many people are completely unaware of disordered eating.
The key difference between "disordered eating" and "eating disorders," body image activist Melissa Fabello told Mic, is the extent to which one's life is disrupted. If the way one thinks about and interacts with food reaches the point of "interrupting whatever one would define as 'normal' activity, then it crosses the line," she said.
Experts confirm this. "An individual with disordered eating is often engaged in some of the same behavior as those with eating disorders, but at a lesser frequency or lower level of severity," Psychology Today notes. "However, disordered eating is problematic and to be taken seriously [because] individuals with disordered eating may be at risk for developing a full-blown eating disorder and are more likely to have a history of depression and/or anxiety, or be at risk for anxiety and depression at some point in the future."
2. Disordered eating is not that common.
Disordered eating is not just a personal quirk or anomaly. In fact, it's statistically the norm: A 2008 study found that 65% of women between the ages of 25 and 45 engage in "disordered eating," and as many as 3 out of 4 American women "endorse some unhealthy thoughts, feelings or behaviors related to food or their bodies."
Claire Mysko, program director of the National Eating Disorder Association, agreed. One of the comments made most frequently by people who reach out to NEDA, she told Mic, is, "'I'm not sure this counts as an eating disorder,'" followed by a description of "how their thoughts and behaviors related to food, weight and body image are having an incredibly negative impact in their lives." Whether or not they fit the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder, "it's clear that people who are in that position deserve help," Mysko said.
3. Disordered eating is just one approach to a healthy lifestyle.
Disordered eating may be so widespread because of a damaging American understanding of "health" that's far from healthy. Rather than focused on choices and practices that are physically beneficial, health in our culture is, more often than not, used as a standard of moralistic achievement.
Certain types of food, Fabello said, are deemed "good" and others "bad" in our culture — as are choices made about that food (which may be "sinful" or constitute "cheating"). Food and eating are also quantified into calories, pounds, BMI measurements and beyond, rather than qualitatively measured. Numbers and scales are prioritized over feelings and wellness.
"We're socialized into having an extremely unhealthy relationship with food and our bodies, and that in turn causes us to eat in ways that aren't actually natural or intuitive," Fabello said.
This focus on numbers is compounded by an obsession with appearance, which is also often conflated with health itself. Plenty have noted, however, that health can't always be quantified, and that this quantification is largely arbitrary anyway. True health, according to a growing activist movement, can actually be achieved at a variety of sizes.
Although well-intentioned and certainly necessary for some, a so-called "war on fat" can be deeply detrimental. Anti-obesity efforts may not directly cause eating disorders, Mysko said, but they effectively stoke a "fear of fat and an over-emphasis on weight and numbers on the scale," contributing to "the very wrong way we talk about food and weight culturally."
4. Disordered eating is only experienced by white women.
The dominant narrative about disordered eating fails to acknowledge that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds experience it. And yet, studies and, of course, women of color themselves, confirm that they do.
It took writer Raquel Reichard years to identify her disordered eating behaviors (like obsessively counting calories) as problematic, she told Mic, because she felt her identity was incompatible with the widespread depiction of disordered eating and eating disorders.
"I was a Nuyorican girl growing up in an Orlando working-class neighborhood," Raquel Reichard wrote for Mic in February. While media depictions of "skinny white protagonists battling anorexia made me uneasy," she admitted, they also reassured her "that I did not have a problem, because my life and my 'issue,' whatever it was, didn't look like hers."
Additionally, women of color who come from immigrant backgrounds often approach disordered eating from a unique socioeconomic perspective. Latina body image activist Virgie Tovar once said, according to Reichard, that being thin for nonwhites in the U.S. was part of achieving the American Dream. "By attempting to fit the mold, both literally and figuratively, we are one step closer to climbing up that social and economic ladder and making it in this 'land of opportunity.'"
5. Disordered eating is motivated solely by appearance.
Psychologists, thought leaders and others have noted that disordered eating is less about fat itself than about a deeper, psychological desire for control and perfection, especially for young women held to increasingly unattainable standards in all realms. Women are dehumanized in our sexist society, reduced to their bodies and sexual appeal, and disordered eating distracts women from reaching or exercising their full intellectual capacity and reiterates their marginalization.
As Courtney Martin, author of the groundbreaking book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters told Middlebury students in 2014, eating disorders, disordered eating and negative body image are "not really about beauty," but "about this existential sense: What makes me worth something? What makes me seen by others? What makes me feel in control of the world? [It's] about the deepest questions we can ask about who we are."
It's crucial to start a conversation about disordered eating not only to help those experiencing it to get help, but to recognize that its prevalence indicates a much deeper, widespread problem. That the majority of American women approach eating and their own body image from such a detrimental, self-damaging place should give us all pause and encourage us to start a dialogue about where to go from here.