Guest Post: Having an Eating Disorder is Never an Excuse for Cruelty

by Guest Blogger Jen P.

Anorexia nervosa is a disease, not an excuse for cruelty to an entire group of people. For five years, I suffered from an eating disorder, bouncing in and out of hospitals and residential treatment centers, counting every calorie that entered my mouth, furiously sweating out the pounds that I imagined were glomming onto my frame, agonizing over my size, the numbers on my clothing, and the number on the scale that taunted me every morning. Do you see the key word here? My. My mouth, my frame, my size. Anorexia nervosa is marked by a fierce, irrational obsession with one’s own appearance, a fear of gaining weight, and a distorted self-image. Nowhere in the clinical diagnosis of anorexia does it state that the disease makes an individual hate fat people. Nowhere in the definition does it state that anorexia makes it “aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room,” as Maura Kelly states in her Marie Claire article. This cruel, mean-spirited, and judgmental point of view can not be blamed on a disease, a disease that has afflicted some of the kindest, gentlest, most supportive women (and men) that I have ever encountered. Maura Kelly’s words come from within herself, from her individual issues, not from this often misunderstood disease.

In fact, most individuals suffering from eating disorders are so stuck in their own minds , so judgmental of themselves alone, that they don’t have the time or the mental energy to judge others. When I was in the depths of my eating disorder, I thought that the normal rules that govern reality didn’t apply to me. In my mind, a teaspoon of peanut butter could instantaneously make me gain ten pounds—yet in the mouths of other people, it was just fine. In my mind, I had to work out X hours every day—yet others didn’t. I existed in my own universe, my own fantasy land, with regulations and punishments that applied to only my body, my shape. I yearned for the normality of others’ lives, ached to be free of the torturous vice that gripped my mind. In the depths of my illness, I was jealous of everyone who wasn’t me—jealous of women with curves, jealous of women with flesh, jealous of women who were just plain happy with themselves, who lived their lives in the bodies they were born with. The paradox was that while I didn’t want fat on myself, I loved to see others who embraced it upon them. It gave me hope.

And that’s Mike and Molly. While I haven’t seen this show for myself, I love that television is starting (very slowly) to show a range of bodies on television. Because for both women suffering from eating disorders and for women of every shape and size, it is essential to see these images of happiness in the media. Of plus-size women living their lives, falling in love, feeling empowered and strong. That’s what our young girls need in order to escape the tyranny of eating disorders. That’s what all women need in order to love themselves.

Because it’s hard to be a woman today. No matter what size you are, no matter how much you weigh.

Throughout my recovery process, as I struggled with the weight that I so desperately need to gain, as I came to terms with the self-esteem issues that led me to restrict and over-exercise, as I watched my body finally become what it truly wanted to be, rather than the form that I forced it into, it was hard. I won’t say that it was harder than the struggles that many women go through everyday, facing the kind of prejudice and hatred that was evidenced in the Marie Claire article. But it was hard, nonetheless, as I watched myself change, as I challenged the internal standards that I had always held myself to, that society holds all women to today.

And today I am bigger, yes, but I am also myself. I am a recovered anorexic. The disease is part of my past, will always be a part of me. But I will never use it as an excuse for hatred. Instead, I use it as an excuse for love—toward myself, however I end up looking, and for others. Because happiness and self-acceptance is worth more than anything.

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Katie said...

Hell yes to this sentiment. There's another high profile journalist with anorexia in the UK who has talked about her thoughts on overweight people in a similar way to Maura Kelly, and it drives me crazy. For goodness sake, don't people like this realise that as soon as they bring their illness into the equation they are making it sound like everyone with the same disorder has the same thoughts? I am as far as a person can be from being judgmental of people for their weight or body shape, and I was anorexic for over a decade. Maura Kelly doesn't speak for me. Being an insensitive thoughtless idiot is just a symptom of being a insensitive thoughtless idiot.

lisa said...

Here here Jen, you hit the nail on the head.. Just because someone has an illness doesn't mean all behavior and beliefs are automatically an association and with Ed the opposite IS more the norm. Most are kind giving individuals trapped in their distorted self perceptions..

hm said...

Further, I find that my distortion works both ways- I always see myself as fat, and I always see my friends and loved ones as beautiful- and more beautiful than me. They can complain that they've gained 20 pounds, but I won't be able to see it on them, and I'll still feel that I'm wider. They can rejoice that they've LOST 20 pounds, and I can't see that either. They always look the same to me. Our self-criticism is just that- about ourselves.

Wondering Soul said...

Having an ED has been my sister's 'excuse' for cruelty to people closest to her over the last few decades.

I think she hates fat people... Scorns their lack of self discipline...

Katie...? Which journalist are you referring to?
I'm interested.


jpetroroy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jen P said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I couldn't let this go by without a response.

@Wonderingsoul- I should have included the link originally, but this was in response to this article:

Renee said...

I've had a different experience with ED than you, Jen. In all honesty, I HAVE felt superior to the overweight people I know, and I've had some "thank god I don't have her body" thoughts. There, I admit it. BUT I am not at all proud of those judgments, and I certainly wouldn't blog about them in Marie Claire. Frankly, I have done and thought a lot of terrible things becuase of my ED. I mean, I STOLE food, for god's sake. But I see that as part of the ED, not part of my true self, my Wise Mind.

So I was angry at Maura Kelly for writing that piece and for hiding behind anorexia as her justification. I mean, if anyone knows the heavy toll that our media's tyranny of thinness can wreak, it should be her. If anyone could have used that article to discuss TV's messed up protrayal of bodies, it should be her. Because of her ED, I hold her to a HIGHER standard in terms of promoting positive body image. If she realized that her thinking on this issue was tainted by her ED, then she shouldn't have written the piece.

I Hate to Weight said...

i agree 100%. i made myself starve but i was so jealous of women who carried weight and had energy and laughed and lived life. they gave me hope that some day i could.

i don't care what ANYONE else weighs and i don't judge anyone but you know who - me.

don't blame us that society apparently hates and discriminates against fat.

guess i'm a little passionate about this

Sarah at Journeying With Him said...

Great post, Jen. I agree SO strongly with your statement "it's hard to be a woman today." I work with young girls talking about body image and self-esteem and many of them come in to my class with little to no self esteem. They are in SIXTH GRADE. I know I had confidence and didn't really care what others thought of me in sixth grade; I didn't know that I was supposed to think I was fat and ugly and stupid. I suppose that makes me lucky and different than most sixth graders--but shouldn't that be our default setting for, like, forever? That we're strong and powerful and enough just the way we are? That we are all beautiful BECAUSE of the things that make us unique?

My class is usually full of girls from different racial backgrounds, with different body builds, different hair, different face symmetry and facial features, with different personal style. Yet I have never looked out at my class and thought, "now that's an ugly student." In fact, I'm continually impressed with how vivacious and beautiful these girls are, how expressive they are, and how their uniqueness makes them so distinctly beautiful.

Marie Claire and this author are way out of touch with what real beauty is. Real beauty does not fit into a cookie cutter mold--and cruelty like this should not be tolerated, much less allowed a public platform. I can only conclude that this author and her editors must have some body image issues of their own to work through, which is something we can all relate to, and hope that they are someday able to expand their definition of beauty--not just for our sakes, but for their own too, because being able to recognize and see beauty in others feels good.

Cate said...

I agree - I don't care what anyone else weighs's only me that's not 'allowed' to eat or gain any weight.
In fact, the more I am learning about this whole business the more I see the similarlities between over-eating and under-eating. It's two sides of the same coin really - it's all inappropriate eating, but just polar opposite extremes.

Cathy (UK) said...

To be honest, my AN had nothing to do with my size or my physical appearance; it was about control of anxiety and a manifestation of both OCD and ASD rituals and routines. For that reason this post doesn't 'speak' to me in precisely the same was as it may do for some others.

However, the bottom line is that there is no valid excuse for rudeness, cruelty or bullying in our society. To be rude and unkind to others, for whatever reason, is wrong. Period. And, to use an ED as a scapegoat for such behaviour is also wrong.

M said...

Totally agree with your post Jen.
I couldn't believe that article when I read it. Maura Kelly's an idiot and blaming it on her anorexia makes everyone else suffering from AN seem like her. My aunt is morbidly obese and she's one of the most beautiful, lively and happy people I know. sure, it's not healthy, but what is nowadays? I walk down the street and I'm so jealous of people who are healthy or even overweight because they're happy, they have life and I don't right now.
Maura Kelly should be ashamed of herself. And Katie, I think I know who the journalist you're talking about is. She writes for the Daily Fail right?

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Unknown said...

The things she said were cruel and she could have absolutely edited it (should have in some cases) to express her opinion less viciously. However, the terrible things hundreds of people have said about her looks in response are as bad, if not more so. Sometimes I, too, find morbidly obese people hard to look at. After all, most of my mother's family have been eating themselves to death over the past few decades. I've seen first hand what too much weight on old bones will do to a person and it's not pretty. Perhaps if she focused her article on the dangers of extreme eating (on either side of the scale) it would have been received with less bullying responses.

People attacking her on not finding love by 30 - they can just go suck an egg. People saying she's ugly and unlovable... I mean really, how am I going to sympathize with someone who deals out worse than they get? She didn't point her finger at these people and yell her words directly at them. Neither side of the debate is without shame.

Lauren said...

Unfortunately I have a different experience from you Jan, and I wouldn't be terribly surprised if a lot of others did either.

When I was deep into my ED I was obsessed with all things "healthy" and the only thing that I would devour were articles on "healthy" food and exercise and that ultimately led to me believing that heavier people were lazy and stupid and that led to irrational hate. I felt superior to people vastly bigger than me because I wrongly believed that they were bigger because they lacked self control. Now that I've had treatment those thoughts have went away by a combination of education and eating enough so that I can think properly again.

No, bias against fat people may not be diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa, but obsession with so-called healthy eating and exercise is and the two sometimes end up tying together.

Briony said...

I totally agree with this post! It's ironic that I often find myself arguing for 'fat acceptance' with healthy people of normal weight. I have rigid rules about my own eating and exercise, but I wouldn't dream of expecting anyone else to live by them. Recovering from anorexia has actually made me more accepting: maybe it's the effect of realising that you can harm your health just as much by undereating (so many people seem to see calories as unequivably bad!) or how hellish it can really be to hold your body at a weight below what the one it 'wants' to be.

Wondering Soul said...

Jen... Thanks for the context.


Crimson Wife said...

In certain environments, this type of cattiness about appearance is sadly the norm. I was in a sorority in college and I'm not proud of the attitude we had towards weight and body issues. Unsurprisingly, most of the sisters either had an ED or were in recovery from one (like I was). I can remember a heated discussion I had with one of the other officers about whether to order any size M t-shirts for some event we were holding. I pointed out that some of our girls were really tall but the other officer was adamant that the only "acceptable" sizes to buy were XS and S. Ugh!

I imagine the fashion industry is even worse.

Kate said...

i love this post. thank you so much for writing.

i agree completely. i am so pro- everybody else's self-acceptance and self-love and health at every size. when it comes to me, though, i can't quite figure it out.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if it's a reflection on how a person deals with their own tragedy. Is it "it sucks when it happens to me so I hope no one else would suffer the same way", or "it sucks when it happens to me so I have to make sure everyone else are also suffering just like me"? Meura is clearly the latter.

In my personal philosophy, it's "it's my own shit, I shove it". The moment it becomes a tool for bullying, the illness excuse is as gone as it ever can be.

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano said...

I agree that saying you're anorexic is no free pass for making bigoted comments (which is what Maura's piece was), but I also don't think she was saying that. I believe her when she says that she didn't connect her anorexia with her irrational disgust with fat people, and that it took reader comments to get her to see it--I think that if she had, she would have coached the piece differently. She's an accomplished writer and researcher and while blogging for a ladymag isn't exactly taxing her skills, I know that she's up to the task of not writing crap...which makes me think that this is sort of a tertiary symptom of the lingering parts of her disorder.

I'm interested in what others have said here about being envious of healthy women, even overweight ones, during one's ED--that to me seems like a wonderfully self-aware response, and one from someone who might be getting ready to actually turn the corner. What Maura was writing was small-minded and verging on hysterical. That seems pretty diseased to me, even as she's no longer in anorexia's grip. I don't want to speculate about her current state of health but I will point out that per her essay on anorexia, she was treated in a children's hospital in the mid-'80s. Treatment then was far different than it is now--from what I know it was much more focused on physical healing, not about psychological healing. It's not hard to imagine that a ED history with large swaths left to self-treatment, combined with working in women's magazines, don't make for full recovery, even years later. (I should know--I work in women's magazines and am recovering from an ED.)

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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