Recently, while discussing the fat shaming aspect of Disney’s Habit Heroes, a friend asked if her saying “You are what you eat.” would shame me.
The simple answer is yes. I do have an eating disorder, after all.
There is nothing that anyone can say, whether or not it is directed at me, about food, eating, exercise, appearance, weight, shape, diet, size, etc. etc. that will not shame me.
BUT, and, yes, it is a big but, the shaming does not come from anywhere but in my mind. “Eating Disorder” is a real misnomer. An eating disorder is about eating like diabetes is about blood sugar levels. Both diseases are named for the most obvious symptoms.
At the core of an eating disorder is disordered thinking. The link goes to a sheet that lists examples of disordered thinking (also called thought distortions, interpretive errors, etc.). Yes, we all have filters thru which we experience the world. There is no reality, only perception. However, in the case of eating disorder, the filter is harmful and often deadly. That doesn’t mean that the eating disordered thinking does not serve a useful purpose in the person’s life. It is a method of coping.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) describes an eating disorder as an endless loop where the person has a thought which drives an emotion and/or urge which drives a behavior which drives a thought. For example, I have a binge, I think I’m a fat pig, I feel bad about myself, I purge, I think I’m a loser for purging, I feel bad, I decide not to eat, I get ravenous, I binge, I think I’m a fat pig, I feel bad about myself, I purge, I think I’m a loser for purging, I feel bad about myself, I decide not to eat, and so on.
That is the cognative-behavioral cycle that is most obvious in bulimia. There’s an obvious place to break that cycle. Don’t get ravenous. If I don’t purge and don’t not eat, I can break the cycle (hopefully).
There are other cognative-behavioral cycles that feed that cycle. And this brings us back to the shame.
Shaming example: Someone, anyone, it doesn’t have to be anyone I know, or that is even talking to me, just someone, some where that I can hear, this person says, “I had a great workout.” I feel shame.
Now, a person not suffering from an eating disorder might think, “How can she feel shame? That person isn’t talking about her.”
There are a whole lot of thoughts that happen between my hearing “I had a great workout” and my feeling shame, probably more than I have managed to identify, but let’s see if I can capture what goes on inside my head.
Person says, “I had a great workout.”
I, immediately, compare myself to this person. Did I have a great workout? Did I have workout recently enough for it to count to me? If I haven’t exercised in the last day, I think I’m lazy. I’m not working hard enough. I could work out harder, more often, longer. If I have exercise in the last day, I think I’m lazy. I could have worked out harder, more often, longer. Why don’t I work out harder? Well, I’m fat. I can only manage so much impact on my weak knees and being fat, whenever I step that’s a huge impact. I’m a loser for letting myself get so fat. I’m weak for eating. I’m a failure. Why don’t I work out more often? I have a lot going on, and I can’t get it all done. I’m a loser for not finding the time to exercise. I’m weak for giving in and not making myself exercise in those times when I’m not taking care of someone else or working. Why don’t I exercise longer? Same reasons that I don’t exercise more often. I’m a loser. I’m a failure.
And that’s not all the thoughts that go spinning thru my head when I hear “I had a great workout.” Not by a longshot.
I feel shame for not bearing up and working out more often, longer, harder. That is, I am bad for not having great workouts. I shame myself.
Whether or not any of this is true is not relevant. It’s an irrational thought process that is as automatic to me as breathing. It is my perception, which is my reality.
Let’s look at “You are what you eat.” I am what I am. I am fat; that’s bad; society frowns on fatness; it’s wrong. If I am what I eat, then I must be eating fatly, wrong, badly. I am bad. I shamed myself. Someone with an eating disorder doesn’t have to actually be overweight to do this to themselves because people with eating disorders perceive themselves as fat.
The question also came up about accomodating other people’s vulnerabilities. Should one try to avoid saying something that will be distorted into shame? Well, does the person you are talking to have an eating disorder? Do you care about the person? Do you want to hurt the person? Do you want to keep that person in their eating disorder?
Someone with an eating disorder is never going to get well if she is coming from a place of shame, and she shames herself very well. She really doesn’t need help doing it.