I learned something very valuable when I spent a year working at an eating disorder treatment center in 2003. I won't go too deep into how me working at an eating disorder treatment center changed my life, but I will tell you what I took away from being in that environment.
First of all, it was an eating disorder treatment facility for girls, ages 12+, but that doesn't mean that eating disorders are limited to girls. Men and young boys are afflicted by eating disorders, too. However, being a girl myself, I could really relate, and became vicariously involved with many of the things being taught there, to those girls seeking treatment at the time.
Many of the girls and women that came into the treatment center had lived their lives under some sort of abuse, weather sexual abuse, physical abuse, or verbal abuse from family or associates around them. Some of the girls had been victims of rape, and molestation, coming in with their tattered and worn self-esteems dragging behind them. Many were sad, hopeless, and discouraged, that life had anything else to offer besides their addiction and their self-loathing. There were some situations that I couldn't barely stand to hear about, and would find myself coming home and bawling in my bed, feeling so sad and hopeless for the fate of humanity.
Eating disorders become a way to numb oneself; to rid oneself of all the feelings of doubt and fear in your life. Just like drugs and alcohol, they are an addictive drug, only they can be hidden really well. Things like obsessive exercising, starving yourself, chronic dieting, cleansing and flushing, binging and purging, obsessing over food every day.....these are just a few signs of an eating disorder. They come in all sorts of varieties and severities, and most of them can be passed off as normal? societal and cultural feelings towards food. However, a victim of an eating disorder knows the misery of waking up each day as a slave to your body, a slave to food. As your thoughts, your words, and your actions, all revolve around what you are going to eat that day, and how it's going to manifest itself in your days' activities, it becomes a discouraging and depressing way to live. Getting professional help is the smartest thing one could do.
I mentioned that many of the girls that came to the center were victims of serious abuse, however, this wasn't true for all of them. (However, each person's subjective experience with what abuse is, should not be undermined.) Some girls that came to the center were simply dragged into the guilt and shame that we see each day as victims of media exposure. For most young girls these days, being thin is a sign of approval. It is validated each time they open a magazine, or watch a TV show, where the most beautiful, popular girls are those who have lost the most weight and are the skinniest. It's true. We can't deny that girls aren't pressured and coerced to obsess over their bodies, so they can fit in, be popular, be successful, be beautiful, find boyfriends/husbands, etc... It's sickening, and all too often it creeps into our lives, as hard as we try to stay away from it all.
One valuable thing I would like to share, which I learned from working with those beautiful, courageous, and amazing girls and women, is this: As we get together with friends and family, sharing hugs, food, and celebrating the holidays, try leaving the weight out of it.
One of the things we naturally want to do when we see our friends and family, is compliment them. We may see our sister, aunt or cousin, who we haven't laid eyes on for years, so, we say things like, "Oh you look good! "You've lost so much weight!" "You look like you didn't even have a baby!" "Your so thin, are you eating?" "Your pants are falling right off you!" "Wow-you look great-are you dieting?" "You look good, you look so thin!"
What seem like harmless compliments to friends and family, can also send serious messages of approval and disapproval to them as well.
One of my roommates in college (who didn't have an ED) shared the story of her aunt, who every time she saw her, would say,"Oh you look so thin! You look gorgeous!" On one occasion, she met up with her aunt for a lunch date, and her aunt didn't say a thing about her weight that time. She says she remembers feeling strangely disappointed and rejected, as if her aunt no longer approved of her because she didn't comment on her weight. See how it can backfire?
If so many women associate being thin with social success and approval, what message are we sending when we comment on someones weight? Although we've all done it, and sometimes it has felt good to hear, it can have serious affects on the way we feel and view ourselves and others. Just ask the women who come to seek professional treatment each day, because they really believe that being thin means being better.
When we see our friends and family these holidays, and we want to show our love and give our compliments, why not say things like, "You are wonderful." "You are a true friend." "Your smile is radiant." "You light up the room when you walk in." "You bring me such happiness to have you in my life." "You are beautiful."
These are the words that can truly lift people up around you, and leave a lasting, and healthy impression on their lives.
I left that job with so many insights into how I can better love myself, love my body, and have a normal perspective of how to view food and eating. It was life-changing, but I need to be reminded from time to time to not let the world teach me otherwise. I want to be an example to those around me, who may be struggling with these issues. I want people to know that when we see others, we should focus on their beauty, their talents, and their ability to love and be loved. And leave the weight out of it.
Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends and family who love me for who I am.