Here’s what we get wrong about the ‘face’ of eating disorders. And why it can be so dangerous.

Food for Thought is a column that explores various aspects of disordered eating and recovery. Advocate and writer Brittany Ladin chronicles her own experiences while critiquing our cultural narratives around eating disorders.

Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.

When I was 14, I stopped eating.

I’d been through a traumatic year that left me feeling entirely out of control. Restricting food quickly became a way to numb my depression and anxiety and distract myself from my trauma. I couldn’t control what happened to me — but I could control what I put in my mouth.

I was lucky enough to get help when I reached out. I had access to resources and support from medical professionals and my family. And yet, I still struggled for 7 years.

During that time, many of my loved ones never guessed that the entirety of my existence was spent dreading, fearing, obsessing over, and regretting food.

These are people that I spent time with — that I ate meals with, went on trips with, shared secrets with. It wasn’t their fault. The problem is that our cultural understanding of eating disorders is extremely limited, and my loved ones didn’t know what to look for… or that they should be looking for anything.

There are a few stark reasons that my eating disorder (ED) went undiscovered for so long:

I was never skeletally thin

What comes to mind when you hear eating disorder?

Many people picture an extremely thin, young, white, cisgender woman. This is the face of EDs that the media has shown us — and yet, EDs affect individuals of all socioeconomic classes, all races, and all gender identities.

I mostly fit the bill for that “face” of EDs — I’m a middle-class white cisgender woman. My natural body type is thin. And while I lost 20 pounds during my battle with anorexia, and did look unhealthy compared to my body’s natural state, I didn’t look “sick” to most people.

If anything, I looked like I was “in shape” — and was often asked about my workout routine.

Our narrow concept of what an ED “looks like” is incredibly harmful. The current representation of EDs in the media tells society that people of color, men, and older generations aren’t affected. This limits access to resources and can even be life-threatening.

The way I talked about my body and my relationship with food was considered normal

Consider these stats:

  • According to the National
    Eating Disorder Association (NEDA)
    , approximately 30 million U.S. people are
    estimated to live with an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime.
  • According to a survey, a majority of American
    women — around 75
    — endorse “unhealthy thoughts, feelings, or behaviors
    related to food or their bodies.”
  • Research
    has found that children as young as 8 want to be thinner or are concerned about
    their body image.
  • Adolescents and
    boys who are considered overweight have a higher
    for complications and a postponed diagnosis.

The fact is, my eating habits and the harmful language I used to describe my body just wasn’t considered abnormal.

All of my friends wanted to be thinner, spoke disparagingly about their bodies, and went on fad diets before events such as prom — and most of them didn’t develop eating disorders.

Having grown up in Southern California outside of Los Angeles, veganism was extremely popular. I used this trend to hide my restrictions, and as an excuse to avoid most foods. I decided I was vegan while on a camping trip with a youth group, where there were virtually no vegan options.

For my ED, this was a convenient way to avoid the foods being served and attribute it to a lifestyle choice. People would applaud this, rather than raise an eyebrow.

Orthorexia still isn’t considered an official eating disorder, and most people don’t know about it

After about 4 years of struggling with anorexia nervosa, perhaps the most well-known eating disorder, I developed orthorexia. Unlike anorexia, which focuses on restricting food intake, orthorexia is described as restricting foods that aren’t considered “clean” or “healthy.”

It involves obsessive, compulsive thoughts around the quality and nutritional value of the food you’re eating. (Although orthorexia isn’t currently recognized by the DSM-5, it was coined in 2007.)

I ate a regular amount of food — 3 meals a day and snacks. I lost some weight, but not as much as I lost in my battle with anorexia. This was an entirely new beast that I was facing, and I didn’t even know it existed… which, in a way, made it more difficult to overcome.

I figured that so long as I was performing the action of eating, I was “recovered.”

In reality, I was miserable. I would stay up late planning my meals and snacks days in advance. I had difficulty eating out, because I didn’t have control over what was going into my food. I had a fear of eating the same food twice in one day, and only ate carbs once a day.

I retreated from most of my social circles because so many events and social plans involved food, and being presented with a plate that I didn’t prepare caused me an immense amount of anxiety. Eventually, I became malnourished.

I was embarrassed

Many people who haven’t been affected by disordered eating have a difficult time understanding why those living with EDs don’t “just eat.”

What they don’t understand is that EDs are almost never actually about food itself — EDs are a method of controlling, numbing, coping with, or processing emotions. I was afraid that people would mistake my mental illness for vanity, so I hid it. Those I did confide in couldn’t comprehend how food had taken over my life.

I was also nervous that people wouldn’t believe me — particularly since I was never skeletally thin. When I told people about my ED, they almost always reacted in shock — and I hated that. It made me question if I was really sick (I was).

The takeaway

The point of me sharing my story isn’t to make anyone around me feel bad about not noticing the pain I was in. It isn’t to shame anyone for the way they reacted, or to question why I felt alone in so much of my journey.

It’s to point out the flaws in our discussions around and understanding of EDs, by just scraping the surface of one aspect of my experience.

I hope that by continuing to share my story and critique our societal narrative of EDs, we can break down the assumptions that restrict people from assessing their own relationships with food, and seeking help as needed.

EDs affect everybody and recovery should be for everybody. If someone confides in you about food, believe them — no matter their jean size or eating habits.

Make an active effort to speak lovingly to your body, especially in front of younger generations. Throw out the notion that foods are either “good” or “bad,” and reject toxic diet culture. Make it unusual for someone to starve themselves — and offer help if you notice something seems off.

Brittany is a San Francisco-based writer and editor. She’s passionate about disordered eating awareness and recovery, which she leads a support group on. In her spare time, she obsesses over her cat and being queer. She currently works as Healthline’s social editor. You can find her thriving on Instagram and failing on Twitter (seriously, she has like 20 followers).