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Eating Disorder Recovery and the Focus on Fitness, Or: WTF, Y’all?

(Author’s Note: This post may be triggering for anyone with a sensitivity towards topics about eating disorders or disordered eating.)

I suppose I ought to start this post off by noting that this is simply my own personal experience with the topic, and is influenced heavily by what I’ve seen and heard from others I know in recovery. And now that that’s out of the way, let’s get down to it, shall we?

I think we can all agree that the end goal of eating disorder recovery is learning to love and accept one’s body, and how to treat it with respect. Much of treatment is focused on getting to a healthy place in terms of eating a “good” amount of food, learning not to judge oneself for eating that food in the first place, and accepting one’s body for what it looks like and what it does. For some of us, the fact that we need to get a certain amount of food and nutrients into our bodies (and keep them there) in order to keep them in good working order was initially quite the novel concept. The thing is, while these are the basic principles of recovery, the ones stressed by the experts and the doctors and those who spend their lives doing this sort of research, these are not the principles followed by so many eating disorder professionals. For some reason, they all just seem to be so hung up on that whole “health and fitness” thing!

Anyone who has picked up one of the popular “women’s health” magazines while standing in line at the grocery store probably gets the feeling that “health and fitness” tends to be little more than a patriarchal dog whistle for “hot and thin-but-not-too-thin.” Unfortunately this message appears to have sunk into the heads of more than a few eating disorder professionals, and they in turn pass it on to their clients. You know, the ones coming to them for help so that they can escape that sort of thinking. The truth is, these professionals, and many others in the health field, aren’t nearly as radical as we’d like them to be. Like much of the medical establishment, any thought of Health at Every Size is met with a raised eyebrow. When I first started therapy, there was a bit of a discussion over whether I should continue to be allowed to exercise. While I was not over-exercising at the time, I had been a compulsive exerciser in the past, to the point where my grades plummeted because I was spending three or four hours in the gym every day. Apparently my therapist and his supervisor were conflicted over whether I should be able to haul my underweight by 45 lb. body into the gym two or three times a week when I was experiencing chest pains, dizziness, and fainting on an almost daily basis. They were just trying to make sure I stayed fit and healthy, you know! Something about not being sedentary, getting out of the house, blahblahblah excuses. Staying fit is important, you know, even when you should technically not be doing anything at all because you need to preserve the calories you’re getting. Oh, and because you’re a former exercise addict. Well, they eventually put a ban on exercise for me after I fell down the stairs at school. Good call, guys.

I have too often seen or heard a therapist, psychiatrist, or even an entire administration focusing on the “fitness” aspect. They want us to exercise, but not too much. They want us to eat, but not too much. The problem here is clear: they still want us to be the fuckable, desirable entity that we see in popular culture. They still want us to be socially acceptable models of “health.” You should have seen my face when, at a National Eating Disorders Association event last year, I heard the proprietor of a well-known clinic start spouting off things about being active and fit and eating whole grains and fruits and veggies. He then preached about how his clinic wanted their clients to be fit and healthy and active. When there isn’t a single fat person or even someone who doesn’t look like the paragon of socially sanctioned health on your staff, I begin to doubt your definitions of fitness. Do we not realize how much this focus on media-defined fitness is a problem, and how many of your clients are compulsive exercisers? And excuse me, but are we not aware of the recent uptick in eating disorders caused by an extreme need to eat the purest, healthiest foods? If I want to eat a bacon cheeseburger and fries covered in ranch dressing, I will do it, because part of being healthy for me and so many others with anorexia nervosa know that any time we eat a good amount of food with a sustainable amount of calories, it counts as a victory. Those with bulimia nervosa know that every time they eat something and do not purge it, it is a victory. And those with compulsive overeating know that when they eat their meal or snack and they stop when they’re full, it is a victory. It does not matter whether we eat the burger and fries or the quinoa and grilled fish, it is a victory. And yet, when I recall looking at my meal plans or the meal plans of others, they were filled with foods like oatmeal, salads, lean protein, and only the base amounts of carbs and fats, plus buckets of Ensure or Carnation Instant Breakfast drinks. I also recall that being so difficult for me and for a friend of mine, because all we wanted was permission from a professional and not our friends or sisters or whoever to eat some damned fried chicken and buttery mashed potatoes. Presumably gaining weight is awesome, but only when you do it with your nutritionist-approved whole grains.

So yes, we want our bodies to be healthy. We want them to function and perform and let us do all of those amazing things that human bodies are capable of. But there is a way to do that without forcing some media-drenched notion of what is acceptable down our throats. I propose something more radical, because for a field that tends to use radical self-acceptance as a therapy tool, they sure as hell have some small limits of what is acceptable. I want my comrades in disordered eating to be healthy and happy. I don’t care if they look like an Olympic athlete or if everything they comes from the local farmer’s market. I don’t care if they eat fast food and rarely exercise. I don’t care if they do a combination of those things. I just want them to be alive, to be out of the clutches of the E.D. monster, and to love and accept their bodies for what they are. Most importantly, I want us to be able to accept that these are our bodies, not society’s and not our doctor’s. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some cheese to eat.

By Elfity

Elfity, so named for her tendency to be a bit uppity and her elf-like appearance, is a graduate student and professional Scary Feminist of Rage. She has a propensity for social justice, cheese, and Doctor Who. Favorite activities include making strange noises, napping with puppies and/or kitties, and engaging in political and philosophical debates.

16 replies on “Eating Disorder Recovery and the Focus on Fitness, Or: WTF, Y’all?”

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I have compulsive eating behaviors, and even coming up with a goal is hard. Professionals like these miss the point entirely- in fact, when I was Bulimic in High school, I would eat bags and bags of salad greens in a binge. :-/ I’m lucky I was okay to eat other things, otherwise I would have been consuming some nutrients too much and some not enough. . .

I’m struggling with the compulsivity, especially when at my sister’s (I’m currently homeless and couch surfing with family.) because then there’s also the temptation of smoking. . . and to avoid smoking a lot of my sister’s smokes, I end up falling back on the compulsion. other trigger for me there is that there’s no internet to seek out my talking down people out there, so it becomes so omnipresent in my mind. . . T

hankfully I don’t purge anymore unless I’m doing really really badly. Last purge was. . . 10 months? and it had been over a year before that.

So I’m doing steady still on purging, but the eating. . . Well, my situation right now is not conducive to setting up recovery routines. :-/ And a lot of people don’t take compulsive eating seriously.

Wow, that sounds really tough. I’m sorry you’re having to go through that. I know you said you don’t always have Internet access, but feel free to message me if you can and are in need of anything:)
Congrats on the purging sobriety! That’s a really huge accomplishment. I don’t think anyone realizes how difficult it can be to curb major impulses like that, or how much strength it takes. Also, it’s a major shame that people don’t give COE the attention it deserves. Something tells me it has something to do with the social rhetoric of food and weight shaming, sadly.

thanks for this article.  i share some experiences with body image issues, eating, and exercising, and i’ve noticed that the fitness industry perpetuates images of what one should look like just as much as the beauty industry does.  it’s not fair, because it feels like there’s no escaping these fucked up standards.

Thank you so much for this.  Having suffered from different forms of disordered eating most of my life, I can’t imagine that any kind of recovery or therapy would involve additional restrictions on food, or set recommendations for exercise.  Of course my experience is not everyone’s, but being given “permission” to have “bad” and “good” foods, or being told that lots of exercise is fine, would send me spiraling back to a place I’ve (mostly) gotten out of.

You are very welcome. It’s so hard to believe that stuff like this happens in therapy. It was really difficult to hear that I could exercise, because then I could go home to my family and be all “My therapist says I can, so there!” and stick out my tongue. I do believe that they mean well, but damn!

I really enjoyed reading this.   If the person suffering from an ED is on the road to recovery, and they want a Big Mac, I don’t think it could be harmful. I’d hate to see people have their recovery set back by some ingrained notion that some food is inherently better than other food. All food has it’s place, I would hope the goal is to have the person make healthy choices for them. Sometimes you just need a bacon cheeseburger with mayonnaise, sometimes muesli with yoghurt is what is needed. To make some food of “more value” than other food eaten sometimes seems to reinforce some ideas that people suffering from ED hold onto that helps keep them in that vicious cycle. That doesn’t sound helpful at all.

I’m glad you enjoyed it! A big part of recovery is learning not to assign moral value to food, and it can be really challenging when you come across ads for “sinful” chocolate, etc. I think one of the big messages we need to work on getting across is that health is different for everyone.

I’ve tried to explain the “moral value” to non-eating disordered people, and they really don’t understand what I’m saying. How, at first, the moral value may mean something, but then it spirals out of control. For instance, I don’t eat fried food (mainly because it gives me indigestion), but it’s really hard to not make it an overblown thing.

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