“Losing weight is the only thing I’m good at.”
I’ve heard these words spoken (with no irony) by gifted athletes, accomplished performers and class valedictorians. I’ve heard them uttered by people who are stand-outs in whatever it is they choose to accomplish in their lives. In Jane Fonda’s speech at a gala to raise money for our eating disorder organization, she shared the story of her 25-year battle with anorexia and bulimia. With compassion in her voice, she stated: “Eating disorders happen to the best and brightest…. We just want to be perfect.”
It appears that some kids come into the world perfectionists: no amount of external reinforcement will quell the sense of not being enough. Others are raised by critical or high-pressure parents whose high standards they’ve internalized. It appears most are born to loving parents who are only hard on themselves.
Whatever the causal combination of nature and nurture, negative self-talk is especially vicious for eating disorder sufferers.
Typically they’ve received accolades and awards for their many gifts and achievements, yet they feel invisible and unimportant. Some admit to me that they are afraid to give up their eating disorder because they believe it is the one thing that makes them special and unique.
In a world where the majority of the population is dieting and hating their bodies, it’s little wonder that our kids internalize the message that the one achievement that truly matters in life is the ability to deny oneself food. For those who discover that they have this capacity, it can be as exciting as discovering the Holy Grail. They may be starving, obsessed with food, and experiencing negative side effects of malnutrition yet they are still asked, “How do you do it?!” People who don’t know any better laud them for their “willpower,” “healthy eating” and“self-discipline.” They are even told by their doctors (who are weary of treating overweight patients) “You don’t LOOK anorexic.”
It’s no wonder they are confused when I describe their eating disorder as A Problem, when they (and many around them) view it as The Solution.
Abigail is bright, creative, intellectually gifted, artistically talented, keenly sensitive and perceptive. When I ask her about her fear of letting go of her eating disorder, she tells me, “It’s the one thing that I’m good at. It’s what makes me Special.”
I respond, “I think the fact that you are good at ignoring the needs of your body is, in fact,the least interesting thing about you.”
This remark is met with stunned silence. Abigail feels both insulted and flattered by me. “Rather than making you Unique and Special,”I explain, “your eating disorder robs you of your uniqueness. It causes you to think the same monotonous thoughts and act out the same food rituals as the millions of other eating disorder sufferers. The people who love you and know about your problem do not see you as more “Special” because of it. They thought you were unique and special BEFORE this eating disorder stole you from them. They miss you! In fact, they feel sad for you that you will not allow yourself to have fun when there’s food around. They are upset because your eating disorder is robbing the person they love of joy, laughter and pleasure. Instead of striving to be the Thinnest Girl in the Room, you can learn to be happy being the Abby-iest girl in the room.”
My hope is that this alternative perspective will provide a new way for her to start thinking of herself in relation to her eating disorder. It will take many repetitions before it starts to sink in. After all, it’s just one hour a week of me versus the 24/7 media-machine bombardment of the Anorexic-Belief-System (“You will be happyrichfamouswealthyenviedspecialloved if you are THIN THIN THIN”). You, too, can be a counter-cultural Force for Good. Simply pause for a second before you heap praise on someone for their healthy eating or their weight loss. It may seem like the right thing to do, complimenting someone’s efforts and accomplishments in this difficult arena. It may even seem insensitive to NOT say something, but use your words carefully. You never know what goes on behind the scenes; comments about food and weight can be highly loaded for some people.
Instead, if you want to truly give someone a meaningful gift of the heart, compliment them on their spirit, their laugh, their kindness, their integrity, their funny perspective on the world~ those things that TRULY make them unique.
There’s no real reward~ and there may be a heavy price to pay ~ for being crowned the Thinnest Girl in the Room.