By: Vanna Winters
A rudimentary understanding of what characterizes many eating disorders can be rattled off with ease by most people: restricting intake, bingeing, purging, overexercise, etc. Fielding questions throughout my time with an eating disorder, I have often felt the importance of my responsibility to clear up the muddiness of what an eating disorder actually is vs. the abridged description that is taught in school or read about in magazines. The stereotypes that still linger from decades of headlines that either glorify or vilify the disorder seem to only move us in the wrong direction. For every salacious made-for-TV movie, the accuracy about onset and manifestation seems to become more blurred. You’re picturing Tracy Gold in a Lifetime movie now, aren’t you? Take a moment to clear your mind. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
As I step into an advocacy role and continue to publicly share my own story, one of my missions is to help others understand the complexities that anorexia and other eating disorders present. A transition is needed from the typecast depiction painted for us by the media to a more accurate scope that can bring real education and awareness to the public.
My eating disorder is many things: an isolating mental illness, a serious threat to my health, an outward sign of the pain stored deeply in my mind, and many more. But I’d like to bring the focus to some of the misconceptions about what this disorder is not…
1. It’s not about attention.
Before I decided to share my story publicly, few people in my life even knew I had an eating disorder. I spent an inordinate amount of time in my illness protecting its existence with secrecy. I went to great pains to conceal my behaviors and symptoms from the view of others. There was immense shame involved for me. I did as much as I could to appear fine on the outside, no matter how not fine I was on the inside. The insinuation that my eating disorder is merely a way for me to receive attention couldn’t have been further from reality.
2. “Just eat” isn’t a cure.
Seeing me eat does not mean I’m “all better.” My anorexia cannot simply be cured by eating and gaining weight. It’s progress and a huge step in recovery, but it is not the solitary solution to this illness. Being able to sit in front of a plate of food and eat it doesn’t mean my battle is over. In fact, for me, that’s when I was struggling the most. Those early moments in recovery where every meal eaten is met with overwhelming anxiety and a pull backwards into the perceived safety of my eating disorder.
Eating halts the deterioration of the body, but does not address the mind. The origin of the thoughts that led me to engage in eating disordered behavior do not disappear with re-feeding. What brought me to the point of needing an eating disorder to cope with my life is at the core of where recovery takes place, not to disregard the importance of re-nourishing your body because this must happen in support of treating the dysfunction of the behaviors themselves.
3. It isn’t about vanity.
For me, it was never about a specific magic number that I felt this immense pressure to reach in order for everything to be OK again. I never looked in the mirror and degraded myself for not looking like a model. For me, it had little to do with vanity or hunting down bodily perfection. Anorexia, for me, had everything to do with refusing myself the most basic needs to sustain life. Anorexia was the highest level of punishment I could enact on myself. This self-punishment became the false sense of control from the chaos in my life that had stripped it away from me. My eating disorder felt like my only avenue to shout to my parents, who were orchestrating the chaos. They had to watch me disappear as my body screamed out in pain before their eyes, fading away more and more each day.
If I was starving, then I was numb. If I was numb, then no one could penetrate my exterior. The flashbacks of the abuse that happened couldn’t resurface through the hunger and I was too lifeless to feel any further damage. Every pound shed was one more layer to protect me from a world that had become too scary to exist in unarmed.
I was desperate to withhold the very thing required to hold on. Starving was my white flag, not an overzealous attempt to get a “beach body.” I had to wave that flag for help because I could not scream for it on my own. I could not ask for help from the very people I needed help from. So my body said it for me. My malnourished frame became the billboard for my pain. I realize now that my body became an advertisement for my own inner turmoil bubbling over.
It might be difficult to decipher the difference for those watching from the outside, but please don’t confuse over-doing a diet with anorexia. The latter is a mental illness and it goes much deeper and needs to be treated as such to recover.
My eating disorder doesn’t fit the lurid story lines passed around by the media because no one’s does. The gossiping and the whispers have only perpetuated an inaccurate picture of what an eating disorder is. Continuing to take any opportunity to spread legitimate education is so important to dispel these myths that hold back those trying to seek treatment and their loved ones trying to support them.
Vanna Winters: Writer. Advocate. Survivor. My profound desire to bring awareness to the public and a sense of unwavering support to those forging their way through recovery from mental illness continues to push me through recovery. I've spent twenty years living both in the dark corners of mental illness and in recovery, as a child and as an adult and mother. These experiences have cultivated a strong insight into eating disorders and their manifestation that propels me forward to be a voice in the mental health community.