“Are you too thin or not thin enough?” “Are you too curvy or not curvy enough?” “How much food have you eaten today?” and “How much have you worked out today?” are all questions that women are constantly being asked or asking themselves as part of a normative pattern of thinking. Behaviors such as restricting food, constantly checking one’s weight or looking in the mirror and attempting fad diets are, unfortunately, very common among women. These patterns can begin as early as age 6 and continue into adulthood.
What is body image, and how does it have to do with eating patterns?
Body image, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), is “how you see yourself when you look in the mirror or when you picture yourself in your mind.” While body image refers to just that – one’s mental image of their physical body – often our dissatisfaction with that picture can become so great that it prevents us from seeing ourselves in any other light than the physical. This inability to see yourself for more than your shape or size can lead to low self-esteem, depression, and negative self-talk that, if not counteracted, can result in disordered eating, or worse, an eating disorder.
What is the difference between disordered eating and an eating disorder?
In order to understand the difference between disordered eating and an eating disorder, it is important to first outline the habitual behaviors of those with normalized, non-disordered eating patterns: A normalized eating pattern is, vaguely, the mindful consumption of food for the purpose of fueling one’s body and satisfying physical hunger, usually drawing upon a diverse collection of foods from the various food groups.
Disordered eating is when one eats for purposes other than hunger satisfaction, such as emotional eating, stress eating, eating as a distraction, or manipulates their diet to only include or completely exclude main food groups. While these behaviors, along with compulsive fitness and exercise regimens, can be driven by low self-esteem or a need to meet unrealistic societal norms and expectations, they do not technically constitute an eating disorder as long as they do not interfere with one’s daily life or prevent them from participating in social activities that do not necessarily cater to their normal eating patterns. However, individuals with disordered eating are encouraged to introspect about whether their behaviors and choices related to food and fitness are healthy.
An eating disorder is a mental and physical illness in which one exhibits several disordered eating behaviors on a consistent basis (several times a week or even daily), has an all-consuming obsession with the caloric or other value of food, and ultimately, when one’s basic level of functionality when engaging in everyday activities such as work, school, or social gatherings is impaired by their obsessions and/or compulsions surrounding food and/or exercise.
What are some of the causes of disordered eating or eating disorders in women?
While eating disorders and disordered eating are by no means limited to women (affecting approximately 10 million men in America at some point in their lives), the chances that women in America will struggle with these issues at some point in their lives is twice as likely. This is partially due to the biological emotional differences between men and women, but likely most attributable to the unrealistic standards portrayed in published and social media for how the ideal woman should look. An additional factor is the exclusively female role in pregnancy and other female challenges, creating a more complex relationship between women and their bodies and a more frequent need to combat negative body perception.
The true causes for eating disorders and the neurological reasons why some perceive their body to be different than its actual size is unknown. However, there have been clear correlations among women who suffer with eating disorders between emotional, psychological, and sociocultural factors and their obsessions/compulsions surrounding food and exercise. For some, their hyper-control over their diet serves to compensate for their lack of control in other realms of life. Some feel the need for self-definition and struggle to find it in areas beyond their physical appearance. Some struggle with low self-esteem and feel the need to punish themselves. Others, who may have initially had high self-esteem experience negative social feedback about their weight either from family-of-origin, in the workplace or in social groups, leading them to question their size in the quest to be “normal” and “fit in” with their colleagues or peers. Regardless of the emotional factors or even the severity of one’s struggles with body image and eating patterns, it is important to uncover the cognitive, emotional or psychological realities that may be facilitating them.
What are the main eating disorders?
There are several ways for an individual to manipulate their diet or exercise patterns in a way that would constitute disordered eating or even, if they reach a certain level of severity, an unspecified eating disorder, but there are four main types of common eating disorders:
- Anorexia Nervosa: Individuals struggling with anorexia are highly restrictive of their calorie or food consumption out of an intense fear of gaining weight, regardless of their actual size or weight. (Anorexic individuals may even perceive themselves in the mirror as larger than they actually are, a condition called body dysmorphia).
- Bulimia Nervosa: Individuals with bulimia tend to engage in periodic episodes of uncontrolled binge eating, consuming significantly more food than the average person would in the given amount of time. They then attempt to compensate for these behaviors in harmful ways such as purging, fasting, over-exercising, using laxatives, etc. in order to prevent weight-gain.
- Binge Eating Disorder: Similar to bulimia nervosa, individuals with binge-eating disorder engage in episodes of uncontrolled over-eating, but do not usually engage in the subsequent compensatory behaviors like purging, etc.
- Orthorexia: Orthorexia, a more recently recognized eating disorder, is characterized by an abnormal obsession with maintaining a healthy lifestyle and hyper-fixation on the nutritional quality of food to the point of psychological damage or sometimes, malnutrition.
How do I know if I, or someone I know, is struggling with disordered eating or an eating disorder?
Signs and symptoms: People struggling with eating disorders will often be discreet about their restrictive and harmful behaviors in order to avoid any interference, such as concerned family members, friends or doctors who may check their weight. Because of this, it’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of someone who may be in need of help, despite their refusal to acknowledge it.
- Checking- continuously checking themselves in the mirror
- Dieting or compulsive concern with nutritional value of food
- Obsession with health accounts on social media
- Overall frail demeanor and/or lack of energy
- Extreme and/or sudden loss of weight, however an individual’s size is not ALWAYS nor the ONLY indicator of an eating disorder! It is crucial to recognize that individuals who don’t appear to be underweight; individuals of all shapes and sizes may still be suffering from an eating disorder and in need of medical or psychological assistance.
Vulnerable communities: Be on the lookout for individuals you know who may be part of a vulnerable community in terms of developing an eating disorder. More importantly, ensure that you are not a participant in communicating harmful messages about size or weight to anyone, but especially not to individuals at risk of developing an eating disorder. These individuals include, but are not limited to adolescents in environments where peer pressure and bullying are rampant, individuals going through difficult life transitions like grief, trauma, or other big changes, and individuals with character traits such as low self-esteem, insecurity, etc.
What are some things I can do on my own to maintain a healthy lifestyle, body positivity and acceptance?
Body positivity does not mandate that you love how your body looks. Rather, it advocates that no one should ever suffer discrimination from self or others because of their body size and that one’s value or worth as a person should not be determined by the size/appearance of their body.
In our weight-obsessed culture, it is difficult to not fall prey to the dangerous behaviors and thought patterns that can result in disordered eating, and it can be a challenge to not determine your self-worth based on your compliance with society’s “rules” regarding weight. To counteract these harmful messages, stop self-defeating habits like checking yourself in the mirror, following accounts on social media that prioritize being thin and “healthy” over quality of life, and using negative self-talk like “I’m so fat” or other similar phrases that define yourself by your physical appearance. Instead, engage in body-positive self-talk and activities like dance or yoga, leisure walks, meditations focused on appreciating your body, or perhaps even keeping a gratitude journal that focuses on the miraculous things your body can and does do for you every single day. Most importantly, maintain a wholesome diet that properly nourishes your body using all of the food groups and still leaves room for a fun night out with friends and food when necessary!
When should I seek help?
If you, or someone you know is experiencing difficulty with their attitude toward food, weight or body image to the point where it is interfering with their daily life functioning or with their health, it’s time to seek help from a professional. At Long Island Psychology, we seek not to change one’s self-perception or eating patterns right away, but to understand why those false perceptions are prevalent in the first place and identify the psychological culprit. We also aim to help with identifying health goals separate from the number on the scale in order to facilitate progress outside of the framework that prioritizes one’s figure or weight over their personality, identity, or quality of life. Ultimately, we are available to walk you through your struggles with body positivity, support you in embracing your value as a human being, and remind you that you are most definitely not alone in your suffering.
Some eating disorders may require a higher level of care, but we, at Long Island Psychology, are available to help distinguish whether you are struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating and to break down the barriers that stand in the way of accessing the most appropriate treatment.
To work together with us in healing yourself, your body and your mind, call 516-274-7876 or email email@example.com. For more information about our Garden City and Rockville Centre, NY locations, please visit our contact us page.