“That will go straight to your thighs,” Zoë says to Tristan as he gazes longingly at the donut grasped in his hand.
“That’s why I’m eating it with my eyes and not my mouth,” he says, before discarding it.
This Degrassi scene passes by in just a moment and is never revisited. But it demonstrates the way that deprivation for fear of weight gain is normalized in teen TV shows.
In Mean Girls, Cady Heron promises Regina George that if she eats mysterious Swedish nutrition bars, she’ll lose weight. In reality, athletes use the bars to bulk up.
Regina binge-eats the bars obsessively, becoming more and more frustrated when she gains weight instead of losing it. She feels out of control while Cady uses her insecurities against her to attack her self-worth and her social standing. By gaining weight, Regina no longer fits the “appropriate” image of her friend group, and they reject her.
This negative portrayal is just one part of American culture’s idealization of the thin white female body type. The underlying implication here is that any weight gain is negative, and if you gain weight, you are worth less.
When I first watched Mean Girls, I didn’t think of Regina’s desperate turn to magical protein bars as disordered eating. Regina isn’t a sympathetic character, so the audience isn’t supposed to feel bad for her when she spirals out of control. But upon rewatching, I was struck by a sense of pity. Regina does some awful things in the movie, but she turns to protein bars in an attempt to control her body out of desperation. Her so-called friends manipulate her vulnerabilities for their own gain. This pushes her to disordered eating.
Throughout college, I have wrestled with disordered eating. Honestly, I didn’t even know this was a term until recently. I had only seen disordered eating depicted in movies like Mean Girls, where it’s the butt of a joke. I thought my actions were normal.
Sometimes I don’t eat for hours, even most of a day at a time, for no real reason. I feel its effects through the dull ache at my temples, the dizziness, the head rush after sitting up too quickly, the numbness, the lack of energy, and the weakness in my limbs.
Sometimes instead of eating a full or nutritious meal, I’ll sip caffeinated soda just to feel my stomach distend over my waistband in a masquerade of fullness.
Disordered eating can also include strict diet and exercise routines, shame and guilt at the inability to stick to this routine, compulsive eating, the use of weight loss supplements, food restriction, fasting, purging, and laxative or diuretic use. What distinguishes disordered eating from an eating disorder is the level of obsession with which someone performs these actions. As the intensity of the compulsions increases, the development of an eating disorder becomes more likely.
A lot of my disordered eating aligns with periods of high stress and anxiety.
When anxiety makes everything else in my life feel out of control, I tend to stop eating. This provides me with a semblance of control. If I don’t eat, I don’t have enough energy to stress out.
While studying abroad, I believe that I dealt with situational depression. I felt isolated from the familiar communities I had developed at Georgetown, and I had a difficult time meeting new people. I was constantly lethargic, unengaged, and exhausted. I often wouldn’t eat for the majority of the day. When I finally did, I would eat anything I could get my hands on: often unhealthy (albeit convenient) junk food.
When I returned from studying abroad, I felt better. I was home, around friends and family, and I was happier. But I soon discovered I’d gained 20 pounds in that one semester, the largest weight fluctuation I had ever experienced.
As this semester began, I tried for a couple of weeks to get into a regular fitness routine, but then life took over. I got too busy and too stressed out to exercise. I was angry at myself for not being able to balance it all, so I returned to the same patterns that defined my life last year.
I feel intense shame and guilt at these patterns because my parents always taught me to eat right. Every choice not to eat healthily feels like defiance or ungratefulness.
Stress culture glorifies disordered eating. Similar to the way people complain about sleep deprivation or talk about how stressed they are, mentioning that you forgot to eat or haven’t eaten all day can be seen as a badge of honor. Wow, look at how hard she’s working. She’s sacrificing so much.
That can feel good to hear. At least someone is acknowledging the effort I’m putting in at the expense of my health.
For a while, I didn’t recognize that these disordered eating patterns are unhealthy. Whether by stress culture or societal focus on dieting, I had internally normalized disordered eating. And it’s a self-reinforcing cycle. I don’t eat because I’m stressed, but then I don’t have enough energy to fulfill all my responsibilities, so I get more anxious and angry at myself and don’t eat.
We need to widen our scope of what disordered eating looks like. Just because someone isn’t gaining or losing weight doesn’t mean they have a healthy relationship with food. Much of the narrative around eating disorders centers around extreme weight loss or gain and relies on the stereotypical images of severe anorexia and bulimia. But disordered eating can be difficult to pin down. It hides in the lack, in the forgotten, in the easily dismissable, in the “Whoops, I forgot. I’ll go get something now.”
I didn’t recognize it in myself until someone else expressed concern about my eating habits. It took me realizing that, after going home, my appetite had been greatly suppressed during my time abroad, that the portions I used to eat without an issue now felt insurmountable. I used to brush off my mom’s frequent remarks that she had skipped breakfast and lunch because she got caught up with work, but they now felt more like red flags.
At the beginning of the semester, I didn’t want anyone to point out that I had missed a meal or worse, scrutinize what I did eat. It made me feel self-conscious and uncomfortable. But over time, I realized I’m dealing with an actual problem.
I can’t say that I’m taking as many steps as I should be to get my eating habits back on track. In quintessential Georgetown fashion, I added breakfast, lunch, and dinner to my Google Calendar. This decision has been met with good-natured teasing from friends, asking, “You really need to be reminded to eat?”
Sometimes, I do.
The symptoms of disordered eating—skipping the donut for fear it’ll go straight to your thighs, or basing your social worth off your body weight—are often seen as just another form of dieting, but this trivializes what could be a stepping stone to something more serious. Thankfully, that hasn’t been the case for me, but it could have been. We need to combat the stress culture that values our perceived productivity over our health. We need to check in with ourselves about our intentions—why we’re eating and why we’re not—to try to avoid heading down unhealthy paths.
I had reservations about sharing this story. I didn’t want weird looks or concern. I didn’t want anyone on the Voice to question my ability to do my job. I didn’t want anyone to brush this off as not a big deal, as typical unhealthy college eating habits. If you’re my friend, don’t ask me if I’ve eaten. Instead, suggest lunch plans. That way, I’ll be sure to schedule it in.
Image Credits: Olivia Stevens