Shame, confusion, fear—these are the words that summed up my day-to-day existence for 14 years. “How did this happen to me?” “Am I the only black girl dealing with this?” Will I ever be normal again?” Endless questions with no answers, because, simply put—no one was talking about eating disorders in the black community in 1996. They weren’t then and, sadly, aren’t really right now.
However, surviving this merciless illness means only one thing to me today: The silence must be broken. Being in the fitness industry and being a woman means I constantly run into others I feel are either on the brink of an eating disorder, have battled one (without even knowing it), may be living with one and/or a combination of all of the above. Trust me, I understand. The confusion is real. By the time I was able to identify my food-and-exercise-manipulation game as a distorted body image/eating disorder, the damage had already been done.
But it can be undone. I am so grateful to be not only surviving but thriving. My body gave me a second chance, so I hope that my attitude of gratitude can help you or someone you know identify, avoid and beat an eating disorder, whether it’s anorexia, bulimia or overeating.
G: Goals Gone Wrong
Setting goals and achieving them is an excellent quality to possess. But when this seemingly positive characteristic mingles with perfectionism or a need for control, the results can be life-altering. You may be thinking, “What does this have to do with an eating disorder?” Everything, that’s what. In fact, it is rarely about the food, exercise, body image, etc. These things just become a brush to paint on the eating disorder canvas.
Ask yourself this: Are your fears or thoughts about food keeping you away from day-to-day life experiences or interactions? This is an eating disorder waiting to happen. Do you feel depressed or like a failure when you miss a workout or a meal? This is an eating disorder waiting to happen. Simply put, goals gone wrong is how many end up in my teenage eating disorder shoes.
R: Remake Your Ideas About Food
Playing games with food, tying foods to emotions or equating them with rewards all used to be the norm for me. However, it wasn’t until I started seeing food for what it was—nutrients to keep me alive—that I was able to kick bulimia and distorted body images to the curb for good. But it took time, some serious time, focus and work.
After all, food is practically ingrained in our culture. Meetings are held over meals, love connections are made over meals, accomplishments are celebrated over meals—there is no way around it. But this is how my food remake specifically took place: I started connecting more to the company I shared, as opposed to the meal itself. Not only did this take my mind off the negative and confusing thoughts that food often brought, but it also allowed me to feel successful at something that mattered more—presence.
A: Admit You Have a Problem
No other adage annoys me more than “Knowing is half the battle.” However, it’s true. Once I said out loud, “I am not well,” things started to shift away from addiction to recovery. It was a slow and long shift, but nonetheless it was a shift. I lived in this space of acceptance for a few years, but the ultimate shift came when I said out loud, “I am not well and I cannot get well on my own.”
Again, an eating disorder is a mental illness; therefore, I know for sure that I wouldn’t be where I am within this lifelong challenge if it weren’t for therapy. So don’t be afraid not only to admit that you have a problem but also to get the help you need to get over it.
T: Thank Your Body for What It Does, Not How It Looks
The main thing eating disorder therapy gave me was tools. Not fail-safe solutions, but case-by-case tools—which were hard to grasp at first. As I said, seeing things as black and white (read: perfectionism) is how I ended up in this situation in the first place. So seeing the gray felt completely foreign.
Honestly, this is still a daily struggle. However, the greatest tool I sharpened was something I had had all along: my mind. I started to think of my body differently. Faking it until I made it, a lot of the time. Literally saying, “Thank you, legs,” for carrying me through the day. “Thank you, heart,” for still beating. “Thank you, body,” for surviving. Two words. “Thank” and “you” changed things drastically.
E: Eliminate Your Triggers
Here’s another adage to work your nerves: “If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got.” Basically, once I decided to change my ways, I had to change my environment. I couldn’t bring my trigger foods into the house anymore. I couldn’t hang around people who constantly talked about false ideas of beauty. I couldn’t hang out at the gym as if it was a mall anymore. Over time, it just felt silly thinking that I could walk through fire and not get burned.
F: Forget the Past and Forgive Yourself
The crazy part about negative experiences from your past is that they are hard to let go. Even when I was doing well for weeks at a time, I would still find myself consumed with the guilt and the shame of my 14-year-long eating disorder. So whether you made a mistake years or seconds ago, invite forgiveness to the journey. For me, it is a constant day-to-day practice. “Yes, I did this or that, but that is not who I am right now. And that is OK.”
U: Unplug From Media’s Idea of You
I remember thinking to myself at 14, and even sometimes now, “I am in control of my mind. The media doesn’t have an influence on me.” Yeah, right. From music to TV, social media, you name it, there is a message being said loud and clear. No one is exempt from this downpour of influence, so unless you plan on living in a hole the rest of your life, when it comes to your health and how you view your body, you absolutely have to write the narrative for yourself.
L: Let People Know Your Truth
And last, but certainly not least, as women we all have insecurities and body image challenges. No way around this one either. However, the key is to let this common thread unite us and not divide us. I honestly feel that my eating disorder wouldn’t have taken residency in my life for as long as it did had I had someone close to talk to about it.
Shame leads to silence, so don’t be afraid to tell your story, whatever it may be. Knowing that you are not alone could be the relief that releases hope, not only into your life but into the lives of others, too. And even a little hope goes a long way. Living proof.