Let’s talk about a topic that is often misunderstood about eating disorders: Vanity.
That’s the thing. People think that girls with anorexia are so vain and beauty-obsessed. And although that may be true from the onset, like everything else in ED’s path, that gets bastardized and tainted into darkness. You see, that’s the confusing thing: Sure, my anorexia started when I gave up sweets for Lent my sophomore year of high school. I began to lose a little weight and I liked the result. Normal response. Then, after quitting my sports career to pursue drama, the vanity started to creep in and, since I was no longer exercising for sports, I was terrified of becoming a “fat drama kid.” So I kept up the “no sweets thing.” Then the eating disorder began to take hold. The “no sweets thing” quickly turned into, no white flour, no butter, no fat, no sodium, no red meat…and you can see the slippery slope.
But here’s the thing. Yes, it started out from an appearance/vanity perspective, but by the end of my eating disorder, I hated my body. The vanity had turned into self-loathing.
You may notice that your loved one is hiding her body under a lot of layers and covering up. I did too. I didn’t want to show my arms or my legs. I would wear baggy clothing that didn’t cling so as not to draw attention to my skeletal frame that was wasting away. I didn’t want to show my arms, which now had a layer of peach fuzz to keep me warm. My self-worth was so low that I would only buy clothes from Goodwill. And this is something that has stayed with me. It wasn’t until a year ago – literally 8 years after developing anorexia and 7 years after “recovery” – did I finally accept that I was a) beautiful and b) worth buying nice clothes. It was over a bottle of wine with my mom. In transparency though, that “mountain top experience” only lasted about 3 months before the Lie made its way back into my head.
In fact, to this day I can’t stand the mirror. I’m not ugly. In fact, I conceptually know that I am a beautiful girl. However, I just can’t see it. I look into the mirror, and all I see is a hideous girl who has caused a lot of pain. Truth be told, I don’t even look in the mirror because it just makes me sad. And that’s true for a lot of people with eating disorders. When they look in the mirror, what they see is a projection of how they feel about themselves on the inside. Their low self-worth manifests itself as body dysmorphia, or seeing a hideous beast.
This has a lot to do with two words that are the “buzzwords” of eating disorder rehab facilities across the country: guilt and shame.
We throw them around and attach them to behaviors and feelings, but do we really know what guilt is? What shame is? They go hand in hand – partners in crime, but have you really considered what they truly mean?
I know exactly how guilt and shame feel, but can I define each separately?
Well, I heard this from a wise man, and so I’ve applied what he said to ED, and I think it will shed a lot of light on what your loved one is going through.
GUILT: When you don’t live up to your own expectations.
SHAME: When you don’t live up to someone else’s expectations. Therefore, when you see me, I want to hide.
So guilt, is falling short of the standards or bar that you have set for yourself. These standards are influenced by society, the law…or the eating disorder. Whereas, shame is not meeting the standards of someone else – you did something wrong, or failed at something that was expected of you, and now you don’t want that failure to be seen, so you’re ashamed and want to hide. These two feelings are both normal emotions. They are felt by everyone at one time or another. However, anorexia and the voice of the eating disorder takes these two emotions a step further: First, she has tremendous guilt because she’s set an impossible expectation for herself.
Here’s a tangent: you may not realize, but if your daughter or loved one “wins” at anorexia – if she reaches the expectation she’s set for herself, it results in death. Startling, yes. But the voice of anorexia will keep taunting her and controlling her until she literally dies. The voice of the eating disorder feeds her the lies that she will never be enough – never be thin enough, good enough, lose enough weight, reduce her food intake enough — ED always has more to strive for, and it won’t stop until death. That’s the cold, hard fact. So she’s in a constant state of never meeting her ED’s impossible expectations, resulting in tremendous guilt.
So that’s how ED takes guilt to the extreme. Now, shame.
All this guilt then turns to shame, because she’s not living up to someone else’s expectations: She’s let her loved ones down by being sick. She knows she shouldn’t be starving herself, or purging, or overexercising, or _____ you name it. But she is, and she feels both guilty and shameful about it. It’s “the girl I used to know” inside of her knowing that, by living in her eating disorder, she is letting her loved ones down. But then, the Eating Disorder takes it to the extreme. She now feels that she is irrefutably irredeemable. In other words, she feels that she’s a lost cause. She feels she is too much of a burden, too much of a failure, too worthless, too disgusting, too disgraceful, that when you see her, she literally wants to hide. She wants to cover up. Hide her face. Hide her body. Hide the evidence. That’s why she wears the baggy clothing. That’s why she eats in private. That’s why she exercises in the middle of the night, or isolates herself, or avoids you. It is because of the tremendous shame she feels.
Additionally to this, there is so much deceit involved in eating disorders. There’s lying, secrecy, manipulation, anger, breaking promises, etc., that she really does have a lot to be guilty for, in all honesty. I mean, those things are wrong. Lying is wrong. Manipulating people is wrong. So, yes, the guilt that she feels is valid. And the shame that she feels as a result of that guilt is valid. But here’s the thing. She’s a walking billboard for those “wrong” decisions she’s making. Her skeletal body is the evidence, and so she feels shame about it. She feels ashamed to show it.
And it’s a horrible cycle: She know she’s letting you down, so she feels the shame. But then, she also knows that she’s willfully choosing to remain in the eating disorder, so she feels even more guilt and shame. But the ED is controlling her and she’s never meeting the expectation of perfection, so there’s more guilt. But the more she strives for that “perfection” and practices the eating disorder, the more she’s failing to meet her loved ones’ expectation to get better, so she feels even more shame. It’s a cycle of destruction.
The long and short of it is this: the guilt and shame that she feels manifests itself in practicing the eating disorder, which causes even more guilt and shame, resulting in more eating disorder behaviors, resulting in even more guilt and shame…and the cycle never ends.
So they’re buzzwords for a reason: every single person struggling with an eating disorder is grappling with the guilt and shame they feel about their disease and what it’s doing to their loved ones.
Her eating disorder may have started out with hints vanity, but it has now been manifested into self-loathing from the guilt and shame it has caused.