When Does Dieting or “Better Health” Become Destructive?

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The simple answer to that question is, “when it’s really about something else.” Following is the most articulate and insightful description of “something else” that I could ever imagine. While the writer did eventually cross over into the land of full-blown eating disorder, the steps leading up to it are almost universal in becoming food and weight obsessed. It’s worth the read…

Keeping Up Appearances
By AMANDA BANES
It’s difficult to pinpoint just when I went to war with my body. It started innocently enough just after graduate school. I wanted to lose a few pounds, feel a little better about myself, and improve my health and fitness. The transition from graduate student to faculty member seemed like a good time to transition into a more slender body.

Somehow, things got out of hand. In about 14 months, I went from a relatively happy, productive 175 pounds to a miserable, obsessive 125 pounds, drained of energy and motivation, and racked with shame and guilt. I don’t think it entirely coincidental that the downward spiral of my eating disorder corresponded with the upward spiral of my career.

I was lucky to land a tenure-track position in education at a large research university right out of graduate school. After completing my dissertation, I figured I could handle whatever stress a faculty appointment had to offer. I never anticipated a tenure-track position would be so demanding, or that I would feel so unsettled and insecure all the time.

The more out-of-control I felt in my career, the more I attempted to control my body through cycles of denial and purging. The more I tried to control my eating, the more it gained control of me. I found myself thinking constantly about food, developing elaborate formulas for caloric intake and output, and cruising online weight-loss sites.

Exercise initially seemed like a good solution, but when I was at the gym, I felt guilty about not being at work, and when I was in the office, I felt guilty about not being at the gym. I could literally feel my fanny expanding as I sat at my desk. I could almost hear the cellulite bubbles snap-crackle-popping into existence, but that might have been because I had just spent 40 minutes thinking about Rice Krispies Treats when I should have been working on my spring syllabus.

I started getting up at 5 a.m. and earlier, so I could fit in a 90-minute workout and still be into the office before 8 a.m., when most of the department members began to arrive. My obsession with appearance extended to making sure I always looked busy and productive.

I say looked because by that point, I was too exhausted to produce much. I wasn’t eating or sleeping enough to keep my body going. I began to spend longer periods of time staring vacantly at my computer screen, because my brain simply didn’t have the energy to do what I needed it to do.

It isn’t fair to imply that my job was the sole cause of my problem. I’ve always been a perfectionist, and it doesn’t surprise me that I applied that to my quest for a thinner self. There is also some history of anxiety and addiction disorders in my family. But academic culture and the demands placed on women in our society to have it all certainly contributed to my disorder.

Even something as mundane as working on a grant proposal would lead to feelings of self-doubt and fear. What if I didn’t get the money? I needed more accomplishments to put into my tenure application. Without grant money, how would I ever find the resources and time to do my research and get those publications in?

To displace the nagging voices in my head, I would find some chocolate cookies. Ten minutes of bliss were quickly followed by hours of guilt. How could I convince anyone that I was capable of managing a grant when I couldn’t even manage my own eating? The solution was to become even more controlling of what I ate, and if that shaky control broke, well, I could always stick my finger down my throat. Things were starting to get ugly.

It isn’t possible to keep up appearances forever. Following a series of arguments that started over meals I refused to eat, my partner started voicing his concerns about my obsessive behavior. Several close friends and colleagues also began to realize something was very wrong, and tentatively suggested I seek help. One very brave student even approached me, concerned because she had taken classes from me for two consecutive years, and noticed my alarming drop in weight.

The behaviors I had developed to help me cope with the stresses of my job were now adding to my stress, and worse, hampering my ability to do my best. This had to stop.
My final wake-up call came on the heels of Terri Schiavo’s much-publicized death. One afternoon I saw stars and nearly passed out in my toilet while vomiting. Wondering if similar stars were the last thing Schiavo saw before she began her long journey through the wastelands of vegetative convalescence, I knew I had to bring my eating disorder to heel.

Having admitted to close friends and family that I really did have a problem was the first and hardest step. Since then it has been a slow but steady progress toward a healthier attitude, and although I can’t honestly say I’m at peace with my body, I feel like I’ve at least entered a state of truce.
I don’t know if anyone ever completely recovers from an eating disorder. I still have very bad days when I can barely stand to look at a piece of bread, much less eat it. On those days, I rely on my friends and family to remind me that my body needs energy and nutrients to do the things I need it to do.
Overcoming the shame is part of the battle. I’ve had to realize that it is OK to be flawed, both in my personal and professional lives. There is no such thing as a perfect person, even in academe. I don’t know anyone who has had every grant proposal financed, or every paper they’ve submitted accepted for publication.

Just as I have bad food days, I also have bad job days when I can’t bear to look at my current grant proposal or revise a returned publication. On those days, I rely on colleagues, mentors, and especially students, to remind me of all the reasons why I took an academic job, and still — despite the stress — love it, and know in my heart that I am good at what I do.

Bodies come in different shapes and sizes, and so do CV’s. I may gain a few pounds. I may not have all of my publications accepted this year. I’m not perfect, but I’m going to live with that, not die of starvation over something I’m not.
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Amanda Banes is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of education at a research university in the West.


One response to “When Does Dieting or “Better Health” Become Destructive?”

  1. Jenny says:

    That sounds really scarry. In fact, I have often been worried that my own attitude towards food could easily turn into something obsessive.

    I guess while there is a difference between an eating disorder and just worrying about what we put into our mouths, it just goes to show that all of us could be susceptible to this kind of thing.

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