I wax and wane between despair and optimism throughout my life, remaining fairly melancholy even when optimistic. I face a fundamental dilemma that’s disturbed me for nearly three years now: a constant struggle with disordered eating, particularly cycles of binging and purging. These waves culminate in weeks of overeating, followed by weeks of dieting and exercising to compensate.
Day after day, I fight temptations to seek refuge from life’s hardships in the comfort of food. Ashamed thereafter, I am compelled to undo any self-inflicted damage, often resorting to extended fasting or extreme dieting.
Despite any influence as a fitness persona, and even running an educational fitness website, I’m living anything but a “healthy” lifestyle. Each day I personify Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same things over and over again but expecting different results. Month after month, I act in a manner that degrades both my psychological and physiological health, creating a devastating feedback loop of either binging or dieting.
Recurrent binge eating, followed by purging or other efforts to avoid weight gain, typically constitutes bulimia. Binging is typically accompanied by guilt, self-disgust or depression. While body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) differs from disordered eating, distorted body image partially constitutes an eating disorder; so the two usually relate.
Each binge promotes more binging by increasing my cravings, decreasing my self-esteem, diminishing my desire to exercise, compromising my metabolic/dental health, inhibiting my productivity and reducing my willingness to socialize, thus degrading physiological, psychological and social health.
What’s more, binging betrays all of my values. When speaking to others, I often claim to value fitness, nutrition, altruism and people. Yet, many nights I binge alone, making poor food choices, degrading my health and eating the food that, on a better day, I would rather donate. It’s as if I’m a completely different person. I lose control of myself, abandon my values and act against my best interests — all for the love of ice cream.
Tragically, research shows a huge percentage of those suffering from BDD also suffer from depression. As such, it seems that failing to meet others’ perceived standards culminates in depressive symptoms and feelings of inadequacy.
I’ve deliberately avoided contact with friends that asked to hang out, those I most enjoy spending time with, because of these worries. In such dark times, it’s not uncommon to ponder the “relief” that might accompany a bullet to the head. The combination of these negative emotions makes it especially difficult to be happy, as I’m both ashamed and saddened by my behaviors. When blinded by self-hatred, I’m a less appealing person, and it’s tangible.
“I’m supposed to look good, be healthy,” I think, driven by my fear and hatred of body fatness. Eventually, these values drive me to action, however far too aggressively. Post-binge cycle, I’m tempted to be skinny again as soon as possible. I’ll often fast for extended periods, eat little to nothing but protein sources and continue this for as long as I can. These periods generally rejuvenate my self-esteem, appearance, motivation to exercise, desire to socialize and mood.
However, dieting yields many cons as well. As soon as a wave of stress hits, especially when paired with food, I’m again extremely susceptible to binging, and the cycle continues.
The primary biological influence on eating disorders is hunger/starvation, thus anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge-eating disorder may develop after periods of food restriction/dieting. Psychological factors that cause eating disorders include phobic responses to food or weight gain, conflicted feelings over adolescent development or sexual maturity and compensation for perceived ineffectiveness by “controlling” hunger and the body.
This matches my experience, as I dieted restrictively for over two years during adolescence, thinking fat loss could fill the void in my life. Toward the end of eighth grade, I fell out with my friends and lost my identity. After months of depressive symptoms, I rediscovered passion in fitness. I thought that if I looked better my friends might come back to me, new friends may approach me or for once, a girl might like me. These hopes later proved misguided.
Differences in body image and personality traits may alter what disordered eating behaviors manifest. For example, those with BDD exhibit exaggerated concern over perceived bodily defects. Stress over these perceived flaws often interferes with social or occupational functioning. As such, one’s susceptibility to worry over appearance influences their susceptibility to BDD.
Like those with BDD, people with bulimia nervosa strongly emphasize appearance, and their mood or self-esteem depends greatly on their weight and figure. Bulimia often results from restrictive dieting, which induces behavioral changes similar to those observed with anorexia. However, while anorexics may be introverted, bulimics worry more about socializing and how others perceive them.
Relatedly, BDD and eating disorders each correlate with physical activity. For example, research documents greater susceptibility to BDD or eating disorders among athletes. Social influence and one’s own negative self-image may prompt physique competition among those susceptible to extreme dieting and disordered eating behaviors.
While an outside observer may be sympathetic, I don’t want to make my disorder seem justified in explaining it. While I can’t alter my brain’s chemistry I am ultimately (though, not entirely) responsible for acting upon my intentions or impulses, whether or not I control them. This may seem pitiful, since I live and suffer all because of my own faults, bad decisions and lack of self-control. However, I think it warrants optimism.
For all readers suffering with similar, self-induced struggles, I implore you to own it and commit to changing. Allowing yourself to suffer in silence does nothing. If you’re reading this, you’re living through history’s richest, liveliest and most consequential period. You are one of Earth’s luckiest residents. With this in mind, ponder how much power you bear.
Picture this: I attend one of the world’s best universities, with some of Earth’s most incredible people and access to innumerable resources. I can simultaneously advance my career, education, fitness, social life and community unlike ever before possible, even if I can’t keep my hands out of a cookie jar from time to time.
If you are at all like me, experiencing self-induced suffering that only you can alleviate, then please seek help. Take advantage of psychological services, peers, technology, nature, the gym, music or anything else that improves your life. You owe it to yourself; fight for a life worth living. I’m fighting too.