I’ve been getting quite a few emails lately about an issue that I was surprised to discover is more prevalent among eating disordered individuals than I had thought. And for some reason I don’t see much publication about this issue. Perhaps most people dealing with this issue are embarrassed to say it out loud because it paints them in a very negative light. Or perhaps it’s really not so common. But I felt the need to at least address it because of the number of people asking about this subject.
Okay, I don’t even know how to clearly define the issue. It’s a strange, twisted, rotten phenomenon. ”Jealousy” is the best word I can come up as a definition, but that barely explains this particularly bizarre accumulation of animosity directed towards someone– most particularly, someone who is closest and dearest to you, like your sister, your best friend, or even your mother. It’s one of the ugly symptoms of struggling with an eating disorder: the person starts pulsating an obsession towards somebody else’s diet.
I’ll explain clearer by talking about me.
More than a year ago, I wrote a very personal post about the 8-year-long conflict between a beloved cousin and me. The cousin, for the longest time, was my sister because she lived with our family for about 11 years. We grew up together playing Power Rangers (she was Yellow Ranger and I was Pink), getting into trouble, and sharing clothes and toys. We shared the same kind of bittersweet bond most sisters do: fighting occasionally over petty things, struggling with a bit of friendly rivalry, but still tight friends. We were, in one word, family.
And then some things happened that drove a wedge between us two. There were a lot of misunderstandings, and the fact that we barely talked for a few years just created layer after layer of misunderstandings and complicated emotions until it got to the point where I felt I truly hated her with all my heart.
But one key thing that arose from –and further deteriorated– our conflicts was her diet.
My cousin started dieting. She brought home a stack of diet books from the library. At first she cut out fats. And then she cut out carbs. She kept a calorie log, in which she recorded every single thing she ate: 1/2 a packet of skim milk and 1/2 banana for lunch. Some bulgogi, 1 cup stir-fried veggies and 1/2 cup cooked rice for dinner. 5 Triscuits. Almost every day, she went out for more than an hour to run.
It freaking bothered me.
At the time, I was at the awkward teenage stage and was already feeling rather self-conscious about my own body. I had always been skinny as a rail but after moving to the U.S., I heard many stories from fellow Asians who told me they gained an insane amount of weight after eating American food. And at the time, I was definitely eating way too much. I ate two school lunches for lunch and indulged in two Super Size McDonald’s french fries after school before eating dinner and then snacking again late at night. I was a freaking glutton, and I was starting to worry about the effects.
I started my own diet too– by observing my cousin’s. It really stemmed from the already unhealthy relationship I had with her, and mixed with my own insecurity and low self-esteem, the combination just exaggerated the feelings of self-hatred, which I directed towards my own body.
I was obsessed with my cousin’s diet. Just so freaking obsessed. I just had to know how much she was eating, what she was eating, when she was eating. I had to know how much she was exercising too, and it ate away at me each time she was outdoors working out when I was sitting like a lazy slouch indoors. I still remember pacing the living room, looking out of the window every few minutes because I wanted her to come back and stop working out and burning calories.
Every meal was horrible and indigestible, simply because I had to watch my cousin cut this and that, push this and that around, and eventually throw half her rice away. It made me so livid!! I wanted to grab three handfuls of lard and rice and shove it into her mouth– just so I could enjoy my own food. For some reason I just couldn’t stop obsessing about her eating, and I felt this inexplicable rage every time I saw her do something diet-y.
It definitely affected my eating, too. I simply couldn’t and wouldn’t eat more than her. It was a silent, stalkerish competition between her and me. I don’t think my cousin participated in this ridiculous rivalry; it was me myself engaging in a one-sided mental torture. That was my instigator to the beginning of a long, treacherous slide into a real eating disorder.
It is lunatic– absolutely absurd in the most detestable way. And it upsets me terribly to find that many girls are dealing with this too, because it isn’t just them who is suffering– it’s the people they love who suffer for this, too.
Many have asked for my advice on how to get rid of these feelings. Like me, they can’t help the way they feel, and like me, they hate themselves for it. It’s a jungle of conflicting emotions and thoughts because you hate yet love the person. But eating disorders don’t work that way. An eating disorder corrupts an individual’s mind, and drags down every loved one along with her/him.
I’ve also noticed that this phenomenon happens frequently with eating disorder individuals who are trying to recover. In the midst of struggling with refeeding and increasing daily calorie intake, these individuals project the need to feed to other people around them. They become more and more obsessed with making other people eat, and they start comparing the density of their meals with others’.
And then there are people like me, where such obsessive jealousy towards somebody else’s diet was the beginning spark that consumed me down to a full-blown eating disorder. The weight of guilt, hatred, rage and obsession mired me into the pit of Anorexia.
I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for how to rid yourself with this feeling, except that you want to nip this in the bud– as soon as possible.
I can’t emphasize enough how detrimental such feelings are to your psyche, to your own self-image, and to your loved one. And needless to say, it’s a huge obstruction to recovery. It provides an excuse to delay recovery, and it will keep you traveling within the same circles of disordered thoughts and behaviors.
I can’t tell you how much I regret those incidents with my cousin. Just look at my story. You know how much I paid for it.
And guess what. Those feelings of hatred and jealousy towards that person? They’re not real. They’re not supported. It has little to do with that person you’re antagonistic towards, and more to do with you.
When my cousin left to join her own parents in year 2004, nothing much changed within me. I was still angry, unhappy and neurotic. It had little to do with her diet all along. I thought that once she left I would be free from this obsession, but it just got even more internalized.
So I guess if I had one advice, it would be this: don’t be foolish like me.
Step back and take in a wider, wiser perspective on your situation. Be focused on what the root of the problem is. It’s not about that person and what she eats or doesn’t eat. It never was. Don’t let temporary conflicts and struggles like these bridge a gap between you. You don’t want to realize that in 5 or 10 years time, when your relationship with this person has been damaged beyond repair.
I think we do have the choice of letting a negative emotion get worse or better. Of course we can’t prevent sudden pricks of certain feelings, but we do have the power to decide whether we’re going to indulge those antagonistic feelings or not. It takes some effort, but be clear on what is more precious: a few minutes of satisfaction– or a lifetime of a good relationship?
I just wish I had been a little bit wiser at that time. Although I had made amends to my cousin during my last trip to Korea, I know the tainted memories won’t change. My cousin is still going to have that vestige of uneasy images of what I was like at that time. There are still some hurts and wounds that no amount of apology can erase.
I loved and still love my cousin very, very much. And now, I would give so much to replay those days. But since what’s past is past, I look back and see that it was a necessary stage in my life to get me to where I need to be.
Thoughts to Ponder:
1) Have you ever experienced such feelings before towards someone?
2) What is your advice to people struggling with this issue?
3) Why do you think such feelings are usually directed to a close family or friend?