Recently, someone I admire for his intelligence and wisdom asked me a question that threw me off a bit.
“Is eating disorders a prevalent disease?” he asked.
He knows about my history, which is why he asked me this question. I thought it was a rhetorical question at first, but then I realized he genuinely was curious and wanted a real response.
I was taken aback because for me, the answer was obvious. Of course it’s prevalent, I immediately thought. It’s the disease of the century. Signs of disordered eating are evident in almost every woman I know, even if it may not be a full-fledged, clinical disorder. It happens to men and women. It happens to thin people, fat people, fit people, short people, tall people. It happens to people of all colors and ethnicities. It’s everywhere!
You see, wherever I go, I see ED people.
Or I suspect they are. My ED senses are especially pricked in new environments, because then I’m paying more attention to my surroundings. Unconsciously, my eyes will zoom into that unnaturally skinny young woman sitting in the corner with a huge bottle of diet coke, or that girl at Whole Foods who is spending too much time observing the nutrition facts of a cereal box.
And then I’ll judge. It’s terrible, I know. Even before I start doubting my instant diagnosis of a total stranger, I’ll judge. It’s a prick of a second, but it’s still a strong, tangible jolt of unpleasant emotions within me. It’s a weird sensation, a complex jumble of pity, disgust, anger, helplessness and sadness. All of these feelings are so frizzled together that I don’t know if I can dissect them individually and question why I feel each of them.
During my three weeks in New York, I spotted a lot of people (mostly young women, probably because I see more of myself in them) that made me feel that way.
For example: I saw a girl in workout clothes at Whole Foods pondering each aisle as though she’s a librarian browsing the book shelves, struggling to decide on the perfect book. Her collar bones were protruding and her cheeks were hollow, and she had tucked a few raw vegetables into her grocery basket. She studied several granola bags, but didn’t put any into her basket. She again scanned some nut butters, staring at each of their nutrition facts and ingredient list. It was driving me crazy and I had to hurry away.
On the way back I walked past two more scarily thin women. One of them was just standing listlessly on the street, sucking hungrily into her cigarette. The other was speed-walking down the street. Her two scarecrow arms stuck out from her sleeveless blouse; from the looks of the way her muscles twisted tightly like basket weaves around her bones, it looked like she religiously worked out what was left of her muscles.
I tried not to stare at them, but I might have looked at them a few seconds longer than a normal person would. But that was the problem. Each time I encountered such individuals who set off my ED alarm, I also looked around to see if anybody else noticed. And nobody did.
That kind of blows my mind. And I couldn’t help fuming a bit. Why doesn’t anybody else notice? There’s clearly something abnormal with them, and everyone just walks right past them without a second look. Did they not care? Or are they just ignorant? Or are they just being polite? Or maybe they’re just too absorbed in their own business? And most of all: why the heck do I care that they care?
Living in Los Angeles means I see “ED people” all the time as well. I still remember that day I was at Griffith Park with a friend, and I saw a young woman at the base of a steep hill.
She might be anywhere between 18 and 30; you just can’t tell with people who are that stunted in development. It was almost 90 degrees and she was wearing a jacket. Her ears were plugged to an iPod or some MP3 player. A little knapsack was slung behind her back. Her hair was barely thick enough to be tied up, but what was left of it was pulled into some sort of a wispy pony tail. She was a tiny, tiny thing, not in height but in overall…existence. You could see blue veins throbbing out of her jacket sleeves on her pale hands, and even with a jacket on you could see the contours of her bones.
She was gazing up at the hill with such a focused intensity that she didn’t even see me standing still and gaping at her. She took a deep breath, and then first foot forward– she trudged up the near-vertical hill. All by herself, with her music and the hill.
I wanted to cry then. She was just like me. That was me a few years ago. I remember spending hours walking, deliberately passing through steep hills (builds muscles, burns fat!). I always had some kind of music on so that time passed easier, so that I can forget the burning pain in my deteriorating muscles and the ache in my hollowing bones. And I also always had a little backpack, because I would carry with me my “safe” food and other stuff that I would need in preparation for the long hours I would spend outdoors.
I later asked my friend that question I had burning in my mind for ages: What did she see? Did she see what I see?
“I don’t know,” she answered. “I don’t detect these things like you do. I don’t have enough experience. I wouldn’t know what to look for. If I saw an emaciated person, I would think she is sick with cancer or something. But then I wouldn’t want to look at her because it wouldn’t seem polite to stare at a sick person.”
I thought about what she said over and over, each time I saw another person who pricked my ED radar. And then I thought of myself back to when I was very sick as well. Would I have wanted strangers to stop and talk to me? Drag me to a hospital? Try to “treat” me by giving me pep talks and referring me to therapists?
No. There isn’t anything anyone could really have done. In fact, a couple strangers actually did approach me and I got extremely turned off by them.
That realization depressed me. But then I questioned why I was feeling all of these stuff in the first place.
Perhaps it’s pride and over-zealousness that makes me want to rush to people who are clearly ED and shake them and beg them to do something about it. Perhaps it’s also mixed with a resurgence of bad memories of how much I was suffering in denial at the time. There’s probably also some indignation added in there, a sort of twisted anger that they can seem to live blithely while wearing such a terrible disease. And definitely, there are also self-righteousness yet helplessness that these people are in pain and nobody–not even me– can do much about it.
Talking to my friend made me realize that I sometimes need to step out of my own world, and understand other people’s worldviews. I’m super sensitive to ED-related things because I’ve been burned by it before. My life has changed in a major way because of it, and although I don’t see myself as an ED activist or anything, it’s an issue about which I’m passionate.
But I need to understand that some people may be ignorant about ED– and that’s okay. Of course spreading ED-awareness is important. But it’s wrong of me to get annoyed or indignant when I meet ignorance. Most of the time, ignorance isn’t intentional. We all come from different backgrounds, and when we converge, we share each other’s experiences and learn something from one another.
I’ve set a standard for myself in regards to dealing with ED people that I meet:
1) Don’t judge:
It’s such a contradiction, but from what I’ve seen, heard and experienced myself, it’s people with ED histories that seem to judge ED people the most. I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s not a pretty thing. Whenever I feel myself judging, I can also feel deep displeasure from God, who always chastises me with, “What about you?”
That’s why I never want to forget how weak I was when I was struggling, and how much I suffered from this disease. I want to remember the lowest moments of my life, because that keeps me humble and empathetic. I still tear up when I think about my past, and I welcome that rawness because I know that I have not forgotten what it is like to feel absolutely helpless and hopeless.
This rule also applies to people who I may feel don’t understand eating disorders. There are so many diseases out there! Who can keep track of it all? It’s understandable that not everyone would “get” eating disorders, especially because it’s such a complicated disease. By being judge-y and huffy, I’ll just shut down whatever opportunity I may have to communicating ED to them. I need to be open to conversation, not force it down somebody’s throat.
2) Be vulnerable, and welcome vulnerability:
By remembering, I’m also keeping myself vulnerable. In a way it also works hand-in-hand with #1 because when I let myself be vulnerable and share my story honestly with other people, it relives previous moments for me and keeps my thoughts and emotions raw. Best of all, I’m always surprised by how much they open up to me about their own struggles, too.
Vulnerability isn’t a welcome word in society. We hate vulnerability. We find it excruciating and humiliating. But ever since I’ve let myself be vulnerable, I’ve come to understand how absolutely beautiful vulnerability is. When you let down your guard, you become purely human– and only then can you connect with someone. No matter how different a person is from you, everyone responds positively to humanity. Genuine vulnerability reveals a human quality that is shared by every person, no matter what race, age or religion.
I’ll argue that there’s something so fundamentally Christian about human vulnerability, too. We’re all fallen sinners; we all need Christ. None of us can boast our worthiness or righteousness without Christ because we are born sinners. That’s what the gospel is all about.
Sometimes, that’s the best thing anyone can do.
I remember when I was sick and struggling, the most effective thing my family could do for me was pray. They could scream at me to eat, plead me not to go out and exercise, preach to me about what I should or should not do, but in the end it just drove me further away. But those moments when we would just sit in a circle, hold hands and pray together, I felt my heart open.
There’s less anyone can do for some stranger they spot in the streets or in Whole Foods. From now on, when my ED senses start clanging, I try to reign in myself first. And then I shoot that person a little prayer, because I believe that God listens to prayers. I know that God cares for that individual way more than I ever can.
If I somehow get connected to an ED individual in more personal levels than a bump at a public space, then I know God wants me to speak up and be a friend to that person. Going back to #2, I’ll be the first one to be vulnerable. And also going back to #1, I know God wants me to love, not judge.
4) Don’t be cynical:
Something I wrote down in bold letters during a lecture at World Journalism Institute: “Journalists need to be realistic. But don’t be cynical. Because our God isn’t cynical. Even amidst stories of corruption and evil, one can find seeds of hope and redemption.”
Same thing with ED. On both a macro and micro scale, the most poisonous thing to be in an ED situation is to be hopeless.
I believe everyone is worthy. Thus, everyone is worthy of hope. And love. And comfort. And encouragement. I believe that because I also believe that God has a heart for people who suffers from eating disorders. ED is a depressing disease, yes. But I refuse to feel hopeless about it.
That was a longer post than I intended. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how feelings of shame and unworthiness play into eating disorders. In fact, I’m working on an article that relates to that issue. I might send out another post asking for people who are willing to let me interview them. But until then, I’d love to hear from you.
How do you treat other ED individuals?