One of the most frustrating things I’ve ever heard is the apparent confusion over why rational people developing eating disorders. Countless times I’ve heard the refrain: “but you’re smart and logical, why did you struggle so much with food?” And I’ve wrestled a great deal with how to respond. In defense of my fifteen-year-old self, who lacked the words at the time to respond, I’d like to explain.
You see, we don’t live in a vacuum. We didn’t all come together one day and decide to be terrified of eating carbs, count every calorie, and work out obsessively. We didn’t make up the idea that certain foods were bad and others were good, that thinner was better, and that we should error on the side of restriction rather than indulgence.
But we watched our parents pull out the scales they kept in their bathrooms to weigh themselves every morning. We watched our moms crash diet; we heard our grandparents comment on our bodies every time we came to visit.
We noticed labels at the grocery store proclaiming some foods “guilt free” and others “guilty pleasures.” We read tips on how to get “hot abs” in magazines at our doctor’s offices, and we listened to our dads sneak out of the house before 6am, sacrificing adequate sleep for another workout.
We picked up on the way fat people were treated in our society: mocked in magazines, made the butt of jokes, erased from mainstream media depictions of what it meant to be successful, happy, or beautiful.
And we got the message: Fat is bad. We should feel guilt when we eat, shame when we see our bodies grow, disgust when we look at fat bodies. Working out is a moral imperative, and restriction a virtue. We grew up navigating an onslaught of these messages, which may have been well-meaning, but certainly weren’t harmless.
We were told the only thing between us and the life we crave is our gluttony, our intolerance for deprivation and pain—our humanness. Following diet culture to its obvious endpoint, eating disorder sufferers start pledging their loyalty to food rules over their body’s wisdom. Yet as they do so, they are called irrational and insane.
The logical conclusion to our fatphobic society is an eating disorder.
Don’t blame rule-followers for following diet culture’s rules. Don’t criticize individuals for falling prey to a society poised to disconnect them from their bodily intuition and then capitalize on their discontent. This is not a problem of insecure young girls dealing with adolescent confusion by harming their bodies.
So save us your self-righteous wonder about why “rational” people struggle so intensely with food, and recognize instead that eating disorders are rational responses to a society that’s imprinted fatphobia into our brains since birth.
Our recovery must go beyond individual progress. We have to change the structures that instill shame around bodies and morality around food, because that shame metastasizes, shape-shifts, and steals our lives.
We are victims of a societal problem, and our healing is a social imperative.