Almost anyone who’s passed 9th grade health class can tell you what an eating disorder is, and they can probably even describe them to you. There’s anorexia, the one where you don’t eat, and there’s bulimia, the one where you eat too much and then throw it up. However, there are fewer people who can tell you about the most common kind of eating disorder, binge eating disorder.
Binge-eating disorder or BED, is characterized by someone having episodes of exaggerated binge eating, or eating large portions of food, often until they feel ill. BED is the most common eating disorder in the country, affecting as many as 4% of women and 2% of men. It is also the eating disorder with the lowest rates of voluntary treatment, often due to the feelings of guilt and shame attached.
There are some schools, luckily, that include discussion of all kinds of eating disorders in their curriculum. I went to one such public school, where I sat in the back of the class one day as our young and very attractive new gym teacher, Mr. Shmerick, showed clips of the show, My 600lb Life, to illustrate the dangers of over-eating. Like a train-wreck, or a vicious animal attack, my classmates were horrified, and disgusted to watch a woman bigger than they could imagine talk about how she had gotten that way. And yet, they couldn’t look away. They simultaneously exclaimed how they could never possibly let themselves get that way and they would rather die than be that fat, while craving for more, wanting to watch more of the woman that they would never be.
As I sat in the back of the class, keeping my head down so no one could see me cry, I realized something about myself and my own disorder that day. While thankfully, I am not at a point in my life where my health and figure are nearly as bad as anyone starring in their own reality TV series, I am the person who can imagine how they could possibly let themselves get that way. Ever since I was a child, food was comfort to me. My overbearing Italian mother showed her love to me through a home cooked meal with my large family, or a treat because I was having a bad day. As I got older, I started to get picked on for being overweight in elementary school. My mother, realizing the patterns I had learned from childhood, did her very best to make me a healthy kid, but I had no interest in that. I learned to hide my food, eating late at night, or when no one was around to judge me. Even to this day, eating a big meal in front of family or friends can make me feel like I’m 12 years old again.
It wasn’t until high school, when I was about 15 years old, that I realized I could eat what I wanted and still stay thin enough to fly under the radar of the high school bullies. I started purging. Not so much that it was ever noticeable, or even that concerning to me, but just enough that I felt like I could have it both ways.
What took me the longest time to realize is that I think a little part of me decided to become bulimic because even that is more socially acceptable than being a food addict. Even in the 1980s when eating disorders started gaining national attention, the face of eating disorders was always a model, beautiful and thin, sad and tragic. We pitied her, but we sympathized. We blame society for creating women who will do anything to be thin. We only blame the woman for letting herself be too fat.
I knew after that day in 9th grade health class that that was how our society would think about women with binge eating disorder: fat, disgusting, and a spectacle. I’ve grown up knowing that if people were to know who I really am and how I struggle every day, they would see me in this way. Amazing people are working very hard to change the perception of eating disorders in this country and we’ve come a long way. Eating disorders are being taken more seriously in the media, and being viewed more as a mental disorder than a choice. However, there is still serious work to be done about helping binge eating catch up with the times. Not every food addict is 600 lbs. Not every person that is 600lbs “let themselves get that way”. But every person deserves respect. And every person deserves our open minds.