Dieting is Disordered Eating? Ya think?

So I was reading the news, and after looking at 21 pictures of celebrities aging with and without the benefits of plastic surgery, I stumbled upon this.

Oh, good!

Now we all have eating disorders.

I have mixed feelings about this article. I am glad that Self  has the balls, quite frankly, to address this issue, because I can’t even pick up a copy of Self  without feeling like shit. Every issue has some tanned, toned uberwoman on the cover who will show me how to get the perfect abs and eat the perfect salad if only I turn to page 121. The sight of the magazine itself is triggering and every time I see it I want to upturn the sales rack in rage that I am expected to spend my life in search of the Mecca that is taut glutes.

What bothers me about the article, however, is the dismissal of certain behaviors into categories other than traditional eating disorders. Some of the behaviors on display, such as “secret eating,” or “purgers” are actually criteria of bulimia. They are medically serious, and shouldn’t be dismissed as “dieting gone too far.” While I recognize that Self  cannot diagnose anyone with an actual eating disorder, I do have a serious issue with the notion that they take real symptoms of eating disorders and minimize them, treating them as though if a woman was to stop the diet, she could stop the behavior. This is not the case: Once a behavior has stepped over the line into the realm of ED, simply ending Atkins, Weight Watchers, or the cabbage soup diet isn’t going to be the panacea a person needs. There will be no riding off into the sunset, eating healthily and normally, body image intact, smiling face turned toward a bright new day full of nutritious, binge-and-purge-free, starvation-free days. No.

I am appreciative that the Selfsurvey and this article recognizes that dieting is triggering for many people, that dieting is, in and of itself, a pathological form of behavior. Dieting gives us something to aspire to when everything else is out of control. Calories in, calories out, the motto goes. It is a soothing form of control when everything else is awry. Tame it, harness it, corral it. After all, when we cannot control the world around us, we turn to the body. That is a very basic principle of feminism, and the Selfsurvey and this MSN article seems to grasp that.

The quotes of the women in the article point to how desperate they are: They see the diet as the answer, the control of food as the salve to their problems in life. If only they can maintain the proper proportion of body weight, they will conquer the world. They may recognize this is a problem, but they do not care. And this is the hallmark of an eating disorder. When insanity about the behavior is recognized and discarded as unimportant. Only the behavior rules, the ritual matters, the numbers count. One woman says: I would be very upset if I gained 5 pounds. She weighs 103 pounds, and has given birth. She barely exists, a wisp in the world. Her literal footprint is tiny, and she works daily to keep it that way.

The second page of the article gives tips on what is problematic behavior when dieting. In reading the list, it’s hard not to see how any diet isn’t disordered eating. How repeated dieting can lead the vulnerable into an eating disorder. A simple “preoccupation with calories” is considered disordered eating. Is that not what Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig teach? Eliminating entire food groups is also considered disordered eating. That makes Atkins die-hards disordered eaters. Anyone who has ever dieted or is currently dieting, is, essentially, practicing disordered eating. And disordered eating in those who are susceptible can lead to full-blown, dangerous eating disorders.

I wonder what will happen as a result of this Self survey. There seems to exist a duality in the media: the fascination with dieting gone wrong, dieting that turns into a disorder, and the attainment of the perfect body, which cannot be attained except through, as the Selfsurvey illustrates, disordered eating. This is a dangerous Catch-22, played out on the bodies of people everywhere: Diet enough to look good, but not enough to look like a freakshow. The only ones who win are those who make money off of our bodies: The diet companies at the beginning, and the shrinks at the end.



  1. kristin said,

    April 25, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    What pissed me off about the article on MSNBC is their statement that battling your weight can be damaging for those who are not overweight. Go on and be obsessed if you are a fatty, but don’t cause yourself grief if you are already at a socially acceptable weight.

  2. Twistie said,

    April 25, 2008 at 4:13 pm

    I consider the categorizing not so much a dismissal of the importance of EDs, but the recognition that sometimes one symptom does not an ED make. For instance, a cough is a symptom of pneumonia, but not everyone who has a cough has pneumonia. It doesn’t mean the cough should be ignored, but simply that it might have a different cause. It could be a common cold or it could be tuberculosis or it could be an allergy or it could be the momentary irritation of a puff of smoke.

    For instance, I am not bulimic. I do not have an eating disorder and I never did. All the same, I went through a period of serious bingeing. What brought it on? Depression. Over the course of two years, my father died of lung cancer, my mother in law was diagnosed with and died of lung cancer, I discovered a brother I didn’t know I had, my husband’s business failed, I lost my job to downsizing, my husband had a triple bypass, and we spend six months living under siege from our downstairs neighbor who snapped like a bunny one night and began doing things like stealing our fuses, dumping paint in our mailbox, soaping our stairs, and turning on his television, stereo and radio full blast and then leaving the apartment for hours while things rattled off the shelves to the mellow stylings of James Taylor and Cat Stevens. Oh, and the landlord did nothing, even after we called out the police so many times that our landlord got hit with a huge fine for failing to take care of the problem. Then we moved and my cat died. It was a nasty couple of years, and I got through it by bingeing.

    On the other hand, I never developed any other symptoms of bulimia and I never experienced sort of thoughts I’ve seen many ED survivors describe. Once things settled down in my life and the depression lifted a bit, I stopped bingeing without a backwards glance. Food had been a way of anaesthetizing myself from the pain and stress of everything else I was going through. Once I was ready to deal with my life, I didn’t need it anymore.

    So I do think it’s important to recognize that sometimes a symptom that could well be one of an ED could also be a sign of something else. Either way, it’s something to be taken seriously. It just might not be an ED.

    On the other hand, yay! for an article considering the question of food hysteria and its link to EDs! It’s about bloody time this started being discussed intelligently and publicly.

  3. Zilly said,

    April 25, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    Well, it’s better than nothing! However, their definition of disordered eating disturbs me. If only the behaviours mentioned in that article are disordered eating, what is it that I’m doing?? I forget to eat, I’m too lazy to eat, I can’t decide on what to eat and save myself the trouble by not eating at all … I’d definitely call that “disordered”, but hey, what do I know. I’m not on a diet, so I must be healthy. Confusion abounds.

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