Why Veganism Scares Me as a Person With an Eating Disorder

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

“Hi, could I get my latte made with soy milk, please? I don’t drink dairy anymore, it’s so bad for you!”

This is the sentence a 20-something proudly announces to her friend around the university cafeteria, and my heart sinks a little.

I stare at my feta cheese pasta salad I had previously been looking forward to… suddenly not as hungry as before, trying to use coping skills I have learned to quieten the thoughts racing in my head so I can finish my lunch. I know I have a good portion size. I know it’s a healthy amount for a lunch. However, my anxiety is racing because I am trying to eat an animal product.

Throughout my recovery from an eating disorder, something has appeared again and again that always confuses me. That thing is veganism.

I want to be completely honest, so I will admit that a part of me strongly wants to become vegan. I hate the harmful way animals can be treated, and the positive effects on the environment also prove appealing to the lifestyle. However, I also know I am a worrier and prone to black and white thinking, which makes me cautious to give myself such rules around food.

I have worked hard to develop a proper sense of healthy portion size, and I enjoy three meals a day with snacks… but there are now other food-related anxieties I need to tackle. Eating disordered thoughts can raise their heads at the suggestions of “don’t eat this, it’s bad for you;” “animal products are bad;” “too many vegetables are bad,” etc. And despite the best intentions of veganism, such food rules are unfortunately prevalent in this diet.

I have seen articles tackling the issue of “taking clean eating and veganism too far,” yet they always seem to go down the route of “eventually this person didn’t eat enough and developed an eating disorder (ED).”

This upsets me a little, because it ignores one of the main driving forces of some eating disorders. A person can eat three large meals a day, with snacks and a dessert, but they can still have an eating disorder. If that person can’t bear to have food prepared by someone else, or if they can only use a certain kind of oil, or if the slightest trace of preservatives affects their feeling of self-worth and mood, then I would argue this is a disordered mind set.

Eating disorders play into a person’s need for control. They trick you into thinking you have control by creating rules around eating habits — and living by such rules gives false structure and control in the person’s life.

The problem with recovery is unpicking the rules that are genuinely yours, and the rules that come from an eating disorder. As much as I love the idea of veganism, I also hate it. I hate the idea of having an excuse to have oat milk instead of real milk in my latte, because too much dairy frightens me. I hate that I could, in theory, turn down beef lasagna because animal meat frightens me and I don’t know exactly how it was prepared.

It’s all so complex, which is why the increased popularity of clean eating, raw and vegan lifestyles can feel confusing. How much of these dietary rules are your own choices, and how much are they an eating disorder’s?

It’s an extremely gray area and providing an answer is difficult. My answer for myself right now is to simply be as ethical as possible, without giving myself strict eating rules; this means I do have dairy, eggs and meat now and then.

Right now, my main focus is discovering the part of me that enjoys food and doesn’t ruminate over every ingredient. This means if someone offers me a really yummy looking coconut milk vegan cup cake, I can take it! But it also means that if I really want a milky latte with a chocolate cookie, I can have that too.

The annoying thing is, as much as everyone still has strong arguments on both sides, I am trying to learn that it’s not my job right now to make my life devoted to being anxious as I try to work out the answer. Right now, I want to learn to live a full life, with a bit more faith in what my body can handle. Once I don’t feel I have to mentally punish myself over my omnivore eating habits, then perhaps I can truly address how I want to go about the veganism way of eating.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via Sarsmis

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When I Was Diagnosed With an Eating Disorder I'd Never Heard Of

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

It’s Thursday and I’m sitting down for a typical lunch, packed with all the nutrients I could possibly need for the day. It might not seem obvious from the snapshot of one meal, but this is what my eating disorder looks like.

On a brisk February evening during my sophomore year of college, I was enjoying (what we considered) a high quality meal at one of the dining halls with a longtime friend. Somewhere in the course of our animated conversation, I inhaled a piece of food. I coughed as forcefully and as gracefully as possible without drawing attention to the fact that I thought I was choking. After a few intervals of this, it still felt like an object was teetering on some razor’s edge between my larynx and my esophagus. It wasn’t full on zero oxygen choking, but it felt like it could happen at any second. With all of the hacking and water guzzling, the feeling didn’t go away and I thought death was imminent.

I immediately called the one friend I knew with a car (thanks Rahul!) and we spent the next four hours, on a school night no less, sitting in an ER in the middle of central Illinois. A lot of sitting and an inconclusive chest X-ray later, the doctor, in his doctor jargon, said it was likely that if a piece of food was lodged, it had since passed. Rahul, my vehicle-wielding hero, and I headed back to campus, tired but cheerful that my incident hadn’t resulted in something worse.

Between classes the next day, I ducked into the dining hall for my usual lunch. I put a large forkful of spinach in my mouth and prepared to swallow leafy green goodness. But the second I did, my throat instantly constricted and the choking feeling I felt the night before returned, stronger than before. Spitting out my previously favorite food, I cautiously got a bowl of soup and yogurt, convinced I couldn’t choke on liquids.

The next months were plagued with paralyzing fear of choking on food. My sole sources of nutrients were mostly liquids. Determined to not feel alone about my anxiety, but terrified to tell anyone for fear of looking “crazy,” I took to the anonymous internet, googling in my free time to see if anyone else experienced this affliction: the paranoid fear of solid foods.

The answers I found were both comforting and disappointing. For instance, many infants will display a fear and avoidance of swallowing following a choking incident. But a 19-year-old? Trying to fit my problem into a neat little box, I stumbled upon a relatively new disorder called avoidant and restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).

As of 2013, the 5th edition of the DSM, the standard manual of psychological disorders, broadened the previously selective eating disorder (SED) and renamed it ARFID. ARFID is characterized as, “an eating or feeding disturbance associated with one or more of the following: significant weight loss or failure to achieve expected weight gain or faltering growth in children, significant nutritional deficiency, dependence on enteral feeding or oral nutritional supplements, marked interference with psychosocial functioning. 

ARFID largely encompasses those who we think of as picky eaters: the texture, temperature and even color-sensitive folks — even sometimes the broccoli haters. AFRID causes my strict dietary preferences to interfere with my nutrition, social life and psychological well-being.

Nearly two and a half years later, eating solid food is still a scary task. The difference between “sophomore me” and “now me” is massive though. I’ve gone from nonchalantly always ordering soup at restaurants (in my experience, that’s an easy way to indicate that you have a funky eating habit) and hiding bottles of boost in my bags (which is a staple, nutrient dense drink commonly given to elderly people) to making food hierarchies and forcing myself to try foods that scare me, even in small quantities. I still get weird about eating out and eating in front of people and eating certain foods, but then I remember that I have an eating disorder. And like any health problem, it won’t resolve overnight.

While it seems silly that I wouldn’t want to tell people about my ARFID, the fact that I often get scared to do something as simple and necessary as eating is equally silly. After all, the amount of people who eat every day without issue is exponentially greater than those who find it difficult and nerve wracking. As much grief as I give it, living with ARFID has given me plenty of pleasant memories too: the time the TSA took away my peanut butter on the way to London, the alarming amount of cottage cheese I ate at summer camp, my odd tendency to eat hummus plain.

Though it’s not always easy and definitely not enjoyable, eating disorders can get better. 10 million men and 20 million women in the United States alone will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime. Here’s to telling more of their stories.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

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How Hot Yoga Helped Heal Me From My Eating Disorder

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It was freshman year in a religious imagination class when I was first introduced to the term, eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is a philosophical concept that means; one’s own personally defined excellence. When I was a freshman, this really stuck with me. Every time I took this professor’s class, he never failed to talk about eudaimonia. Every time we talked about eudaimonia, I would reflect on myself. I would ask myself, am I able to be excellent? Do I have the capabilities to be excellent at anything? If so, how am I excellent?

The example he often gave about eudaimonia is running track. He loves to run, but he has severe asthma and was told he wouldn’t be able to run. He was, and still is, determined to do everything in his power to be the best runner he can be. He started breaking records because of this determination. I can see it in his eyes; hear the passion in his voice, when he talks about running marathons. There is a type of drive, and a type of passion, that creates eudaimonia. Nobody can define what eudaimonia is for another person, only that individual can know.

Thinking back, I can say my eudaimonia at one point was my eating disorder. I lived my life defining my worth, my excellence, and who I was as a person to my relationship with gravity. In other words, how much I weighed defined my worth. I would do everything it took to lose weight, to ensure that I would weigh less than the day before, even if it meant putting my health at risk. I wanted to take up as little space as I possibly could. My body didn’t belong to me; at least it felt as though it wasn’t mine. It felt as though my body belonged to those who took advantage of it, who utilized my body without my discretion. Since my body did not belong to me, I wanted my body to not exist.

I lived a decent portion of my life taking laxatives, diet pills, over-exercising, restricting my intake and purging. I did everything I could to ensure I wouldn’t gain weight. I didn’t want to take up more space than I was worth. If the scale went up, I would punish myself. I hated myself so much, I wanted to take up as little space as possible.

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

Many people have misconceptions about eating disorders. They think it’s about the desire to be skinny. If this were about being skinny, I wouldn’t have pushed myself as far as I did. It’s about coping. It’s about taking up as little space as possible. It’s disappearing. It’s about emotions. It’s about getting my abusers out of me. It’s about being in a body that wasn’t mine to begin with. I felt like I didn’t belong in my body, and I couldn’t escape it.

I entered the world of recovery; at least I thought I did. I was eating meals, but they were still very restrictive and particular. I ate a lot of diet foods. Every diet food that is on the shelf, I’ve probably tried at some point and time, convincing myself I enjoyed it. I began to let some of the symptoms go, and because of that, I thought I was recovering. I thought, well, since I’m not purging and eating more, I’m better. I disregarded taking laxatives once in a while when I felt bloated, I excused it as “normal” behavior. I disregarded exercising too much, and excused it as being healthy. This wasn’t recovery. It was a path towards recovery, but it wasn’t recovery. I was still holding on to my eating disorder, because this was still my personally defined excellence. I couldn’t picture myself without my eating disorder.

Fast-forward a year later. I was enduring one of the toughest semesters of my college career. This wasn’t because of my eight-class course load. My grandmother was sick. We found out she had breast cancer, and she knew for quite sometime. She didn’t want to live anymore, so she kept it quiet. She decided to get treatment. This was great news for me. She had a port that she received her chemo through. She got a staph infection in the port, it spread rapidly to brain and she died. I lost one of the only stable adult figures I had growing up very suddenly, and I felt lost and broken. That death was hard on me, but it wasn’t the hardest thing I endured that semester.

One of the men that took away my body was her husband, my grandfather. He was by her side, and if I wanted to be there, I had to stand in the same room as him. I had to make conversation, small talk and pretend I was OK with it. I suddenly had to forgive my grandmother for standing by his side, because her time was running short, and I wasted too much time holding that grudge. I wished I could have taken away the elephant in the room. I wish I could have screamed. I wish I could have taken away the unbearable heaviness, but all I could do was stand there and pretend everything was normal. I just dealt with it. I had to deal with it multiple times that semester. I even started feeling bad for him. I was carrying around an immense amount of guilt that shouldn’t have been mine to carry to begin with — it didn’t make sense. It seemed as though most things weren’t making sense at this point. There was so much going on in and out of my head — it just felt like I was spinning.

That semester, I was enrolled in a Health, Stress and Coping class. I was learning about the physiological implications of stress and coping techniques. They all sounded great, but I never really did them. I had the hardest time meditating, and my eating disorder was my coping mechanism. That was my way of making things hurt less, making things feel more bearable and making the world feel less heavy. In this time, I wanted to take up as little space as possible again. My eating disorder appeared differently than previous times. I was either bingeing and purging or restricting. I took laxatives on the days I felt extra bloated. I didn’t lose a ton of weight, because it wasn’t about losing weight. I didn’t use behaviors every single day, just on the bad days, which were increasing as time went on. My relationship with food and my relationship with myself were extremely unhealthy. It got to the point where I couldn’t walk up the stairs without feeling light-headed. I was slowly beginning to fall back into it, and I kept that quiet. I didn’t let anyone in on the resurfacing of my eating disorder. It was my secret.

My Health, Stress and Coping professor is someone who I trust. She knew the things I was dealing with at that time, and always offered an ear and support. She’s the one I ran to when my mother overdosed, she’s the one I ran to when my grandmother died, she’s the one I ran to when my head was spinning from everything else that was going on. She walked into class one day and gave us all these cards. They were cards for this place, Jenkintown Hot Yoga. I looked at it and thought, “Hm, sounds interesting.” I didn’t know much about yoga or hot yoga. I took a few yoga classes in college because it is a requirement to graduate at my school. She talked very highly of it and recommended that we all go at some point. I put it on my mental list of things to do with the awareness I may or may never get to it. I put the card in my backpack, and to this day, I still don’t where it is. Throughout the semester, she often referred to her studio and practice.

To this day, she doesn’t know the extent of what my eating disorder was at that time. At that time, I didn’t even know the extent of what it was. She knew it was popping up. I don’t really know how, but I know she knew something was up, because she would ask often, “When was the last time you ate?” I never really answered the question. I don’t want to call it a relapse, because I don’t know if that is what it was. I just know I was struggling and hated myself with everything I had in me. I was holding onto it with dear life, I didn’t want to let it go. I didn’t want to feel. I wanted to continue being numb. I’d show up at her office often that semester. Almost every time I went, she’d ask if I had tried hot yoga yet. Each time, I would say, “No, not yet. It’s on my list of things to do.” I didn’t go.

That semester ended, and the spring semester of senior year had begun. I still didn’t go to a hot yoga class, and from time to time, she’d ask if I had gone and recommend I go. I didn’t think things could get worse, but somehow, they did. My eating disorder was there, but I wasn’t engaging in as many behaviors as fall semester. In my head, I was still the girl with an eating disorder instead of the girl who had an eating disorder. It was almost my identity. I didn’t really know who I was without that it.

It was the first Friday of March and the first day of spring break. I impulsively decided to try out that hot yoga class. I thought, “What is there to lose by trying it?” My friend Marissa loves yoga and has always wanted to try bikram yoga, so she tagged along. I sent a message to that professor saying, “I’m going to hot yoga tonight.” She was extremely excited that I was going. I was terrified. I didn’t know what to expect. I actually almost turned the car around at one point.

I walked into the studio very rigid and was running late. I am never late for anything, so I was pretty pissed I was late for this. The studio was beautiful, and it was hard to be mad at myself while observing everything around me. After signing in, I took a deep breath and walked into the hot room. I took the class and really enjoyed it. I even signed up for the two-weeks of unlimited classes they offer the newbies at the studio. I went to Colorado the following week to visit a friend, and didn’t go back during the two weeks of unlimited classes.

The week after the two weeks unlimited ended, another bombshell hit my life. My professor and I were chatting about it amongst other small talk and she said, “We’re going to a hot yoga class.” I knew I liked the first class I took, so I was all for going again. When I went into the studio, and some of the people remembered my name. This may not seem like much, but I believed I was easily forgettable. I believed I was nothing really worth remembering, so when they remembered my name, it threw me off. I went into the class and tried to blend in as much as possible, I tried to take up as little space as I possibly could. As much as I tried to be invisible, I wasn’t. I received corrections, but also was told I was doing OK, I wasn’t invisible, and suddenly I wasn’t trying to disappear. I was trying to be present.

I left that class feeling very different from when I went in. The things my professor was saying about hot yoga suddenly made a ton of sense. I went back to my dorm and immediately told my roommate about my experience. I had nothing but amazing things to say about this practice and that studio. She became intrigued, and decided to come try it out with me. She’s heard of this studio before, because a different professor at my school also goes to Jenkintown Hot Yoga, and frequently talks about it. Therefore, she already had an interest in going and came with me. She fell in love, and particularly loved the lavender towel at the end. She signed up for the two weeks unlimited classes, and unlike me, she took full advantage of it. She went back to the school and told a bunch of other students about it, who came back with us. I bought a five-class card and went through it within a week. I then signed up for an unlimited month of classes. This was the best decision I could have made for myself.

I began to heal in ways that I didn’t think was possible, and I credit it all to that studio. I wasn’t at war with myself every second of the day anymore. I began to not fight with myself to eat and to keep it down. When I would go to hot yoga, I wanted my body to be in the best shape it could be, and to do that, I needed to eat. Eating began to be nourishing my body, not punishing it. I began to feel connected to myself.

I didn’t know this at first, but I was letting go of the rigid parts of my eating disorder. That was something seeing a dietitian or therapist never did. The thing I once called my eudaimonia was quickly slipping away, and I was actually okay with it. I started to find myself and who I was, I wasn’t just the girl with an eating disorder. I was catching glimpses of myself, and sometimes kind of liked what I saw. I was able to look at my body and not want to make it disappear- I wanted it stronger. I feel like I’m apart of my body again. I began to become aware of what was happening in it — I felt hungry for the first time in months after a class. This studio, this practice, gave me my body back.

One of the instructors once said, “Try and stay on your mat today.” For whatever reason, this really stuck with me. Everything that was happening outside of those walls didn’t matter in that room. That room became a space where I could let it go. For 90 minutes, my job was to try and stay on my mat. I would find when I let the outside world in, my balance would be thrown off entirely, or I would hold back from completely going into the postures. I was (and still am) learning to be with myself and stay on my mat. In being with myself, is where the healing began for me. My eating disorder was no longer my identity. I started learning what healthy coping looked like. This is where I learned what my eudaimonia is. It is not shrinking or disappearing- it’s being as present as possible, it’s doing the best that I can do that day in the hot room, it’s everything but shrinking.

One day, I came back from class. I was feeling inadequate, worthless, and defeated. I walked to my doorstep and there was a package. It was from my grandfather. He had been reaching out and going out of his way to ensure I knew he was trying to get in contact with me. I felt my heart rate spike and felt it fall into my chest all at the same time. I wanted that part of me to disappear. Instead of responding by attempting to make myself disappear and attempt to get him out of me, I brought the package inside and set it on my dining room table. I went to bed, and knew I had to go to a hot yoga class first thing the next morning. He didn’t deserve to take my body away from me again.

I woke up the next morning (which happens to be this morning), and felt heavy. I didn’t want to exist. I got up anyway and drove myself to the studio, the one place I can find sanity these days. Every class, I try to give it everything I can give that day. It was an off day, I had trouble balancing, I was easily distracted by my sweat, and by the heat. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t stay on my mat. My hearing became muffled. I ignored it, and kept pushing through hoping it would return eventually. We got to the floor series, and as I stared at the ceiling things were going blurry. I still couldn’t hear and I felt my heart rate spike quickly. I sat up, looked at the instructor and said, “I can’t hear.” I tried to hold it together, but I broke down sobbing instead. I actually had to be brought out of the room to just let myself cry. Looking back, the fluid in my ears wasn’t what I was crying over, it was everything else. Granted, not hearing was terrifying, but that wasn’t the only thing I was scared of. After calming down, I went back into the room, feeling humiliated. I knew I wanted to finish the class. Once the class ended, I wanted to run out of there as quickly as I could because I was to embarrassed to look anyone in the eye — I didn’t want people to see my hurt, because that hurt had surfaced. People stopped me, and showed genuine concern asking how I was. They weren’t judging me for crying. It was probably the safest place I could be during that time.

I got to my car and cried again. In fact, today has been a day full of tears. I don’t like to cry, but I also know crying isn’t a bad thing. I’m not running to numb those emotions out, I’m feeling them full force. I’m not used to that yet. This means I’m feeling. This means I’m connected to my body and myself, and if I didn’t go to that class, I don’t think I would be.

My own personally defined excellence is finding excellence within me, and I accomplish that through my practice of yoga. My eudaimonia isn’t just the practice of hot yoga — it’s everything that comes with it. Every time I walk into that room, I give it everything I can, wanting to better my practice, wanting to better myself. I am learning that my best is going to look different everyday. I am learning to accept myself for whatever I am that day and convincing myself that is good enough. I am healing. Healing comes in waves, some days it’s wonderful, other days, it;s crying on a yoga mat. I am learning to cope on the days healing isn’t so great. Jenkintown Hot Yoga gave me my body back, it gave me my sense of self-back, it gave me sanity back and it gave me my health back, which quite literally saved my life. It gave me everything I thought I couldn’t find again back. I feel like I am living life again. I feel my passion coming back. These things belong to me, they do not belong to anyone else, and they’re finally back. This was achieved through eudaimonia, and this shows how powerful eudaimonia is. It is powerful beyond measure.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via fizkes

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Why Meal Time Isn't Always the Hardest Part of Eating Disorder Recovery

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It is often thought that during a meal is the hardest time for someone with an eating disorder. As someone recovering from anorexia nervosa myself, I can say that after a meal can actually be equally, sometimes even more, challenging for the person.

The disordered thoughts that can accompany a meal: guilt, disgust, regret and negative views of oneself such as fat, greedy and beliefs that you’ve done something bad, or you’ve eaten too much — all remain with the person. These negative and distressing thoughts and feelings are often ruminated on and it can be a real battle to refrain from using unhealthy “compensatory” behaviors.

Post-meal is when mindfulness can really play a beneficial role!

When you type the word into Google, you’ll find that mindfulness means being in a mental state where a person is calmly aware of their feelings, thoughts and body, and is focused on the present moment.

This idea of “being in the present moment” is often referred to as “grounding.” The ability to ground yourself can help when your anxiety levels are high or when you’re experiencing overwhelming emotions — focusing on the here and now, instead of the distressing thoughts after a meal.

Honestly, not as easy as it sounds. Grounding oneself does take practice, but with time you’ll learn which techniques work best for you — don’t be afraid to experiment with different techniques! Some ways to ground yourself may include going for a light walk, talking to someone (about something not food or body related), doing one of those funky mindful coloring books, using a sensory object such as a stress ball or Play-Doh, mindful breathing or doing a mental activity like finding five things around the room for each of the five senses: sound, sight, touch, taste and smell.

An important thing about mindfulness that may seem contradictory, but is actually extremely beneficial to making that post-meal time more manageable, is the awareness of feelings, thought and body. Mindfulness isn’t an escape tool to help you internalize what you’re experiencing — instead it’s to be used to healthily acknowledge and accept it. With acknowledgement and acceptance come personal validation of how brave you are for getting through the meal, recognition of your distorted thought patterns and negative self-talk and a starting platform to challenging your eating disorder! As the quote goes: “feel, deal, heal.”

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

Dealing with the madness of this illness right after you’ve just won the battle of finishing a meal can be incredibly disheartening, but I tell ya, it won’t be that way forever. Although not an overnight feat, recovery from an eating disorder is possible.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via Foxys_forest_manufacture

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Why Troian Bellisario Made 'Feed,' a Different Kind of Eating Disorder Movie

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Eating disorder stories are often told from the outside looking in. You know the tale: girl has body image issues, girl starts restricting food, there is perhaps some intervention and finally, girl starts her journey towards recovery.

When “Pretty Little Liars” star Troian Bellisario started working on a film inspired by her personal experience with eating disorders, she wanted to tell a different story — one from the inside looking out. Her movie, “Feed,” which she both wrote and stars in, is not your stereotypical eating disorder tale but rather a unique attempt to capture what’s actually going on inside the head of someone with an eating disorder.

“When I started to look at characters with eating disorders and the way they were observed from the outside, I was sort of like, ‘Well, this doesn’t help.’ There’s no movie I can point to that will get my father or my brother to understand why when they told me to just eat the sandwich, I just couldn’t,” she told The Mighty. 

Less than one month after her movie’s release (and more than a month after the “Pretty Little Liars” finale) we talked to Bellisario about what inspired her to make a “Feed” and how similar she is to the character she plays, Olivia.

The “Twin Dynamic” of Eating Disorders

Olivia her twin brother, Matthew
Screenshot via “Feed”
MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

“Feed” doesn’t begin with the development of an eating disorder. Instead, we’re introduced to a pair of twins, Olivia Grey (Bellisario) and Matthew Grey (played by Tom Felton) who are starting their first day of high school, senior year. That night, Matthew tragically passes away in an car accident while Olivia, sitting in the passenger’s seat, survives. This trauma is what catalyzes Olivia’s fall into food restriction. The image of her brother appears and talks to her, encouraging her behavior and becoming, we find out, the eating disorder itself.

Growing up, Bellisario’s best friends were a pair of male and female twins. Although she says they’re not the characters who inspired Olivia and Matthew, they’re closeness and twin dynamic resonated with her. When one of them said, “I don’t know who I would be without my twin in my life,” it reminded her of the identity she had built with her eating disorder. She told The Mighty:

Their identity in the world is paired, it’s coupled, and I think that’s something people with mental issues also go through when they start to seek treatment. If you move through the world as somebody who identifies as anorexic, or who identifies as someone struggling with bulimia or with overeating, what happens when you start to forge a new identity? Is there a betrayal to your past self? Are you lying? Or are you getting “better”? Does that ever go away? That’s part of your identity. The way that Olivia is a twin and her twin is not alive anymore, is she not a twin now? For me, that was also something I wanted to explore.

She also hoped representing the eating disorder as a twin would show why disordered behaviors are often so hard to give up. Eating disorders, she said, are not just disorders — they can act as friends. In the movie, Olivia has a hard time giving up her eating disorder because that would mean giving up her brother — who she doesn’t know life without.

What I wanted to do was create a situation in which they could see the physical manifestation of the disease but also how close it is to the person themselves. That’s why it has to be Olivia’s twin brother, Matt, who is her everything in the world. Because I needed them to understand that not only is it a disease. It’s your best friend. It’s your secret. It’s your strength, and it’s your weakness. It’s everything rolled into one, and that’s why it’s so difficult to sever from. 

Where Bellisario’s and Olivia’s Stories Collide

In an early scene, Olivia is talking to the principal, who tells her she has the highest consistent GPA in her class and will most likely be the valedictorian. Instead of sounding excited, Olivia notes there’s still a whole school year left and refuses to celebrate early. He then hands her a long list of colleges to apply for, and she takes it eagerly. Later, when she goes for a run before dinner, her dad questions why she didn’t run more. Before we know anything about an eating disorder, we see Olivia is a perfectionist, an overachiever and has been been put under a certain level of pressure from her upper-class family.

The daughter of two movie producers, Bellisario isn’t stranger to high standards and steep expectations, although she admitted some of it was self-imposed. Still, if there was a Venn diagram of her story and Olivia’s, Bellisario said, perfectionism and overachievement would be the main overlap:

Particularly when my eating disorder really started to manifest in a strong way, it was definitely because I didn’t feel like there was any way out. I felt like I have to hold myself to a certain standard of academic performance, of athletic performance, of being the perfect daughter in the best way that I could, and whether or not those standards were being imposed upon me, or whether I was just self-imposing them because I believed that’s what the world wanted from me.

Why Filming the Movie Wasn’t the Hardest Part

Olivia
Screenshot via “Feed”

To prepare for the role, Bellisario had to enter a dark place from her past — both emotionally and physically. And while she did have to follow certain diet restrictions to lose weight, she said restricting again wasn’t the hard part — it was stopping once the film was finished. Because, in her experience, an eating disorder is a coping mechanism to help deal with a deeper problem, she actually found engaging in old habits helped her deal with the stress. But it came with a cost:

I had permission to go back into that world, and the more difficult part was then extricating myself from those habits…. I was doing press and I was talking about it. Then the struggle became, OK, I’m talking about all of these feelings, but I can’t go back to restricting. I’m not filming it right now, I have to continue to make the choice of health. That, for me, that was the challenging part. Actually engaging with these feelings that the movie brought up but not being able to engage with them in a disordered way. 

What Bellisario Hopes You’ll Take Away From It

Olivia
Screenshot via “Feed”

While Bellisario said “Feed” was a reaction to how eating disorders are presented in the media, it was also a reaction to how people in her life treated her eating disorder. “As caring as they were and as much as they wanted to understand what I was going through… it was like they could have sympathy and not empathy,” she said. “They could have sympathy because they were like, ‘I can see that you’re suffering, I can see that it’s painful, I see that you are engaged in a sort of war with your body,’ but there’s not empathy because they can’t fit themselves into your experience, and into your body.”

She hopes the movie will help friends and family recognize when their loved one is struggling. Often, she said, at the beginning states of an eating disorder, some friends and family realize something is wrong but aren’t quite sure what they’re looking at. She also wants those who are struggling to feel understood and see that, just like Olivia, they deserve treatment and to make steps towards recovery. She told The Mighty:

I just want people to see this movie and also have a different expectation of what it might look like to struggle with this, and I think it’s important that I’m not the only voice out there who’s talking about this. I just want to add more to the conversation, and to support the conversation.

Bellisario received support from the National Association of Eating Disorder (NEDA) during the course of making the film, and to give back, she’s selling “Feed” t-shirts featuring the twins with all proceeds going to NEDA. She said the best reaction she’s gotten to the film has been from people with eating disorders — for whom, she said, the film was really made.

I think this film it was important for me because it’s my journey of recovery to take my past experience and to take all of these experiences that I’ve heard about, or listened to, and channel it into my work and my art, in order to feel like I didn’t lose a part of my life. Or a part of me isn’t dead and gone, that it can be something that goes turned into creative and hopefully positive gift that I can give to other people,” she said, laughing. “So, it’s a lot to think about.”

You can watch “Feed” now on Amazon or iTunes.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

Lead screenshot via “Feed”

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How I'm Breaking Free of My Family's Vicious Cycle of Diet Culture

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

My mom is constantly on a diet. Currently, she is doing a “cleanse.” Nearing the summer, the negative self-talk starts. During the summer, she punishes her body for “eating like sh*t since Christmas.”

“Fat” is a word I have heard uttered through gritted teeth with disgust growing up. “Look at how fat that woman is. Shoot me if I ever get that big,” was a common line thrown around at the grocery store while I shopped with my mom. I’ve lived on my own for the past six years, so I very rarely hear the intense body shaming my mom does in public — only now when we go shopping together.  A few months ago my grandfather died and grandmother has dementia, so my boyfriend and I moved in to help take care of her. And once again, I’m hearing body shaming again. I’m realizing it’s a cycle.

“Look at this pudge,” my grandma said the other day as I was coming upstairs. She clutched her waist in her hands. “I used to be so thin, now I’m gaining all of this weight back again. Ugh. Ew.” Since living with her, I’m noticing some of grandma’s behaviors are almost identical to the ones my mom did when I was growing up.

The other night I was watching America’s Got Talent with my grandma. She commented on a few audience members who were cheering in the crowd.”There sure are a lot of fat girls that like to go to shows like this,” she said.

The week before she said: “That girl sings really well. She would be really pretty if she wasn’t fat.”

Please do not get me wrong. I adore my grandma. She is one of the strongest women I know. She’s also one of the most intelligent and driven. But moving in with her has got me thinking. Family diet culture is a cycle — and it can be a very toxic cycle.

My mom would make similar comments while watching TV. I don’t think I thought much about these comments as a kid. But then part of me wonders if I just internalized everything, which set me up to be more vulnerable to an eating disorder. That’s when I start overanalyzing everything and decide to stop, as it usually leads to me feeling too much guilt and shame.

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If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

Family diet culture is real and it’s harmful. Some moms criticize their children’s bodies, others make negative comments towards others and themselves, like my mom did/does. My grandma and my mom are beautiful. When they speak negatively towards themselves, I’m left feeling lost.

“Mom, you look great!” I said. I remember my mom staring at herself in the mirror when I was maybe 11 or 12. She was holding her stomach and frowning.

“I’ve got to lose this weight,” she said. “I haven’t lost anything. I look disgusting.” My mom continued.

“Mom, what are you talking about?” I said, as I worried that one day I would be standing in front of the mirror, clenching my stomach, living on a diet and feeling unable to shed unwanted pounds. “You aren’t fat at all.” We talked about the word “fat” as if it were a bad, unspeakable trait. She sighed.

There are a lot of memories like this one I keep. Sometimes late at night, I replay them over and over in my head. Is there something I could have said to make her feel beautiful? Now, after living with my grandma, I see where the thoughts and behaviors come from.

When I was at the worst of the anorexia, I would stand in front of the mirror. I would clench my waist and pinch my thighs. I would stare and sigh, thinking I needed to lose more weight. That I needed to lose all the weight and I wouldn’t be able to be happy until I did. I never connected the dots of the cycle of our family dieting until recently.

I am not a parent. To be honest, I am terrified of uttering similar sentences in front of my children at the grocery store. I am terrified they might pick up on my weird eating habits. Moms, I urge you to speak kindly to your body in front of your children. Children idolize their parents. My heart broke every time my beautiful mother spoke poorly about her body. I thought, I am an extension of her. Am I going to be this unhappy with myself when I grow up?

Dads, I urge you to compliment the mothers in your life. Not just about their looks, but about how strong their personality is. Not about their body, but about how radiantly beautiful they are on the inside.

I plan on ending the vicious family diet cycle. I do not think my family realizes the impact their words have. I do not want to guilt, shame or blame them for anything. I want the women in my family to realize their worth and their beauty.

Follow this journey on Resilience & Recovery.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via kevinhillillustration.

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