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Taylor Swift’s Documentary Is Only a Small Taste of What Eating Disorders Are Really Like

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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 741741.

Recently, it came to light that Taylor Swift has struggled with an eating disorder. She said in her documentary: “It’s not good for me to see pictures of myself every day .. It’s only happened a few times, and I’m not in any way proud of it. A picture of me where I feel like I looked like my tummy was too big, or … someone said that I looked pregnant … and that’ll just trigger me to just starve a little bit — to just stop eating.”

I understand Taylor was talking about her own experience, and the documentary was not solely focused on eating disorders. But I did want to make sure this short clip didn’t spread the misconception that an eating disorder is simply when you stop eating every once in a while. Eating disorders are not solely body and weight-focused.

Obviously, I do not know Taylor Swift personally, and don’t want to speculate about her experience. But I do want to use this opportunity to go deeper about what an eating disorder really can be:

My eating disorder made me a shell of the human I am now. My eating disorder was my entire life, my whole being. It stole so much from me.

My eating disorder took over my life; I was someone utterly foreign to myself. It was as if I was just a skeleton of who I once was, and everyone around me knew I was fading away — dying. An eating disorder is not just starving yourself a few times because you don’t like the way you look; it is a life-threatening illness that takes over and requires years to get better from. Eating disorders can cause heart failure, electrolyte imbalances, gastrointestinal diseases, osteoporosis, brain shrinkage, muscle atrophy, hair loss, anemia, liver and kidney failure, joint edema, amenorrhea and plenty of other physical health issues.

The reality of an eating disorder is not glamorous or beautiful. It is pain, tears, blood and sweat. It is EKGs, labs, pills, fighting, screaming, and living in a world that is out of focus. It is black, blue and purple bags under your eyes and bruises down your legs. It is having to wear heavy clothes in the summer to keep warm and continuously spending money on new jeans because your old ones fall off. It is pale skin, thinning hair, sallow, dull eyes, hospital stays and countless therapy and doctors’ appointments. It is self-hate and slowly dying.

An eating disorder is not a choice. An eating disorder can look like being unable to concentrate in class because your mind is racing with thoughts about how the small number of calories you ate for breakfast felt like a binge, and now you will have to go to the gym for hours after school. An eating disorder can be your grades dropping because your body does not have the nutrition to remember all the things you studied until 3 a.m. the night before. An eating disorder can be losing all of your friends because you are too afraid to go out just in case there might be food involved. An eating disorder can be ignoring everyone who cares about you when they try to reach out and offer support and even pushing them away until you are entirely alone.

In an eating disorder, all you think about is food. You are so hungry, but the idea of having to add any amount of calories to a fitness app is horrifying. Your life revolves around food — eating food, exercising to make up for food, hiding food, cutting up food, getting rid of food and counting every possible calorie of food plus a few extra, just in case. You might take boxes of laxatives at a time in hopes you can rid yourself of the apple you ate for lunch and spend the night on the bathroom floor in agony from cramps and puking because you took too many for your body to handle, and you spend the next day in the school bathroom crying because if you go to class, you might not be able to control your bowels. The next night, at 2 or 3 a.m., you will lie awake in your bed, scared because your heart is racing and the room is spinning, and you will pray this is the last time you will restrict and that tomorrow you will start recovery or you won’t wake up because it’s just too much — but you do wake up and tomorrow keeps getting extended until you forget that night of despair. You might feel faint every morning as you get out of bed because your blood pressure and heart rate are unstable, but this stops phasing you after a few days because it becomes your routine; every day, you have a pounding headache from malnutrition and dehydration, but instead of eating the food you know will make it better, you chug cups of coffee and pop diet pills until you are shaking and can’t sit still.

The reality of any eating disorder is horrifying and something nobody should ever have to go through. They do not deliver all the promises they might make. It might lead to temporary happiness and a false feeling of success, or give you the slightest sense of hope and convince you there might be a light at the end of the tunnel after all, but with time, that will entirely disappear. You might tell yourself you will only give in to the eating disorder‘s thoughts and commands until you reach your first goal weight or once you can fit into particular size jeans, but once you hit that, you will not be able to stop. You feel like you have to keep going. You feel you cannot possibly survive without listening to that voice in your head. This is what living with an eating disorder is. This is reality.

While you may see an eating disorder being portrayed on TV and in movies as “just” skipping meals or throwing up, losing weight or being thin, and still functioning fully within society, that is not even close to reality for most of us living with one. The media takes a deadly disease and turns it into a phase or diet trend of teenage life that only affects the “popular girls,” but that is so far from the truth; eating disorders affect all ages, sexes, genders, races and ethnic groups. We need celebrities with big fan bases like Taylor Swift to help spread awareness about all the ways eating disorders can manifest. Sharing your story is so important, but sharing facts about these topics is even more important.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/Melodies1917

Originally published: February 12, 2020
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