As a mental health campaigner, namely in eating disorders, I have become involved in a community full of individuals with similar lived experiences of mental health such as depression, anxiety, and, of course, eating disorders. This community has allowed me to feel heard and supported. I have people to reach out to, and people reach out to me. It is a very welcoming feeling to feel understand.
However, it’s been noted that within these communities of people with an eating disorder, there can develop a hierarchy within such eating disorders. In my MSc academic research, I discussed with my participants the concept of hierarchy within eating disorders. The eating disorder that sits at the top being anorexia nervosa. Due to fact anorexia is the first eating disorder many think of, and the eating disorder that can often get the most media coverage and be ‘celebrated’ within pro-eating disorder communities, particularly in ‘shockumentaries’, it is often the eating disorder that can get the most attention. Therefore, it is the unfortunate and, perhaps, uncomfortable truth that many who do not have anorexia nervosa often can feel invalidated with their eating disorder experience.
Now, I would like to make it clear that this is not an attempt to invalidate or minimise anorexia, or slander the people who have or have had it. I had it. Each eating disorder is important to raise awareness around. An eating disorder journey never should be put in the shadows.
At times, individuals who have different eating disorders, maybe less stereotypical diagnoses and journeys, end up fighting for their place at the table, or feeling like they have validate their disorder. And, sometimes, we try to find similarities in restrictive disorders such as anorexia to show that we deserve to be listened to.
You might be thinking: but, surely, every eating disorder gets the same attention? Surely people with any eating disorder would feel they didn’t need to prove it to others with an eating disorder, let alone the general public?
I am here to tell you now that up until recently I have disregarded my first eating disorder, and felt the need to prove I was allowed to be a part of the eating disorder community. Something that I don’t need to do, and many individuals with eating disorders will acknowledge that I don’t need to fight my way to the table. But, trust me, it is the horrible truth that I have had my experience questioned and doubted. In fact, one of my very first (failed) media opportunities involved the words: “well, it doesn’t sound like you had an eating disorder“, as I detailed my experience of orthorexia.
Note to journalists: don’t do that.
So, often in my telling of my eating disorder history, I gloss over an entire year or so of my life which was consumed by the eating disorder, orthorexia. My reason behind this is I feel orthorexia does not get treated as seriously as other eating disorders. Consequently, whenever I speak about my journey, I give a brief overview of orthorexia, and then jump into my history of atypical anorexia nervosa. It’s like I am ashamed to discuss my orthorexia, because I feel people don’t ‘respect’ that experience, or see it as a real disorder. I experience this both within the eating disorder community, and with the general public.
I spent so much of my time trying to focus on one half of my experience, while completely disregarding the other half. The half that actually was my entrance into a history of eating disorders and actually the reason I went on to develop atypical anorexia. I behaved as though orthorexia was not something that was damaging to my overall physical and mental wellbeing.
It was an eating disorder no matter what.
As a result, people can view orthorexia as nothing other than an extension of clean eating and fad diets. As a result, others within the eating disorder community and the general public look down upon the severity of orthorexia.
In ignoring my orthorexia, I was doing a disservice to raising awareness of this disorder. Something that is an issue many of us face when discussing our eating disorders overall. We deal with the concept of “no one wants to discuss my eating disorder story.” We can feel as though we are begging for people to listen to us. So, in creating this preconceived notion that people would not consider my experience with orthorexia as a damaging disorder, then I am resigning to this idea myself. Then, I spent my time trying to convince people I was unwell.
I don’t need to validate my experience with an eating disorder. I don’t need to edit parts of my story to include what is stereotypical in my journey so to be included fully in the eating disorder community, so to have people believe I was unwell. Why should I omit my orthorexia? Why should I ‘but I also had anorexia‘ my orthorexia? Why should this disorder be downplayed? This disorder ruined my teenagedom. It was the reason I developed anorexia, yes, but it was an eating disorder in its own right. It wasn’t the beginning of anorexia. It was an eating disorder I developed to cope with traumatic experiences within my life. It was the eating disorder I developed to regain control in a life I felt was falling down around me. Orthorexia was not a case of a diet gone wrong. Orthorexia was my first eating disorder.
It doesn’t need to be validated.
Orthorexia left me malnourished, not just my experience with atypical anorexia. Orthorexia left me with a very misunderstood and damaged idea of what healthy is. It has left me doubting the majority of my choices in eating well. I always worry I could slip back into orthorexia, because there is such a fine line between the disorder and a healthy lifestyle. Everyday, I have to remind myself not to be too consumed by the contents of what I am eating, to not become obsessed with the supposed healthiness of foods. My eating disorder voice at the back of head is concerned with both orthorexia and anorexia, but knows that orthorexia is an eating disorder I can fall back into much easier and in a much more enduring way than anorexia. Orthorexia affected my recovery from anorexia, because I was able to continue my orthorexia while looking like I was recovering from anorexia.
Orthorexia had always been a way for me to cope. With distressing moments pre-all eating disorders to a recovery from my second eating disorder.
I have to unlearn that my experience with orthorexia doesn’t matter any less than my anorexia history. I don’t need to adhere that hierarchy. That hierarchy shouldn’t exist. I don’t need to concern myself with whether or not people in the general public and people within eating disorder communities believe my eating disorder was real, serious, and damaging. What I need to concern myself with is giving people an authentic reflection of both my eating disorders. Because orthorexia was impactful to my mental health. It is an eating disorder that does not need validating.
I was unwell with two eating disorders. Both damaged my body. Both damaged my mind. Neither require validation from anyone. No part of my eating disorder history should be omitted to fit into a need to prove something. I have done myself a disservice by not bringing orthorexia, and by that extension atypical anorexia nervosa, to the forefront.
Hopefully that can change. I’ve got my chair ready to bring to the table if necessary.
If you’ve been affected by what I have discussed in this blog post, please visit Beat for further information and support services.