By Abby Viveiros and Dr. Thomas B. Holman
Helpful Information: An eating disorder is a complicated mental illness/addiction that strikes many people. In America alone, over 24 million people suffer from anorexia or bulimia at some point in their lifetime. This is especially true if we have perfectionistic tendencies—a common trait found in people with eating disorders.
As most people know, the biggest danger with an eating disorder is the damage to the body. Some experts suggest that individuals with an eating disorder inflict the most self-harm on themselves when compared to any other mental illness. The level of damage to the body ranges from infections to poor general health to heart problems and eventually death. In fact, one out of ten sufferers dies, making eating disorders the deadliest type of mental illness out there. With such startling statistics, why would people choose to have an eating disorder?
Michael Berrett, a clinical psychologist and co-founder and CEO for Center for Change explains, “Like most addictions, people don’t start out hoping to have an eating disorder. Most start out with the goal of losing a few pounds which spirals out of control into an obsession, and eventually a mental illness. Sufferers end up building such a strong relationship with the eating disorder that the illness becomes their identity.” While the weight loss is obvious, the hidden damage is brewing emotionally. Because an eating disorder is an attempt to fix the internal issues by changing the external features, the root of the problem never gets resolved, only masked. If we could dissect the emotional layers, we would find intense amounts of self-hatred, deprivation, shame, unworthiness, depression, anxiety and, of course, body image issues. Until the emotional issues are managed, no amount of weight loss will bring sufferers peace of mind.
If you suffer from an eating disorder, we encourage you to turn to Heavenly Father first for guidance, support, and love. If need be seek help from a professional who can provide the treatment and support you need to have a healthy view of yourself. Getting help will require courage, especially if you don’t think you have a problem or if you’re not ready to let go of the eating disorder. According to Michael Berrett, “It generally takes about four years before sufferers seek treatment; they don’t want to give up something they’re good at.”
Satan knows that he can limit your spiritual progression by convincing you to mistreat or abuse your body. He understands the vital need to feel validated or loved, so he bombards us with the message that physical beauty and extreme thinness are prerequisites for happiness or success. It’s a scam! The road to happiness and success involves a true understanding of your relationship with God and Christ, positive interactions with others, and dealing with life’s ups and downs correctly rather than through obsessing over your body. Once you break-up with your eating disorder, you will be free to have a truly fulfilling relationship.
Q1: Can I still date if I have an eating disorder?
A1: Yes, but you may find the emotional demands of a relationship to be too overwhelming. Because of its secretive nature, eating disorders usually interfere with your ability to get close to others. If you are like most people suffering with an eating disorder, you will likely get to the point where you need to choose one or the other. So, how do you choose between an eating disorder and a real relationship? Maybe we can help. Let’s compare the two and see which has more benefits.
An Eating Disorder:
- Thrives on secrecy (-)
- Hides emotions (-)
- Teaches you to lie to others (-)
- Isolates you from others (-)
- Urges you to obsess over your appearance and inadequacies (-)
- Can’t tolerate imperfections (-)
- Harms you (-)
A Healthy Relationship:
- Thrives on being transparent (+)
- Shares and soothes emotion (+)
- Encourages honesty (+)
- Involves you in social gatherings (+)
- Loves you for who you are, not just your looks (+)
- Tolerates imperfections (+)
- Protects you (+)
No question. The healthy relationship is a better choice. Even if you’re not yet ready for a relationship with a significant other, at least break up with the eating disorder. It’s time to work through the hurt and pain you’ve experienced so you can start seeing yourself as God sees you.
Q2: I’m afraid that my body is not good enough without my eating disorder. Will anyone really love me if I’m not skinny?
A2: Yes! You are good enough and you are lovable. Here are three important reminders:
- You already have people who genuinely love you for who you are: Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ first and foremost, and hopefully parents and close friends. Do they love you because of your frame? We know that our Father in Heaven and our Savior love you for other reasons. In 1 Samuel 16:7 we read, “The Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” That’s what real love involves and when it comes to close relationships, like romantic ones, the superficial layers get peeled away and a real relationship between two hearts, minds, and purposes are built. That’s the real magic between two lovebirds.
- When you have an eating disorder, you do not see yourself for who you really are.
This reminds me of my baby, Sophie, who is just over a year old. Up until a few months ago, she had stranger anxiety (fear of strangers) even to the point that when she saw her own reflection in the mirror, she would get nervous and reach for me. Not only did she not recognize her identity, she was fearful of it. Likewise, if you have an eating disorder, you do not recognize your divine worth or beauty so you respond to your reflection with fear and anxiety. If you feel this way, do what my Sophie did: Reach for someone who will remind you of who you really are, starting with your Father in Heaven.
- You are a Child of God. That reality alone makes you good enough. If you’re still struggling, please get down on your knees and tell your Heavenly Father. He’ll send the Holy Ghost to remind you of His pure love for you and that you are good enough. We also suggest you look up scriptures regarding God’s love for us. Pray and ask him to help you understand the scriptures and how they relate to your worth.
Q3: If I’m dating, should I tell my partner that I have an eating disorder?
A3: Yes. Similar to having other forms of mental illness and addictions, you need to disclose the eating disorder to your partner. Eating disorders thrive on secrecy and isolation, which is exactly the opposite of what makes couple relationships thrive. Revealing your illness to your partner will build trust and provide you with the structure and support you will need to recover. If you need treatment, you and your partner will be able to attend Eating Disorders Anonymous or professional therapy together.
If you want to one day marry but have an eating disorder, know that you can get yourself healthy. Michael Berrett suggests that those who have been purging or bingeing for over a year may have a more difficult time giving up this behavior, but recovery is possible! With the guidance of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, the support of loved ones, and often a professional therapist, you can do it. Randy Hardman, PhD, explains in Matters of the Mind,
“When women with eating disorders affirm their faith in God and seek to grow spiritually, their strength and capacity to cope with and overcome the problems and challenges of life improve, regardless of whether their challenges are emotional, physical, relational, spiritual, or educational.”
If you aren’t in a serious relationship, you can disclose your eating disorder to a close family member or friend. Disclosing your struggle will open the door for others to help you. One of our student assistants, Anke, shared this experience:
Sharing our deepest issues with somebody can greatly enhance the relationship. I remember freshman year I had a roommate that I didn’t really get along with. She seemed very defensive and kept to herself. I found her one day crying in our bathroom and I asked her what was wrong. After a while she opened up to me and told me about her problems with bulimia that she has had since she was a teenager. I felt so much love for her. Her behavior made more sense and I was able to connect with her on a deep level and help her seek professional help.
Q4: I don’t have an eating disorder, but I feel like guys only want perfect-looking girls to date. What can I do to feel better about my physical appearance?
A4: Please don’t compare yourself to a fashion model! Most men are realistic in what attracts them and they know that the way fashion models look isn’t the norm. However, a lot of men are visually-oriented, meaning that physical attraction is one of the factors that initially draws interest toward a woman. Note that we said “a lot of” men. How much men pay attention to physical attractiveness varies on a continuum from a little to a lot. Do your best to be healthy – exercise, eat nutritiously, have good hygiene and put effort into making yourself attractive, but remember that your whole self – your personality, goals and values, etc. – is what will help define the level of beauty in the eyes of the kind of man you want to marry. Also note that your level of self-confidence and worth speaks volumes to others. If you have a positive view of yourself, it shows and makes you more attractive and appealing.
Anke notes her own experience:
I often avoid reading fashion magazines that support unrealistic ideals of beauty. I remember a lesson in which they asked us to do an experiment: read through a fashion magazine and look in the mirror afterwards and see how we feel, and then read through a church magazine and do the same. Eating disorders have many roots, but the media has such a huge influence on girls, so we should avoid anything that is not spiritually edifying and uplifting.
Q5: Do men suffer from eating disorders?
A5: Yes. Even though they do not have as much social pressure to be thin as women, men do suffer from eating disorders. In fact, approximately 10% of men report to having an eating disorder, and that number is predicted to only increase in the future. Men also engage in anorexic and bulimic behaviors, but their eating disorder is often manifest in excessive concern with working out or body-building and bulking up, all of which can lead to excessive concern with diet and the use of illegal and harmful drugs such as steroids.
If you believe you may have an eating disorder, or if friends have expressed concern about that possibility, what did you learn from this last section that can help you get the answers you need about whether you do have an eating disorder or how to get help?
This article is one of a series. For others in the series, see: