Thriving in the (Cult)ure of Self-Restraint
By: Sarah (Instagram: @oatsosarah)
Recovery from a restrictive eating disorder is hard. But recovery in a society that celebrates restriction and overexercise is much, much harder.
In 2015, what is celebrated? It is not the freedom to balance consumption of chocolate bars with consumption of salads. It is not concept of a “rest day” to give a heavily overworked body the chance to rest.
“Clean Eating” and our collective admiration of Toned Women in Bikinis Smiling With Fruit Plates™ are subjects of awe, they receive comments such as “GOALS” and “HOW?!” on social media platforms such as Instagram. “Healthy” versions of so-called guilty pleasures circulate on Pinterest, and “Healthy Living Bloggers” make a living off of teaching others how to run miles at dawn and eat the latest protein bar, “So together we can all shed those last ten pounds!” And in the midst of all of this, are those who are in recovery, or worse yet, those who are attempting recovery while this disordered noise rings out from every direction.
These people are idolized for the same reason that monks, and other religious figures have been idolized from time immemorial: because they are tangible examples of an almost spiritual level of self-restraint, the anthesis of the sinful gluttony which we all attempt to avoid. Their picture=perfect lives are evidenced by a mental control of their bodily needs. Unlike the rest of us mere mortals, our restrictive idols determine when and if they ever become hungry, and in the case that they do become hungry, what they crave and how they choose to fill these cravings. In short, it’s a disordered eater’s wet dream.
There are several flaws in this model of thinking, in the way we as a society celebrate restriction and vilify flexibility. But the one I would like to emphasize is that many people seem to think that changing one’s life by dropping a few pounds or taking up yoga is going to bring them fulfillment. In much the same way, for many restrictive eaters, we think that self-starvation, in eating only x, y, and z foods, getting to our goal BMI, will bring us a sort of enlightenment and joy that we could not get any other way. The issue with this model of thinking, however, is that it seeks to employ denial to achieve the very opposite of denial: fulfillment.
By denying oneself the pleasure of eating, of relaxing, of a break from the stress of maintaining a certain diet or look, we will never satisfy our desires for fulfillment. The non-ED people who take up Paleo, Clean Eating, et cetera never stop and say “I’m satisfied with how much I’ve detoxed” or “I’m satisfied with how much I weigh/how toned I am now”. They never stop, because their desires will never be fulfilled. They have taken up a lifestyle that centers itself around always wanting to do more, always wanting to be better. There is nothing wrong with striving to be the best version of yourself, but becoming a better person should be part of the process, not one’s end goal.
Meanwhile, those with restrictive eating disorders are easily drawn into this toxic world—after all, it’s a form of restriction that is not only acceptable, but also put on a pedestal! Now that sickly thin models are no longer admired as they were in the past, disordered people who want to “recover” but remain “comfortable” as they do so seek to become not Heroin Chic but instead toned, tan, in a bikini, holding half a melon in the sunshine.
That girl doesn’t exist, by the way. She may exist in filtered Instagram pictures, in blog posts as sage advice on how to “Love Yourself” is given to rabid followers, but in real life that girl is just as flawed as any of us. She wakes up with bedhead and her alarm goes off way, way too early, and she accidentally cuts her finger slicing her morning cantaloupe, and maybe she has a handful of cereal too because she was in the mood for it, and why not? But that’s not what her readers want to read, so of course she wouldn’t post it!
If you are in recovery from an ED, you probably already know that the image of perfection you sought out at your sickest was, and is, completely unattainable. However, you need to know that in your recovery, Cantaloupe Girl is simply a (slightly) healthier image of this same unattainable perfection. Cantaloupe Girl is no better than you, nor is the blogger who lost twenty pounds quickly, or the person who came up with a new smoothie recipe on Instagram. They are people, and unless they have distinctly disordered habits beneath their shiny exteriors, they probably treat themselves far more than they admit to their fans.
Go ahead, eat half a melon if you so choose. But don’t forget that the woman telling you to eat fresh produce all day is also the woman who has a cup of coffee with cream and sugar in the morning, and sometimes eats takeout in front of the TV at night. That is balance, that is health, and that is the model of “imperfect” perfection that we should all strive to imitate.