The Food Thing: on socially acceptable disordered eating, OR what I have in common with Mila Kunis

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Mila Kunis in Black Swan (via Daily Mail)

After about 5 years, I am finally beginning to own my experience with disordered eating. I choose the term “disordered eating” deliberately, as I was never diagnosed with or received treatment for any kind of eating disorder. But disordered eating – or a generalized “Food Thing” – was the/a major way that my depression manifested itself when I was 15 and 16-years-old, and while I’ve always been honest with myself about the difficulty of those years, I have always chosen – consciously, and then subconsciously – to gloss over the Food Thing.  Recently, I have started to interrogate why.

Here is a fact: between the beginning of my sophomore year of high school and the end, my weight fell from 145 pounds to 117. Instead of saying “I lost 28 lbs,” I wanted to list my actual weights, for two reasons: 1) these numbers, high and low, are burned into my brain forever, still, in some ways, representing a bad/good binary, and 2) to explain why it was so easy to convince myself I didn’t have a Food Thing.

All of this was happening in 2010, in the wake of the movie Black Swan, where much was being made in magazines of Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis whittling their bodies down to play hardcore ballerinas. I remember one specific article including the specific numbers: “To prepare for the role, Kunis went on a strict diet and exercise program and was down to 97 lbs from her normal weight of 117.” Mila Kunis is 5’3”.  The message I took from this article, intentional or unintentional, was this: 117 lbs, on a 5’3” frame, is normal and desirable. My ribs were not showing when I was 117. I still had muscle on my thighs. Most people – the people that noticed the change – told me I looked great. The only problem was that 117 was not normal for me.

The way that I had felt about my body for literally as long as I could remember – that it was too big, too slow, too lumpy, too whatever – was affirmed for me when I learned how much Mila Kunis weighed. Nobody had ever told me I was overweight before (probably because I wasn’t), but when my friends or family told me that I was beautiful the way I was, I thought they were just afraid to hurt my feelings or out of touch with reality. So I stopped asking. Instead, I sought out the answer I was seeking – that my body was abnormal, a problem – and held it as The Truth. Naturally, when I eventually hit 117, I was still not Mila Kunis. I was not happy. And I was hungry.

It is difficult for me now to recall these thought processes, because I still can’t see them as fully unreasonable. Even now, on bad days, I will occasionally think to myself that I would be happier in general if I were thinner. The first time I ever mentioned that I was “something like bulimic,” years after the fact, I felt like a liar. I am unable to remember a time in my life when I wasn’t dieting or thinking I should diet; so even now, it is hard not to see this period of my life as just another diet – and a successful one, at that. I have had trouble, for so long, admitting that disordered eating was a part of my experience, because at the time, and in ensuing years of therapy, it was a problem that I didn’t want to solve. I saw it as a useful skill I developed in the midst of bad times, a silver lining (other times in my life, horribly, I’ve silently wished for food poisoning, for a tapeworm).

I had to work backward in order to claim my Food Thing. For example, I had to recognize that I find it incredibly stressful when I hear other women talk about diets, even in coded language like “clean eating.” There is a sign in my barre studio that reads EARN YOUR BODY, and I realized that I couldn’t think about this phrase without disassociating: this, my actual body, is not mine. My body, my real one, exists in the golden future, with my dream job, etc., and if I mess up, I will not earn it.

This is a strange time for those of us with Food Things. The body positivity movement exists in harmony with Instagram fitness stars. It can make a kind of feminist self-confidence feel like something else I’ll “earn” when I have abs/visible clavicles/the trendy body part du jour. Furthermore, without the ability to call my experience a clear-cut eating disorder, I have trouble rationalizing my extreme reactions to what is commonplace (even if it shouldn’t be), e.g. conversations between friends about green juice recipes and shedding excess fat for spring break.

I recently confessed to my roommate that lately, because everyone around me seems to be on a diet, I was starting to feel the old anxieties stir. This conversation happened at a coffee shop, and at one point I got up to refill my water bottle. In the time it took me to walk to the sink, I overheard one girl saying “I am going to get so fucking fit this summer,” and another, at a different table, saying “I tried to make steak and mashed potatoes, which I know isn’t the healthiest…” They were, separately, fairly innocuous statements. Ten feet apart over a period of six seconds, though, they made my stomach turn.  

Our means of thinking about disordered eating are limited because our understanding of what a person with an eating disorder looks and acts like is limited. Our definition of body positivity is inconsistent. The messages we get from the media are contradictory and confusing, maybe now more than ever. Though I began to regain my regular eating habits as I went through therapy for the other stuff, and haven’t weighed myself in years, my messed up attitude about food is one of the only aspects of that time that stubbornly remains. How do you recover from something the world praises you for having? And if you don’t look sick, and you don’t feel sick, are you?

Right now, it feels empowering to me to even acknowledge that my Food Thing was a problem. To stop feeling like I didn’t “deserve” to see it that way. To realize that if I don’t see it as a problem, then I have to see it as my life.
And that is something I will never do again.


Hannah Engler

Editor-in-Chief, What the F Magazine

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