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What an Eating Disorder Looks Like

For most of the time that I really needed help, I didn’t look like I had an eating disorder. And part of the reason I think I didn’t seek and wasn't offered help is because I didn’t look like I had an eating disorder.

Here’s me as a chronic dieter and restrictive eater.And here’s me recovered.Here’s me as a chronic dieter and restrictive eater.And here’s me recovered.Before recovery:After recovery: (That’s my mom, by the way. She’s cool.)

Before: and after:Before:and after:

If you didn’t know, could you tell a difference in my size and shape from the “Before” photos, taken when I dealt daily with a ton of anxiety and stress around food, to the “After” photos, taken since I’ve started eating about twice as much and exercising about half as much as I did “before”?

If your answer is ‘no,’ that’s because there’s very little difference in my size and shape from then to now. I still own almost all of the clothing items I’m wearing in the “Before” photos, and most of them fit me very similarly.

Now, admittedly, I haven’t always been exactly the same size and shape. My body has changed in size a couple of times in my life. I was a bit bigger in high school. Here’s me at prom seven years ago. Ain’t I cute?For most of the time that I really needed help, I didn’t look like I had an eating disorder. And part of the reason I think I didn’t seek or be offered help is because I didn’t look like I had an eating disorder.There are also a handful of photos of me during the few months of my eating disorder when I was really, really thin. I won’t show those. But that was actually really only a very short time compared to the three years or so total time I restricted my diet.

I hope my point here is clear. For most of the time that I really needed help, I didn’t look like I had an eating disorder.

And part of the reason I think I didn’t seek and wasn’t offered help is because I didn’t look like I had an eating disorder. The other reason is I was pretty good at hiding my disordered thoughts and behaviors, as people with disordered eating are wont to do.

If I had gotten that help earlier, it would never have advanced to the life-threatening condition that is anorexia.

There has been a lot of conversation lately about the new film To the Bone. Many of you have made critiques, while others have celebrated how it raises awareness of eating disorders and just how serious they can be.

I haven’t seen the film, but from the trailer, I see that the protagonist is emaciated. It’s not that it’s wrong to show that–eating disorders do sometimes look like emaciation. But I’m concerned that there are so few stories circulated about people with eating disorders who are not emaciated.

What’s more, there’s a whole range of less extreme behaviors around food that we consider “normal” and even “healthy” that are actually very unhealthy in and of themselves and major warning signs that someone might be walking down a path toward a deadly eating disorder. People who have these behaviors come in all shapes and sizes; how will we ever intervene if weight, size, and appearance are our primary diagnostic criteria?

I imagine that if I had seen the trailer for To the Bone or heard about the film when I was a chronic dieter and restrictive eater, I would have thought, “Wow. This person is really sick. Good thing I’m not like that at all.”

A few months ago, my roommate and friend introduced me to a campaign started by Lexie Louise called #BoycottTheBefore. Lexie started her campaign in response to frustration about ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos that showed an emaciated body replaced by a bigger but still relatively thin one. That narrative is true, for some, and I think those photos can be very empowering, for some.

But it’s also true that people can have binge eating disorder, bulimia, anorexia, or disordered eating and not look anything like the photos and images we associate with those conditions. And I think making people more aware of that fact could literally save lives.


Was the severity of your condition or the condition of someone you loved ever neglected or overlooked because you didn’t appear a certain way?

Any recommendations for good films/books/blogs/accounts etc. that you think do a good job of showing how eating disorders can come in all shapes and sizes?

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  1. Cora says:

    Oh my gosh such an important topic! Great, great post Joyce.

    “And part of the reason I think I didn’t seek and wasn’t offered help is because I didn’t look like I had an eating disorder. ” —-> Agh! This! This is so sad. And so scary when I think about all the other men/women going through this exact same thought process. What awful stigma to have to live with. To not feel you should/need/deserve help because you don’t “look sick enough.”

    Personally I come from the complete opposite where weight loss was a hugely easy thing for me. I definitely did look very thin, for a very long time, and struggle to lose that image, so I am one of “those people” that others would have looked to and thought they didn’t look like me. Ugh. I so hate this thought. Because we could have been no different. I know how the disorder really lives in the head. I know that ANYONE despite their body size/weight could be struggling, even severely, with all the same thoughts.

    1. Joyce says:

      It’s interesting how our bodies, even when we’re trying so hard to control them, are really out of our control. Two people can be doing the exact same behaviors and look very differently.
      I, too, know that at least a couple people were envious when I was really thin. They told me so, even as I was trying to explain how sick I was. I don’t feel guilty, though. Sad, but not guilty. We are all victims of this same nutty culture.

  2. Emily says:

    Wow, I love this Joyce. It makes me think of the verse in the Bible that says, ‘Man looks on the outside but God looks on the heart.’ I think the biggest thing that convicted me was the fact that God saw what was going on inside of me and He knew even if no one else did. And then He used my daddy to confront me when he saw my internet searches about losing weight and wanting to get more ‘fit.’ 🙂 It’s been amazing journey, and I definitely imagine that my before/after pictures really aren’t that different. But I’m so thankful that the transformation in my mind has been the biggest thing.

    1. Joyce says:

      I’m so glad that your dad was able to intervene and get you help as well. That transformation in the mind is huge–I wonder sometimes if people are aware just how big of a transformation it can be.

  3. I love this post!! I appreciate your honesty and you touch on such an important, often overlooked topic. Hope you have a great weekend.

  4. Evangeline says:

    This is so, so important. People talk about EDs affecting people of all shapes, sizes, genders, and races, but they usually leave it at that. When eating disorders are hidden well and our bodies look “healthy,” the recovery process can take so much longer. And like you said, it’s harder to seek treatment.

    For me, I think the hardest part is the “after” recovery. After I gained the weight I needed to get back to a healthy place. After I began to not fear food as much. People on the outside see a healthy person, but I still know I have a long way to go. Anyway, it can lead to misunderstanding and confusion about why I still act like I’m in recovery mode. They can’t see the need because it’s not visible.

    Also, your prom picture is beautiful. (They all are, in fact) That dress is stunning.

  5. Alyssa says:

    I love the hashtag boycottthebefore. I think that is so powerful. And I love everything about this. Because eating disorders are not just what one looks like. It is the fake smile, the inner daily struggle. To The Bone was very disappointing. I liked the movie Feed though. It was a better representation. Still nonetheless both girls were very thin in it. Thank you for this Joyce

  6. This! While I very much fit the criteria of ‘skinny eating-disordered girl’ and as such was offered help [but also many rude comments and stares], I knew others who suffered in silence. I wish there was an easy way to broadcast this piece of information to society overall. Then again, if you can’t tell somebody’s disordered and they’re good at hiding it – how can we know and help? Unless somebody asks for help, there still won’t be a way to detect the struggles. Sorry for rambling.
    Something else I find frustrating is that the majority of people believe healing is completed once somebody has gained back the weight they lost. When in fact that might be when a lot of the mental work has yet to happen.

  7. Mikey Clare says:

    Such a thoughtful and well-written post! I can relate very well to Cora’s comment. I try to be very mindful of the way I tell my story… so as to not emphasize my lowest point physically. To your point about To The Bone– I also don’t think it’s wrong to show that eating disorders sometimes look like emaciation, but the lengths to which the actress went to portray this image (losing an extreme amount of weight) just highlights your point– people believe emaciation is the ultimate indicator of illness. Eating disorders, (all, but in this case anorexia) can happen at any size and be DEADLY at any size. What a powerful message it would have been had she *looked* to be healthy by common standards

  8. Kaylee says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. It frustrates me that my dad believes after I restore my weight my eating disorder will magically disappear. EDs are equally if not more so a mental disorder as they are a physical one.

    It sucks that society has built an image of what eating disorders should look like. When the truth of the matter is that even if one is the healthiest person physically, you can still have a messed up relationship with food and exercise.

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