Dedication vs. Obsession: Personal Reflections

Hello from beautiful NYC! It’s hard to believe that I was in New York only a week or so ago, for Blogher 12 (full recap here). Though plenty has happened since then–the end of summer class, the trip back to DC and now back to NY–the topic of my Blogher panel has stayed on my mind. That topic was “dedication vs. obsession,” and it’s a topic I’m fairly certain we’re all acquainted with: most bloggers and blog readers have at least brushed paths with the obsessive urge, either in the realm of food or in fitness. I’ve personally had an intense history of it in both arenas. While it would be dishonest to say that I’m no longer prone to obsessive urges of either kind, they’re rare, and I’ve learned to manage them effectively. I told you all about how my co-panelists and I tackled this topic at Blogher; today, I want to talk about how I’ve confronted it in my own life.

It’s hard to talk about the obsessive urge and EDs without considering which came first: the obsessiveness, or the disorder? Most women and men I’ve spoken to about this feel that obsessive tendencies (or even fully realized OCD) were present before the disordered eating began, and in fact were/are an integral part of it. (Abby has some really interesting thoughts on this, and you should check out either this post or this one if you want to read more.) My personality in general walks a fine line between “passionate” and “obsessive,” and I think this had everything to do with my own ED experience. That said, I do have friends who say that their eating disorders seemed to precede their obsessive tendencies. One friend of mine once told me that she still finds it shocking that she–a person who’s generally laid back and unfussy–became through anorexia the kind of person who could weigh an apple over 10 times before dividing it into small, uniform pieces.

It’s also hard for me to talk about obsessiveness without admitting that I wouldn’t root my obsessive tendencies out of my personality if I could. If I weren’t prone to reading the same poem two hundred times, listening to the same song on repeat for days, or becoming fixated on certain kinds of ideas or themes, I wouldn’t be me. As with so many of the traits that make us prone to disordered eating, this one isn’t black or white. Perfectionism, drive, obsessiveness: they do me a lot of good, a lot of the time. Unfortunately, they also make me prone to disordered eating.

So, how have I learned to maintain my capacity for intellectual and artistic obsession, as well as my single-minded pursuit of goals, without allowing obsessiveness to bleed into my relationship with my body?

Time. Time, and lots of learning the hard way.

For all of my teen years and a chunk of my early twenties, I was obsessed with my body. Not with thinness so much as with lightness; I wanted to be ethereal, tiny, petite. I’ve spent a lifetime explaining this to people who assume my fixation with thinness was driven by the desire to please men, or because of the media. I have no doubt that those feelings often drive EDs, but when I started developing my ED at the age of 11, attractiveness to others wasn’t my main motivation. It was the pursuit of a feeling–the feeling of lightness (later on, social pressures and media pressures entered into the picture, too).

The obvious avenue toward that end was to restrict my food, and I did that pretty effectively. After many painful years of periodic weight loss and restoration, I realized that I could not sustain those habits and be healthy at the same time. I learned–with great struggle–to let go over the obsessive habits we all associate with disordered eating: weighing my food, cutting it up, setting magical numbers of how many calories I ate, imposing rigid rules about how I ate, and when.

Then–like many people with this sort of history–I started transferring the obsessive urge to other places. I wasn’t obsessed with thinness or undereating, but I became fairly fixated on fitness. Fortunately, I just couldn’t sustain enough interest in running or exercise to develop a full blown case of exercise addiction.

A little while later, however, I started transferring the obsessive urge to my health, and this obsessive phase did have longevity. It was also more complicated than either my obsession with thinness or my obsession with fitness, because it grew out of a fundamentally positive urge. As someone who had lived with an ED and with GI illness for all of her mature life, I needed to pay close attention to my health. I’d learned firsthand how small changes in diet and lifestyle could radically improve how well I felt, and I’d seen that feeling better–especially when it came to digestion–actually helped to bolster my self-image. The danger was that my reverence for health could easily veer into hypochondria, or the feeling that my body was a fragile entity that was ever on the cusp of breaking. And when I felt that way, it became easy to vilify all sorts of foods as culprits. Even as recently as five years ago–right before I started CR–my body was healing, but I was still prone to fearing various foods, and feeling certain that the slightest dietary misstep would spell ruin for my health.

As with most steps in ED recovery, time and discipline have been crucial to helping me relax and loosen the obsessive urges. My obsession over food choices, meal planning, weighing, and counting fell by the wayside after my final ED relapse. Life has been so much better without them that it’s hard to imagine how entangled I once was in them; hard to imagine lying in bed awake at night, trying to plan precisely what I’d eat the next day and tabulating the calories therein. Obsessiveness about exercise abated when I realized that overextending my body through exercise always made me feel unbalanced and worn down, rather than energetic and healthy; yoga was an especially transformative discovery for me, because it showed me that certain kinds of challenging, yet compassionate movements could actually energize, rather than deplete me. This made me more balanced and calm about food choices in general, and worked synergistically with my ED recovery.

And as for obsessiveness over health (orthorexia, if you will?). Time has helped to heal that, too. Time, and reality! Allowing my diet to be inclusive of foods that have little health benefits (certain kinds of vegan “junk foods,” to use an expression I don’t like, desserts just for the heck of it, soy lattes even when I know they’ll probably keep me up, etc.) has shown me that a) my body is not so fragile that a few foods that aren’t pristine from a health perspective are going to hurt it, and b) enjoying certain foods solely because they afford me pleasure is “healthy” in a subtle and profound way. It’s healthy because it embodies my recovery, my hard-won ability to cherish food for pleasure’s sake, rather than needing to reduce each and every food I eat to the status of “fuel.” Don’t get me wrong: I eat a very healthy diet nearly all the time by choice, and love to think about the ways in which my food choices nourish my body and support my health. But for me, part of the recovery process has been embracing food as a pleasure as well as fuel, because rejection of that pleasure was an enormous part of my ED.

When we were speaking on our panel, Stephanie used the expression “mindfulness vs. madness” to talk about the tension between dedication and obsession. I like that expression, and I’ve been thinking about how it applies to me. Eating whole, healthy, raw and vegan foods is how I take a mindful, conscious approach to my health. Not insisting that each and every morsel food I eat be explicitly health supporting is how I avoid the madness that can come of too much health fixation. Exercising consistently is how I remain mindful of my body’s need to be active and limber; avoiding exercises that I don’t enjoy (distance running, any fitness class where I feel as though I’m getting yelled at) is how I avoid the madness of feeling as though I must excel at each and every kind of athletic activity. Eating consciously and with love is how I remain mindful of my ED history; not allowing myself to obsess over my food choices is how I avoid the madness of my past life.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have struggles. I realized not so long ago that I almost never feel guilt about a rich restaurant meal, an indulgent dinner, a generous helping of a sugary dessert, a big bowl of carbs, or anything that would have used to make me panic. But I do tend to feel anxious when my food is rushed, on-the-go, or not very appealing. Lousy restaurant meals, poorly planned and disappointing dinners, grab and go food when I’m super busy: this is the kind of stuff that throws me off kilter. Learning to labor over and love my food was such a tremendous part of recovery that–well, what can I say? Food that doesn’t feel mindful to me actually makes me sad; it feels like an opportunity lost. It violates my desire to take aesthetic and sensual pleasure in what I eat, and it also makes me sorry that I haven’t reaped any health benefits.

But this, too, is something I work on actively. Because the truth is that life sometimes asks us to put aside our desire to make each and every food choice beautiful and delicious, and focus instead on our lived experience. So you grabbed a banana and a snack bar and some trail mix because you were on a road trip with your friends, and it’s all that you could find at the gas station; so you came home and threw together a lackluster dinner because you were exhausted from a day of long (but exhilarating) day of work; so you had a so-so dinner at a non-vegan friendly restaurant because you were busy laughing and celebrating with friends; so what? It’s not every day. It’s a moment in which there happened to be something more urgent, exciting, and fundamentally important to pursue than an ideal meal. You won’t make it a habit, because good food matters tremendously to you. But if it just so happens that, now and again, food doesn’t come first, that’s OK.

Or at least, that’s what I tell myself. And it’s been a very important lesson for me, another one of those very fine lines we encounter in recovery. Recovery, for me, has meant learning to value my food consciously, celebrate good taste, and make beautiful dishes. But it has also meant learning how to accept that food isn’t always the only priority in my life. It’s just a big one.

Of course, dedication and obsession mean different things to us all. I’d love for you to consider this topic and let me know how you’ve found balance–or how you’re trying to find it. All thoughts are welcome!


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  1. Thank you for your openness and vulnerability in writing this powerful post Gena! It can be frustrating to realize that some of our qualities that seem to be positive and help us achieve our goals and dreams (i.e. having high standards, living a passionate life, being driven, determined, and self-controlled…) can also be tied into our greatest personal challenges and daily struggles with “good enough”, obsession, and achieving a “perfect” state of health or appearance. When this progresses into an eating disorder, what I find to be most often lacking is peace, joy, and patience. There is an inner chaos because there are endless decisions to make about food and exercise, and making one “bad” decision messes up the whole day. There is a lack of contentment with what we can offer that day and where we are right now. To top it all off, there is an uncompassionate impatience towards ourselves. As with so many things, balance is the hardest place to stay; it is much easier to be at one end of the spectrum or the other, as is the case with binging and restricting cycles. This post has given me a lot to think on…

  2. Gena, you are so lovely and generous in giving of yourself. You are truly helping others. I love your blog. I grew up with a morbidly obese Mother who cried all the time over her inability to make peace with food and I know that all pain is real and relative. We all heal the world by being kind and loving to ourselves first and then taking that strength out to help others. I have a neurological condition and I can tell you that looking after myself first allows me to do some amazing things for others and they in turn help me. Loving kindness is our work, judgemental contempt only spreads suffering. Thank you for your wonderful blog!

  3. Thank you, Gena! Just felt like I was reading my own story. Wicked! I can pretty much underline everything you said. It’s a way. And we are getting “there”. Well, in fact, we are there. All we have to do is to stay mindful and to decide to enjoy life and to love and live it and ourselves to the fullest. Thank you for sharing your story so openly! Love, Anett

  4. Reading through the comments and this post, I realized that almost all of my issues stem from when I can’t control something – whether it’s an interaction with others, a project at work, or a last minute meeting, or access to healthy foods when I’m on the road. One thing that has helped me in other areas of my life and which I want to now apply to these other things, is to not fight against the negative thoughts and tell myself that they are wrong and that I shouldn’t be getting upset about them. Instead, I just acknowledge it and let it go. Ironically, this has helped me stop obsessing about certain things.

    But thanks for posting this because I didn’t realize what exactly was irking me about stressful days at work, and now I see it’s just that it’s not in my control (and not the annoying coworker/the derailed project/the slow computer, etc.).

  5. Susie, I just read your reply and haven’t as yet had a chance to read everyone elses. I just wanted to say that it’s not only in the US but in every country around the world that values communication. Talking, listening, sharing, writing are all ways that we humans heal and help each other to heal. Gena’s sharing is no different, it has helped many people with ED’s to make sense of their own experiences and bring sanity to their daily lives. Don’t forget ED’s are classified as mental disorders, not just physical conditions. Would you critise someone with depression or schizophrenia for sharing their experiences? And as for the French, don’t get me started! I love French people and culture, but go to a French film festival and you’ll witness movie after movie of the most self indulgent, oversexualised, narcissistic representations of French people anyone has ever seen!.

  6. This was an inspiring post for me. And very appropriate because I’ve been meditating on a similar subject lately.
    I’m trying to incorporate a little bit more of the obsession/semi-stringent ritual side of things to my life. That is to say, I’ve “worked on” lessening my obsessive tendencies so much so that now I’m not feeling truly like myself.
    There’s an interesting balance here. And you’re right to point out that it’s an ongoing process.

  7. ” a) my body is not so fragile that a few foods that aren’t pristine from a health perspective are going to hurt it, and b) enjoying certain foods solely because they afford me pleasure is “healthy” in a subtle and profound way.”

    I love that, and have a feeling I’ll be quoting it at some point. I think it’s truly what separates healthy eating from an obsession with healthy eating.

    Thanks as always, Gena, for your insight and for being willing to share what you’ve learned through your own struggles.

    • I am so glad that the comment resonated, Ginny. Thank you for your support and for reading. Your work really helped to bolster my confidence as I learned to move away from my more fearful food patterns, so thank you for everything you do.

  8. I totally know the distinction between thin-ness and lightness you were talking about. I was the same way back in the day. It was strange, I think I wanted to be like a fairy or an elf…haha I was a very imaginative girl 🙂 I think the books that I read were always fantastical, and somehow I wanted to be a part of that, and I chased a lightness and feeling of grace that came with being tiny (I dont know how to describe it better than that).

    And it is funny, I am totally the laid back girl who, although predisposed to get obsessed with things (Lord of the Rings…haha) is super type b about everything EXCEPT diet and exercise (though I am recovered from the ED days) and it is funny I have never noticed that before. Hmmm. Very interesting.

  9. Gosh, this post really speaks to me, Gena. I find myself wavering between these two modes: obsession vs. dedication. What often pushes me over the line is comparing myself to others. So, I’m trying to work on that. I love how you wrote that you’ve come to embrace some of your qualities as part of who you are and I try to do that, too. I am working on my relationship with myself and learning to love who I am. I often repeat this mantra: “you are lovable and perfect just the way you are.” I don’t like using the word “perfect,” but in this context, it works for me. I don’t need to change who I am to please anybody else but myself. If there is any kind of chemical or biological imbalance that pushes me to the “obsessive” side, then I find that regular exercise and healthy eating moderates my ups and downs. My dad was diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder before he died, so I am fully aware that these types of emotional and mental states and get really serious and need professional medical attention. Fortunately, I haven’t ever felt out of control with my obsessive or addictive tendencies, but it’s definitely something I work on moderating. Thanks for your honesty, I enjoyed learning a little bit more about the internal workings of your brilliant brain. 🙂

    • Carrie,

      I’m glad that this post struck a chord. I think that self comparison is truly a dangerous habit, whether you’re obsession prone or not. Health and eating are so intimate and personal, and with the exception of some very broad truths (veggies great, artificial foods usually not so great, etc.) it’s hard to use other peoples’ success stories or lifestyle habits as touchstones in our own lives. Many of the dietary nuances I see online strike me as perfectly healthy for others, but I know they wouldn’t work for my body, mind, and spirit. I’m so happy that you are working towards self love, and yes — “perfect” seems totally legit in that context 🙂


  10. Thank you for this Gena. I too have struggled with many of the things you have in the dedication vs. obsession spectrum. It has taken me quite some time (and I’m still working on it!) to realize that just because I’m dedicated to healthy eating, plant-based foods and exercise does not mean that I have to be obsessed with getting everything right every time. It definitely takes some letting go, living in the moment (yoga has also helped with this!) and taking things in stride. I recently visited some old friends from college in NYC and the restaurant we went to for dinner was lacking in vegan options. My friends were worried that they’d let me down, and to be honest, I was worried about the guilt, anxiety and stress that I assumed would follow a meal that wasn’t necessarily “up to my standards.” But you know what? I felt great after that meal because it was a wonderful chance to re-connect with some of my best friends in a beautiful, lantern-lit setting. It wasn’t all about the food. It was about life and enjoyment and pleasure. All things I get from food, but from many many other things as well.


    • I love this story, Ariela. Reminds me of many nights I’ve had myself — initially freaked out about my food options, and in hindsight, just focused on how much fun I had.

  11. Beautifully written Gena and i couldn’t agree more. I have been struggling lately with the aspects of the jungle controlling many of the things I’m used to having, like food and nutrition readily available. I go through the same things of feeling anxious and stressed when I’m rushed for food or have limited choices, and in the jungle it’s even harder bc i don’t have a gas station or place to just go to, i have to be overly prepared or the results are almost devastating at times from hunger and anxiety.

    • I really can only imagine how challenging it is to be so far from your home and routines, Melissa. I doubt I’d deal well with it, at least not at first, and am really astounded by how you manage to balance your ED recovery with travel and new places. Kudos to you. I’m watching with admiration and awe.

  12. Thank you so much for sharing this post, Gena. Heather (above) shared it with me because she knew it’d resonate with me and she is so very right.
    ” So you grabbed a banana and a snack bar and some trail mix because you were on a road trip with your friends, and it’s all that you could find at the gas station; so you came home and threw together a lackluster dinner because you were exhausted from a day of long (but exhilarating) day of work; so you had a so-so dinner at a non-vegan friendly restaurant because you were busy laughing and celebrating with friends; so what? It’s not every day. It’s a moment in which there happened to be something more urgent, exciting, and fundamentally important to pursue than an ideal meal. You won’t make it a habit, because good food matters tremendously to you. But if it just so happens that, now and again, food doesn’t come first, that’s OK.”
    These words are so powerful to me because I look at them and I can’t imagine not flying into a panic because I have to get a gas station snack, or because I have to get lunch at a McDonald’s because that’s all that’s around. Gas station snacks and fast food aren’t every day yet my obsessive tendencies certainly treat them as if they are! And I too have found that I’ve transferred obsessions onto things other than food…other aspects of life that didn’t used to stress me out certainly do now. It’s almost as if I have to choose what I want to fret over, food, exercise, or something else? And it’s sad that whenever it’s something else, I actually get relieved.
    I can’t wait for the day to come in which food isnt #1, in which it isn’t always there in my mind. But this post gives me hope that with time that day can come if I remember that it’s not every day, that it’s life, that life isn’t going to be the same every single day so I can’t expect food to “go my way” every day either. Thank you!

    • I’m really happy that this spoke to you. For me, as I said, not panicking over spontaneous food decisions has taken longest, but I’m really close. So, bravo, and keep working in that direction!

  13. I relate to your sentiments almost 100%, Gena…and we actually both still struggle with the same thing. Not too long ago, I was talking to Matty about how far I’ve come while still struggling with one area. When I’m RAVENOUS, I get angry, irritable, and very very very anxious – it takes me back to that negative space that I automatically associate with my past ED and I know the only thing to take it away will be nourishing myself. But it’s sort of a Catch 22 because I know the only way to take away that hunger and awful feeling is to eat – and I have a tough time eating mindfully when I want to get rid of that feeling. This leads to me feeling unsatisfied after eating because I didn’t eat mindfully and slowly. Anyways, I’m rambling but, long story short, I wanted to tell you that your words resonated with me so much…and I love that you always help me feel less alone. <3 xoxo

    • Heather, this totally rings true with me! I’m in very early stages of maybe-recovery and I find that if I go too long between meals i get panic attacks as I try to plan what I neat next. I know that the panic attacks are because my brain has become starved because I haven’t kept it fuelled but I get even more panicky at the thought of eating in that state when eating is precisely what I need to do. It leads to me eating while incredibly tense which usually then leads to stomach pains and, as you say, lack of satisfaction. Thank you so much for sharing x

  14. Gena, thank you for exploring this topic. I’m a daily reader but I rarely comment and today felt compelled to. For me your reflection could not have come at a better time.
    I recently started seeing a ED specilaist for my binge eating issues that have been tormenting me for 9 years. (Though it took me a long, long time to admit I had a problem.)
    My counselor has diagnosed me with “easting disorder, not otherwise specified.” Based on my history, our sessions and the food journal cards I provide her with each week I am told that I have very orthorexic tendencies. I was stunned upon hearing this.
    Yes, my diet is filled with almond butter, fruit, flax seeds, vegetables and quinoa. However, I make a lot of room for chocolate in abundance, tortilla chips, and other “junk” food. Lately, I’ve made a more concerted effort to add these less healthy options in.
    My dietician and therapist seem to overvalue dairy , carbs and protein and make little to no mention of the importance of vegetables. Did you find this during recovery? I have a hard time with this mindset as vegetables make me FEEL good – not just thin – but energized and calm and balanced.
    I’m sorry to ramble here. I suppose my problem is that I really struggle with what you describe above – and I wonder how to distinguish between eating “clean” (I know you don’t like that word!) because it makes me feel good and becoming obsessive. As you’ve said … time is a great healer. Any other words of wisdom are certainly appreciated 🙂 Thank you again.

  15. Wow- I’m currently in recovery and this post definitely resonated with me! It brought to the forefront struggles that I am still having which I am not even always aware of. Sometimes you need others to weigh in and remind you of aspects of recovery which still need work- aka, rushed meals (ahhh), eating on-the-go (again- very scary), and eating sub-par food. I always knew in the back of my mind that these behaviours would trigger lots of anxiety, however, because of this post, I am now more acutely aware of them. Thanks for always pushing me on in recovery, providing me with different aspects to look at.

  16. This almost had me in tears as I read it. I cannot even begin to express how helpful it is for me to read about your experiences because they always seems to describe mine exactly and they give me a chance to look at my own in a new light. I too have had serious digestive issues that have left me searching more for a feeling rather than a look. A “bad” meal that leaves me feeling not so great physically puts me in a tailspin – whether it be from a food that dosen’t agree with me, a lunch that I had to eat on the run, a dinner that would have been SO much better if I had just added… It’s that line of thinking that make me want to break out my kitchen scale and analyze the nutritional data for all that I consume. It puts me into food as fuel mode and my obsessiveness takes over. And then I start thinking that I could get more nutrients out of my carrots of I ate them with some almonds or if I cook them for precisely 2 minuets… It becomes a scientific pursuit of health, one that will ultimately fail. Thanks so much for sharing your experience. This helps me beyond what I can possibly put into words. I have a feeling I’ll be re-reading this many times – but I’ll try on to obsess…

  17. I’m so glad you put this on the internet, Gena! It echoes something I’m realizing about myself, too, especially this part –

    “It’s also hard for me to talk about obsessiveness without admitting that I wouldn’t root my obsessive tendencies out of my personality if I could. If I weren’t prone to reading the same poem two hundred times, listening to the same song on repeat for days, or becoming fixated on certain kinds of ideas or themes, I wouldn’t be me.”

    I’m realizing more and more that my obsessive tendencies are rooted in my brain’s “wiring” and they spill out into all areas of my life, not just food and exercise. And even those areas would hurt me, too – such as obsessively studying for an exam until the wee hours of the night when I should just go to bed and stop pounding facts into my brain.

    I do think, as weird as this sounds, that there can be a “mindfulness” in on-the-go eating or disappointing meals. Not every meal has to be a long ritual because if we narrow in on that all of the time, we miss everything else around us. My therapist used this analogy the other day – it’s like a computer screen. The things we are reading in the forefront take up most of our mental space and the other things in the background fade away. If food is always in the forefront, especially for a recovering anorectic, we miss the other experiences in life that also symbolize recovery and being in the present moment. Back when I used to take pictures of my food all. the. time. (ahhhh) I would take pictures of a half-eaten banana or a granola bar on my lap when traveling. I didn’t need to inflate the meaning of that snack/meal as something bigger and more important than it was – maybe spending less time taking pictures and more time just looking outside the window would have caused me less anxiety. Not to say that I am not grateful for these snacks because I am, but the time spent thinking about them could be spent on other areas of our lives that can provide us with a richness that food sometimes cannot.

  18. Not for the first time, you took the words right out of my brain. You said everything I could and wanted to say. I especially agree with you on that point you made that what throws you off-kilter the most are the on-the-go, rushed, unappealing, eaten-during-a-stressful-day meals. I could not agree more from my own experience! I come from a fairly different background from you and also have a fairly different “case” of health history but the obsession with food, exercise, and body verging on an ED is something I can really relate to in common.

  19. Gena,

    This is honestly one of the most lovely posts I’ve read in a long time. I can completely relate in the realm of dedication vs. obsession and mindful vs. maddening. Truly, it’s an incredibly hard balance to strike just right. I do agree with you that the perfectionism and drive can be a good thing. It has helped me to overcome so many hurdles, yet it has also been a hurdle in and of itself. I’m at the point where I can honestly say that I love food for the chance at creativity and pleasure it offers. But at the same time, there are indeed some days where I wonder what separates that from obsession. Usually, it’s on the days when I realize that something like overindulging or not be able to go grocery shopping upsets me more than it should. It is those moments that bring me back to the worry of dedication vs. obsession. And it is those moments that I hope lead me toward a greater self-realization and peace with myself.

    Thanks for the wonderful post 🙂

    • Thank YOU for sharing, Lexi! And now for serious, I want us to plan a date in the early fall to share some food and share more of our stories with each other!

  20. I really enjoyed this post and could relate on many levels. I’ve overcome both anorexia and binge eating disorder, and though it has been several years since any relapses I still struggle with exactly what you’ve described here from time to time: feeling let down when a meal doesn’t live up to my expectations or I have to eat at a restaurant with few vegan options. Rushed meals make me feel anxious, too. I’m working on my flexibility and it is an ongoing process. Still, I celebrate where I’m at now and I can’t believe how much energy I used to put into meal planning and calculating and measuring my intake! I have finally learned to trust and respect my body. Going vegan has given me a new appreciation for how good REAL food can be, both taste-wise and health-wise. I’m thrilled that the healthy food choices I make are now driven by a desire to feel my best, and blogs like Choosing Raw have shown me that healthy food can be absolutely delicious. I’ve only been vegan for a year and am still feeling out unfamiliar situations and learning how to handle them gracefully (dinner parties, non-vegan friendly restaurants, etc.) and still have to occasionally remind myself to slow down and check in with my body (being present during meals is really important to me and was key to my recovery), but I am in a very good place. Thank you for writing this, Gena. xo

    • I’m so glad it resonates, Sara. Always remember that you’re not fragile: one meal or one day of meals that aren’t picture perfect won’t derail you. Not if you don’t let them 🙂 Be well!

  21. Many years ago I too was obsessive in my thoughts – about my weight and about my relationships. I couldn’t stop thinking and repeating conversations over an over again. It was exhausting. What cured me of obsessive thinking was good old fashioned anti-depressants. I realize they are not considered to be in the ‘healthy’ realm of self care, however I do recommend them highly for literally killing those obsessive thoughts, whatever they may be!

  22. Wow. This is so great I sort of want to have something insightful to add, but I agree with all this 100%, and it really echoes my own experiences. Thank you Gena for putting it all into words so beautifully.

  23. Wow this post resonated with me so much! The whole time I was reading this I was nodding my head along because I can really relate to a lot of these “obsessive” like feelings you’ve gone through for years. I’ve never had an ED before, however I can say with certainty that early on when I discovered “health” I exhibited some of these behaviors. I actually found your blog not long after becoming vegan, when I was in search of support for a diet that it seemed many people around me rejected. I was still in high school at the time and this blog gave me the guidance and help I needed to know that I wasn’t crazy for what I was doing. So thank you very much for that! I can happily say now that I too have found a way of eating that is neither obsessive nor restrictive but simply makes me happy. I definitely agree with the fact that sometimes you have to just not worry if one meal isn’t spectacular if it means sacrificing it for quality time with friends or family. Your blog has helped me tremendously in that respect!

    I don’t post too much on here but I read your blog religiously and you can bet I look forward each day to what you have to share with the blog world. 🙂

  24. I have never made that distinction between “lightness” and “thinness.” You seem to have your own definitions: “lightness” as an existential condition, something you were interiorly motivated to achieve vs. “thinness” as a superficial condition, exteriorly motivated. By your definition, “lightness” is a state of being, “thinness” a way of appearing. One could become thin without the ontological shift that occurs when an eating disorder takes hold … I don’t think the distinction holds. I personally have used the word “thinness” but my motives are more in line with yours. I won’t deny a bit of vanity (makes aging very hard!), but I wasn’t pursuing a “look”, I was pursuing a “feeling.” I think after a time, I became “attached” to the look, so there was probably a bit of both going on. But I was always more interiorly driven than exteriorly motivated, if that makes sense? I do make the a similar distinction between someone who is anorexic and someone who is merely dieting. I think because more people fall into the dieting trap and only a few cross the line, there’s a lot of projection going on.
    I am very similar to you in that I feel no guilt or anxiety over eating anything beautifully prepared, ethically sourced, fresh, and delicious, no matter how “fattening.” But just a sip of an off-tasting smoothie can put me off kilter. Don’t get me started on the rest of the things you mention. I go out of my way to protect myself against “disappointing” food but it happens of course and to be completely honest I still don’t deal with it well. Which may be why I’m not a very adventurous eater.

    • I totally understand why you don’t feel the distinction holds. I make it mostly because I think it does help me to explain to others, especially when the assumption is drawn that I was pursuing a kind of “look” so that I could be more attractive to others, when my lived experience was definitely the pursuit of a feeling that was very personal to me. I agree it’s imperfect language, but again — it does help to distinguish the whole thing from dieting as it’s conventionally perceived.

      Thanks for commenting 🙂

  25. I’ve told you that I was able to combat OCD tendencies when I was younger without professional intervention, but reading this makes me reconsider that statement. Sure, I no longer have a propensity to compulsively touch or clean something, but I think my obsessiveness was simply funneled into a new pursuit: beauty. I, like you, have never really considered thinness as my ultimate goal; I am much more concerned about being the most beautiful, the most flawless. I’m just now coming to terms with what you mention here: that an ED and a healthy lifestyle cannot coexist peacefully. It’s terribly exhausting to try and sustain both, and I hope that I can soon love myself and treat my body gently.

  26. Loved this post! you are very inspiring!
    I personally think that any type of obsession is unhealthy. It practically controls your life instead of you having control.
    I do however think its healthy to be very passionate about something.
    With my ED, it started with a passion to get healthy.
    This is very contradicting as having Anorexia is a very unhealthy and deadly illness. Im still in recovery and I have been trying to focus on health as my passion.
    Any health enthusiast knows that being underweight is not healthy , so even though I dont want to reach a certain weight I try to bring my thoughts back to being healthy.
    Eating vegan and clean has helped me more than words could say, appreciation on food in stead of seeing it as good/bad good calms my mind.


  27. Wow, Gena. Once again, you astound me with your insight. I can relate intensely to almost every single point you outlined here, and have recently found a place in my life where I am truly comfortable with my food choices.

    I have always been a tremendously passionate person; my childhood friend used to say that I never just liked something–I had to either love or hate it. I would never fathom forgoing this aspect of my personality, for I would attribute my academic and extracurricular successes to it. However, this all-or-nothing approach to life did indeed render me quite susceptible to an ED, especially because I’ve always tended to throw every ounce of myself into certain endeavors (first it was Barbies, then Spongebob, then Harry Potter, then food and health). Thankfully, I’ve learned to channel this quality into constructive activities rather than constantly monitoring what I eat, every rumble of my belly, and how many grams of fat I consumed in a particular day. It’s certainly been a struggle, but I feel holistically healthier than I ever have before.

    Thank you for the incredible post, Gena.
    Lots of love,

  28. Beautiful/insightful post, Gena. Thanks for the mention. Even though I wrote it some time ago, I’m still in a similar place with so many things. But this part you wrote (shortened for space, but the whole paragraph) really hit home:

    “I realized not so long ago that I almost never feel guilt about a rich restaurant meal, etc…. it also makes me sorry that I haven’t reaped any health benefits.”

    That’s how I feel 100 percent, and something I’m really trying to work on. When it happens, I remind myself it’s not the last time I’ll ever eat. It’s one (or two or three) meals and not the end of the world. I will be traveling this weekend for work and am always stressed about the food situation for obvious reasons. It becomes more of a survival mission–the food, the exercise, the change in routine–instead of an opportunity to experience new things and loosen the chokehold a bit. I would like to relax my approach, if only for a couple of days, as things always end up working out–even if it’s not all ideal.

    Food/fitness should be celebrated and enjoyed and I think that obsession can be healthy and wonderful, but it shouldn’t be placed on a pedestal above our sanity or ability to enjoy everything else life has to offer. Easier said than done, of course, but considering we have very similar backgrounds and tendencies, your posts like these give me hope 🙂

    • Hearing that I give you hope makes me so happy. You can bet a lot of people are becoming hopeful along with you, now and always. These kinds of struggles feel so isolating, but we’re not in a vacuum!

  29. This is the post I was waiting to read, Gena, after your last NYC recap- when you mentioned areas in which you still strive to improve upon in terms of your own recovery. I know that for myself, having a few years of “recovery” under my belt can sometimes trick me into thinking that I am “all better.” In reality, I know that eating disorders are more than just an obsession with thinness, caloric denial or a number on a scale. In many ways, “stopping” the behavior is only the beginning of the battle! As the years pass by, I continue to grow and challenge myself much in the way you mentioned- I also struggle when “eating on the run,” feel disappointed when I can’t enjoy a massive salad everyday- silly things, that often people without an ED history do not understand. I am grateful to have people in my life (and on the internet!) that do. So thank you for, as always, so eloquently verbalizing the very things I am experiencing in my life as I continue to embark on my recovery process. It means a lot to hear honest, real and very human truths from someone that I know myself and many others look up to 🙂

  30. so interesting to me that your society rewards and encourages obsessiveness and intensity until of course you take it too far, and it can be a very fine line.

    i’m curious if you’ve heard karen knowler talk about the different types of eaters. food as fuel versus cherishing other experiences with food is part of what she goes into, i’m oversimplifying it, it’s not given value, just different types of relationships people have with food. it’s interesting to look into and i’m sure you’d have an unique perspective on it given your background.

  31. Oh I love your mentality about things. And the great wording for hard to define bits is very satisfying. Thanks for being awesome and sharing this! Helps keep me sane centered. A good reminder that good things can stick after ED stuff.

  32. This was a beautifully written post, so honest and enlightening! I could go on and on about how great this was, but suffice it to say that I would not be surprised if I return to this article often just to re-read it and re-connect with your message. I have heard people talk about “obsession versus passion (or dedication)” before, but the way you wrote about it, tying in your own life experiences is truly enlightening, heartfelt, and touching!

    Keep up your amazing work!

  33. “Obsessiveness about exercise abated when I realized that overextending my body through exercise always made me feel unbalanced and worn down, rather than energetic and healthy; yoga was an especially transformative discovery for me, because it showed me that certain kinds of challenging, yet compassionate movements could actually energize, rather than deplete me.”

    After years of teaching 10-15 exercises classes a week (I got paid to do it), & after recently retired from teaching (aside from a yoga class once a week), I have come to the same conclusion as you. Maybe I got burned out. I did too much. I haven’t exercised in a month (since we’ve been road tripping), & I don’t regret the decision to take some time off from formal fitness. I’d love to do yoga every day. Like you said, yoga is a gentle, compassionate way to treat your body. I find it calming, yet challenging at the same time.

    You brought up so many, many other interesting, thought-provoking points. I think my readers may think I’m now a spokesperson for CR, but this is another post I’m going to pass along to them, as you’ve articulately captured a dilemma in which so many women find themselves.

    I agree, our passion (sometimes obsessiveness), is one of our greatest assets, but it has to be reigned in. I fight this EVERY day, believe me. My husband knows this better than anyone. Still learning how to reign it in, for me to puts checks & balances on my impulses, that can often lead to being extreme or unbalanced.

    I can’t say this enough Gena, thank you for your words. ox

  34. I think a major problem is that, in the US as opposed to the rest of the world, it is considered acceptable, nay, socially positive, for the individual to have “angs”t about themselves and discuss it rather publicaly and remorselessly. In other countries, finding yourself irresistibly interesting, and assuming others do too, is pretty well considered at best ill-mannered, and at worst, anti-social bordering on aggressive. It is the opposite of what the French would call “sympa”.

    Being Dedicated (positive loading word covering a multitude of possibilities) or Obssessed (ambiguous depending on what you want to defend it as later to “win” an argument) about yourself and what you eat, is pretty narcissistic, childlike and extremely New York/Middle Class US. But obviously socially acceptable. Would that it were as socially acceptable to agonise over what the Afghan population has been restricted from eating due to necessity/US intervention. Do you really think the world at large with real problems of famine, war, and economic disaster *care* what you eat, nay, care about what you think about what you eat? You are the worship of the world, to be able to *not* worry about where your next meal is coming from. Is it time to count your blessings rather than be the Spoiled Brats of the developed world, and focus outside and beyond your stomach to the real problems besetting us all?
    Sorry, Gena, I don’t pop in much any more as it’s this kind of ridiculously adolescent over-analysis that gives me the horrors. If it interests a few die-hard narcissists, then I leave this blog to you and them. Please don’t imagine anyone with a world view has any interest whatsoever in a few self-inflicted victims Living the Life in the States and thinking they have any credibility at all beyond their little world.
    You said all thoughts are welcome, I take you at your word.

    • Although I feel everyone here has done a great job in responding, I’d like to add in my two cents. I still struggle with eating issues, even as my passion for animal rights grows, and my commitment to educating people about health and nutrition finds ever new and exciting outlets.

      I came from a tough background, and there were many years of my childhood spent hungry or worrying about food. I have no illusions about the fact that this plays into my binge eating, and my emotional connection with food. Anorexic tendencies that I had all throughout high school were firmly rooted in a desire to control my environment, and a deep, unspoken wish that my parents would take notice of me and take care of me.

      I never, and I mean never, spoke to anyone about my restricting while I was doing it and in fact went to great lengths to hide it. Same goes for my obsessive food journaling and over-exercising phase, and same for my overeating issues which would surface throughout my entire disordered eating history. However, I now appreciate, respect and hope to soon join the leagues of thoughtful women, like Gena, who are talking about their disorders openly.

      You may be able to walk around feeling superior because you commit your time, energy and vocalizations to lofty, politically acceptable concepts like world hunger, but you are sadly missing the bigger picture. If you cannot find kindness within yourself for the struggles of individual people around you, then your concern for mankind as a whole is badly flawed. Putting people with a serious, crippling, destructive disorder into a box marked “Vanity” is short-sighted, small-minded and compassion-less.

      • Sharing a personal story and keeping the story mostly centered on herself does not make Gena a narcissist, in fact, sharing a personal recovery story can only help herself and others. If it weren’t for Gena sharing her personal story with specific details about not eating perfectly and worrying about eating on the go I would never have shared any details of my story. It is not helpful to my recovery if I don’t share with others and build a support group (even if it’s through the internet with “anonymous strangers”). For a while taking pictures of everything I ate later made me realize that I was over obsessing about my food and helped me make better decisions regarding that. I still like to take pictures of food but I can now better judge when it is appropriate/bordering on obsessive. Just because you focus on yourself does not mean you are egocentric in a narcissist way. If we are not honest with ourselves of our roots, causes and triggers of obsessive, unhealthy, Eating Disordered behaviors then we cannot move on or become healthy. I used to think too that I was being wasteful but eating and being alive and that I should feel bad about eating food because others can’t eat at all. I still feel bad now about spending more money on organic raw vegan foods, such as superfruits (in small quantities), fruits, vegetables and protein powders. However I have learned that there needs to be a balance between caring about others and caring about myself and that (unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your point of view and local/global perspective) I have to be egocentric to a certain degree in order to keep up my health. Gena has found her certain level and should certainly not be criticized for sharing her experiences, “tips” and ways of dealing with her personal struggles that many others may also share. I can tell that Gena is a smart, independent women and also admire her ability to respond to quite broad and harsh comments in a calm, cool and collected manner and by avoiding blaming/shaming but still getting her opinion/point across. Kudos to Gena 100%! You go girl! 🙂

    • I wonder if Susie’s comment is at all driven by how prevalent eating disorders are – especially for young women – in the United States. The vast majority of my girlfriends as teenagers, myself included, struggled with weight and body images, constant dieting, eating only “low fat” foods, and endless exercise. I planned out my meals, had a notebook full of calorie counts, etc – and although it bothered my parents, no one really found it weird, because everyone was doing it. None of us got to the point where we had to be hospitalized, go to rehab, or weighed less than 90 pounds – but it was almost a rite of passage, part of being an insecure teen, something you deal with and grow out of, etc. Obviously this behavior is not normal, it’s not healthy and it shouldnt be passed from generation to generation. But it is. I wonder if Susie’s annoyance with these posts comes from the fact that these disorders are sadly so common and given that most never reach a place that outwardly looks severe (hospitalization, extreme weight loss, etc) seem more like “navel-grazing self-analysis” than mental illness…. part of that whole “typical NYC/Middle Class” thing. I dont agree with her comment but I do wish that there was a larger social movement to deal with what is at the root of this, given it is so common. It’s a horrible thing to deal with – certainly there are worse situations but as Jami said, pain is pain. Part of dealing with an eating disorder is hiding it, and learning to hide it really well. Being open about it takes great strength, and I admire that Gena.

      • Great comment, Lindsay.

        I agree that the prevalence of disordered behavior is part of why so many perceive EDs as self-imposed and self-indulgent. I think that all disordered habits are serious, painful, and worthy of treatment; I also think that many full blown EDs (of clinical severity) begin as disordered habits that spiral further and further into what we’d think of as dangerous severity, so it’s important to remember that even dieting patterns that are socially “acceptable” are far from innocuous.

        That said, it is important to draw some distinctions between dieting as a rite of teenage passage (how awful it is that we’d even think of it that way!) and full blown EDs, whether anorexia, bulimia, or EDNOS. One may be a gateway to the other, but the heath risks are distinct, and so is the biological basis. I think it’s crucial that we “denormalize” dieting and teenage experimentation with food restriction, point out that it’s often a gateway into more grave EDs, AND that we also continue to point out that EDs themselves are mental illnesses, and deserve the same kind of attention that we give to depression, suicidality, serious addiction, OCD, etc.


    • Just so you know, Susuie, many individuals with Eating Disorders recognize the narcissistic nature of our Disorder (which is why it is call a DISORDER). And many of us harbor a great deal of guilt for this very reason. I for one have an incredibly difficult time dealing with the fact that I am so self centered to be thinking s obsessively about what I am eating when there are so many people in the world that don’t even know were their next meal will come from. That makes me want to eat even less. How is it that I deserve to eat if they cannot? If they are still alive and are only eating a bowl of rice each day, why should I even consider eating anymore? It’s this kind of guilt and recognition of the worlds ills that put my heath into deep crisis. Eating Disorders are not just about vanity, nor do they discriminate between race or socioeconomic status etc. They are maladaptive coping mechanisms for dealing with a various set of life’s stressors that can affect anyone given the right set of factor come together. We are merely doing the best we can with the tools we have at the time. Part of our recovery is adding to our toolbox and learning how to deal with our stressors more healthfully. Gena sharing her experiences is a way for me to learn how I can begin to break free and trust that my not eating will not help those starving people. While it may not be helpful for you to read, for me it life changing. I am sorry you are not able to recognize that wisdom that is found here and the profound impact it can have on a person. I’m sorry it’s so horrifying to you to read. Thank you for your comments and your added dose of guilt. If you are really interested in getting rid of this type of “adolescent over-analysis”, I’d suggest you keep comments like these to yourself and let us use these words to heal so we can move onto finding real solutions to making sure everyone is afforded the right to choose what they want to eat.

    • Since I do have the kind of privileged socioeconomic upbringing you’re referring to (and am grateful all the time for the freedoms its given me), I’m glad that a few others weighed in to attest to the fact that eating disorders strike across class, race, and culture lines.

      And I think it’s important to distinguish between narcissistic navel gazing–self-analysis as a pastime–and mental illness. Though many are resistant to classifying eating disorders as such, that’s what they are, and they’re the mental illness with highest fatality rates. This post is dedicated to their lingering effects–the afterlife of EDs, I guess–and while it may seem self-indulgent to devote so many words to how I cope with grabbing lunch at a gas station, it is all part of an effort to address the vestiges of a disease that causes tremendous pain to people of many different backgrounds (and to their families).

      I totally agree that perspective is vital, and on the whole I think my readers show tremendous sensitivity to suffering worldwide (human and non-human), and are predisposed to be compassionate and conscious. But being thankful of everything we have (and often take for granted) doesn’t mean we have to disavow our experience with this particular disease, or the real suffering it causes. If anything, public discourse can help us to move toward or sustain recovery, which gives us the space and capacity to direct our energies out into the world, rather than remaining trapped in the habits and spinning thoughts of the disease itself.

      • I think Susie just doesn’t understand what an eating disorder is. It is not a choice to suffer from one. One also you have taught me to be grateful of my food. Her comment is very irrelivent to what you were talking about in your post.
        I hope this doesn’t discourage you from writing personal posts in the future x

      • Gena, you are so inspiring, and so ready to face needlessly ruthless (and rather misinformed) invective with grace. I adore your blog and look to you as a role model for overcoming demons and bringing people together in the process. Thank you!

    • Susie: There are very real issues beyond our own little worlds–hunger, famine, war, the list goes on & on. This doesn’t negate our own personal battles we fight each day. I agree with you Susie, we need to get outside ourselves & realize that there’s much suffering beyond our own. However, Gena is kind & generous with her time, especially considering she is putting herself in a vulnerable position, sharing very intimate struggles that most people would never share with the general public. I assume you involve yourself in extensive humanitarian work, since clearly world hunger & world peace are at the forefront of your worries. Way to go, I commend you for your efforts. No doubt we can all be more like you in that aspect. However, it’s not cool to come in a bash Gena, no matter how much you think your opinions & worldview are superior. I don’t have a problem with people voicing strong, opposing opinions, but a little diplomacy, humility goes a long way when getting people to listen to you.

      • Agree with Janae.

        I remember when, in the midst of the horrors of my eating disorder, I would feel immense guilt for my inability to eat or refrain from purging when there were so many people in the world that were hungry, starving and living in far worse situations than my “situation.” Despite this awareness and the self-inflicted hatred that I felt for what I then deemed to be a “lack of gratitude,” my ED was a monster that (at that time) was far more powerful and life-consuming than my thoughts. It was deeper- much more complicated than merely being “self-inflicted,” “angst” or an “obsession” with thinness- it’s a psychological disorder and there was no way that I, myself being extremely ill could merely “change my thinking” and heal myself.

        Nope. If it was as easy as thinking “Wow, I’m so obsessed with myself and over-analyze food when there are so many people starving or living in war zones across the globe, I should just stop and get better,” I’m sure that the amount of EDs in the US (and across the globe) would be nonexistent. For me, the healing process required multiple hospitalizations, treatment centers, therapists, support groups and developing a relationship with something bigger than myself. It took time and it was NOT that easy.

        For me, comparing myself with others – no matter how disadvantaged they might be – doesn’t work. And guilt is not an effective motivator to empower healthy choices! I think that the best anyone can do is to compare themselves to themselves – and like Janae said, not negate our own personal battles. The pain, the agony and the internal war that rages within an individual suffering from an ED is real to that person.

        I also commend people like Gena for helping to make conversations like this “socially acceptable” in the US. This was NOT always the case – eating disorders have only begun to become a topic discussed publicly! For many years, they were commonly misunderstood, even by doctors- and a topic that was quietly shushed under the rug because it was shrouded in shame. When people like Gena talk about these issues in a public forum, it not only increases awareness, but inspires other to openly talk about there own struggles – and in turn, continue (or begin!) the healing process.

      • I believe Janae summed my feelings up quite nicely, but I will add my own personal view that if my own OCD was solely rooted in a desire to look a certain way, I might agree that it’s a narcissitic manifestation of the disease. However, for me, I had OCD manifest itself in different ways as early as 5-years old. Due to trauma later in life, the OCD resurfaced and manifested itself in food and exercise obsession as a way to distract me from the horrible situation I was stuck in. It wasn’t about being “interesting” or “aggressive” or “attractive,” but rather about survival–plain and simple.

        Couple that with depression, physical complications and hello! Actual chemical-based mental health issues. Not a desperate attempt to be “interesting.”

        I suppose food and exercise are more “socially acceptable” obsessions than say, drinking, drugs or sexual deviation–all of which I would assume you also consider to be exclusive “NY/Upper Class” problems that don’t exist anywhere else–only because we live in a country that glorifies physical perfection and a quick fix.

        However, most eating disorders are NOT about a physical ideal or the food. They are simply the vehicles through which the dysfunction is manifested, the only way we feel we can grasp at control. I wish that my issues were based in narcissim, as you suggest. As they are not, I will simply classify myself as someone trying to live my best life every day despite struggles–my “sympa,” as you suggest–and not as a “spoiled brat.”

    • Susie, I’m not sure your judgement of sufferers of eating disorders is fair. I, for one, come from an extremely underprivileged background and like some of the foreign populations you mentioned I had little choice as to where my food came from, etc. I generally don’t consider myself narcissistic or even spoiled (though I suppose I wouldn’t be the right person to make that call), but I still spent years in mental and physical suffering with my ED. I agree that living in the “first world” has its own unique set of privileges, but I think your characterization of EDs is rather off the mark. And who are we to say that one kind of trouble is somehow “harder” or “worse” than another, anyway? Pain is pain. Passing judgement helps no one.

      • I’ll have to agree with Jami. EDs do NOT discriminate. They are prevalent in every sex, age group, race, and ethnicity. EDs are not about vanity.

        Growing up I had no idea where my next meal would be coming from or when I would be eating next. I’m positive that my disadvantaged background played a huge role in my eating disorder.

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