In Honor of NEDA Week: Rebuilding a Sense of Distinctiveness After Recovery


Each year, I like to write a special post in honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. (I almost forgot this year, but Sabine reminded me just in time.) Last year, this was my “Embracing Our Appetites” post; I didn’t expect much as I was writing it, but it turned out to be one of my favorite CR posts of all time. That post suggested that embracing hunger and appetite without shame is an important part of the recovery process. Today, I’d like to switch gears and talk about another important part of the recovery process, which is the rebuilding of a sense of distinctiveness after an eating disorder.

In the last few weeks, I’ve had conversations with several clients (all of whom have suffered from disordered eating in the past) about one particular challenge: the challenge to overcome a fear of losing one’s distinctiveness in the recovery process.

Readers who have had disordered eating probably know where I’m going with this already. But if you’ve never suffered from disordered eating, the essence of the dilemma is this: people who have had long bouts with disordered eating tend to attach tremendous feelings of specialness, uniqueness, and even pride to being underweight and/or capable of inflicting self-harm. Maintaining disordered eating habits becomes a way of experiencing that thing we all want to experience: the sensation of being unique. Most people—disordered eaters and average eaters alike—crave this. We aim to stand out in our workplaces; we travel to exciting and out-of-they way places, where others have not dared to tread; we take up unexpected and eccentric hobbies; we embark on abnormally difficult fitness training plans or challenges. In hundreds of different ways—professional, interpersonal, physical—we work to be exceptional.

Disordered eaters are no less susceptible to this impulse. But for many of them, the pursuit of thinness or self destruction has been so singular and relentless for so long that it has consumed any other efforts at distinction. For many disordered eaters, thinness in particular becomes the only mark of distinction that feels meaningful. Women and men with eating disorders are often exceptionally talented in many ways—they include artists, intellectuals, remarkable students, athletes, and professionals—but for many of them, obsession with weight and eating has started to eclipse all other pursuits and activities. This is one of the saddest parts of an eating disorder, I think: its capacity to out shadow any and every other source of satisfaction.

It’s no surprise, then, that the vast majority of my clients who are recovering or recently recovered express a tremendous fear of losing what they believe to be the thing that makes them unique: their disordered behaviors and/or low body weights. For years, these men and women have felt—even if they knew it was warped—that being disordered was special. It’s also typical for them to have looked down upon people with normal body weights, or to have secretly felt that normal eating was a mark of weakness, or “giving in.” If they gain weight or get well—if they allow their bodies to become normal once again—aren’t they then doomed to be just like everybody else? What part of their distinctiveness will remain?

Undoing this fear takes a lot of time and patience and hard work, and it should also involve therapy and treatment as needed. But for those of you reading today who still struggle with the fear that recovery will rob you of the things that make you special, I’m here to offer a little reassurance. I write from the other side of disordered eating, and I remember your fears with searing immediacy: I remember being horrified at the thought that I would ever wander through life in a body that was normal, rather than arrestingly bony. I remember thinking that I would hate nothing more than for people not to notice my thinness before they noticed other things about me; I remember a feeling of resentment that I would no longer have guaranteed status as the thinnest girl in every room. I had attached so much pride to my thin frame and secretive habits that all of my other capacities and achievements seemed less important. I couldn’t imagine how, if I ate normally and looked healthy, I’d ever feel special again.

What I didn’t see then was that under eating and obsessing about food and body had been the driving force in my life for so long that I had simply lost touch with my other passions, capacities, and talents. They hadn’t gone anywhere; they were simply waiting for me to take an interest in them again. As I pushed through weight gain and learned to eat healthily, I started to understand that there were many things about me that were remarkable, yet had nothing to do with my body. Those marks of distinction—for example, the fact that I’m organized, or the fact that I’m a self-starter, or the fact that I’m a good listener—were far more appreciated by friends, peers, and colleagues than anything related to the way I looked.

In fact, for all of our social obsession with thinness, and for all of the media pressure to be thin, I learned an important lesson over the course of my recovery: thinness really isn’t as powerful a social currency as once I thought it was. Being thin had been tremendously important to me, but it had never been that important to anybody else. In fact, the pursuit of thinness through disordered eating had worked against me socially, and it certainly would have worked against me professionally if I’d been a bit older. It didn’t persuade the world that I was unique; I was the only one who was persuaded of that. The years I squandered on being hungry had failed to make me happy, which was bad enough; on top of all that, they hadn’t done a thing to earn the admiration of others.

If you’re struggling with fear of losing your grip on distinction or uniqueness, let me assure you: you’re not alone. And let me also assure you that there are much richer and more fulfilling sources of self-worth out there than are dreamt of in your disordered thinking. It may take a while for you to reconnect with your own talents and passions and hobbies as you recover, and that’s OK. In the end, you will find them again. They’ve been submerged for a little while—living in the shadow of your hunger—but they’re no weaker for having hibernated for a little while. Let them loose. If you studied piano as a kid and you’ve lost touch with it, take a few lessons; if you used to paint and your creative energy has been sapped, put on a few good songs and break out a fresh canvas; if you once were an athlete and now you’re too weak, rebuild your physical strength and get active again.

And if you, like so many other recovered men and women, have sacrificed friendships or romantic love, make small, brave gestures to reconnect with the friends you’ve lost touch with, the lovers you pushed away, or the family members who have tried to help you. The power of human relationships to provide the sort of fulfillment and joy that anorexia and bulimia can’t provide is profound and striking; begin pouring all of the anxious energy you once poured into thrice-daily weigh-ins or calorie counting into being a committed friend, an open partner, and a loving family member. With any luck, reconnecting with activities, passions, loved ones will remind you that whatever outlandish importance you’ve attached to your weight and habits has been just that: outlandish. You have far more to give the world than a tired body and a tired mind.

For the record, this particular struggle was the one that persisted longest for me, and I live with it in small ways to this day. Once every now and then, I find myself tempted to cling to that old badge of pride: the fact that, once upon a time, I lived on less than a meal a day; I went to bed with a growling stomach; I exercised with with a light head, and I had the body to prove it. It’s as if I want to grab the world by the shoulders and shout: “just in case you’ve forgotten, I’m capable of all that.”

And that’s OK. Recovery doesn’t mean never again experiencing a disordered thought: it means developing a capacity to recognize the impulses and tendencies that drove you into an eating disorder, and learning to manage them in a productive way. It also means learning to see their falseness. In the rare moments when I find myself thinking about my mistaken feelings of distinctiveness, I simply remind myself of how insignificant being so thin and so hungry ultimately was. (And I should point out that I’m still slender: what I miss, as some others who have encountered this struggle do, is the feeling of being abnormally slender. It’s an important distinction.) And in these moments, I cherish the ways in which I’ve proven myself capable of actual distinction in life. I’ve had two interesting careers; I’ve encountered fascinating people; I’ve given love to friends and family; I’ve experienced intimacy and passion. In the end, being thin is just about the least interesting thing I’ve ever done.

And I’m no different from anybody else. For all of you worrying about whether or not recovery will mean giving up the part of you that’s most special, I hope this gives you a little hope. I can’t claim that you won’t, for a while, miss the feeling of having proven capable of things that other people aren’t—namely, the hunger game. You might. But over time, you’ll see the emptiness in that accomplishment, and you’ll start to feel pangs of excitement for the real accomplishments that lie ahead of you. They’re out there. Get well, and then go and enjoy them.


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  1. Dear Gena, I have stumbled across your website, via the wonderful Oh She Glows page. Having battled my own ED demons for many years, I felt compelled to write and thank you for your wise words which sum up one of those spirals of negativity we with an ED face every day. I am now training to be a yoga teacher and the thought of staying healthy in order to have the strength and grace to achieve this aim has really helped me. The demons are still there, as they probably always will but am thinking about them like those cranky relatives who rock up every now and again. They are a pain in the butt, cause tension and anxiety but, in the end, they depart and we return to ourselves, a little frazzled but not beaten!

  2. I know that I am incredibly late to this discussion, but I am so grateful that I found this post. As I read through it, I was brought to tears. I honestly feel that I understand why I developed an eating disorder in the first place more than I ever have before.

    I will be heading off to university 2000 miles away soon, a time to “start fresh.” I have recovered from anorexia, and I am no longer abnormally thin. Nobody at the university will know that I was once abnormally thin. This terrifies me because I realize that when people first meet me, there first response will not be “wow, is that girl ever thin” or refer to me as the “skinny” or “anorexic” girl.

    Instead, people will get to know the parts of me that are not my exterior. I’m learning to define myself by other, healthier means: my intelligence, my sense of humour, my passion for health and veganism. They are all a part of me, much more than me eating disorder ever was.

    Thank-you so much for writing this post. I will remember to look back on it when times are tough.

  3. I may be two weeks late to this post, as I’ve been saving it in my queue to really read it and take it in.

    Absolutely moving and so true. It describes so many things that I think people can’t quite put words to and you did it beautifully. This is certainly helping me in the current state i’m in.

  4. Fantastic post. I think that this is something that doesn’t get talked about often enough in recovery, especially for people who aren’t able to have a professional treatment team. Acknowledging that ambivalence–that you want to get better but that it’s difficult to give up what an eating disorder gives you–puts you in a very vulnerable position, but it’s essential because it can be a powerful tool for dealing with lapses. I went into treatment in 2009 and while I’ve lapsed since then, I haven’t *re*lapsed, and it’s in part because when I engage in symptoms of my ED I know to check in with myself and ask what I got from using that symptom that I wasn’t getting elsewhere. And sometimes it is just wanting to cling to that identity, as much as the greater part of me wants to shed it.

    A friend forwarded this to me and I found it powerful, so I put it in my links roundup–I write a feminist beauty blog and even though I try to not get too into ED stuff there because I think that we oversimplify EDs to be about appearance when really they’re about so much more, obviously they are related:

    I look forward to reading more from you!

  5. Only just read this. Thank you for writing. I think this realization is actually a fairly under-appreciated facet of recovery. I found myself disturbingly saddened when I was longer the waifish girl who had exceptional control. What else could I be? For the majority of my college stint, I’d be exceedingly thin. Frighteningly so, at the height of it. Now that everyone had “found me out” and pushed me into recovery, what else could I be and –oh my god– what would everyone think of me now? I had just failed. I think it was that combination of me about to lose who I was and also failing at whatever sick end I was trying to achieve that ultimately in fact led me into fear and bulimia. Because I never received appropriate counseling to help me get through the initial recovery, I picked a new route. I still need therapy, and I am still trying to come to terms with the fact that I have more to offer than being nearly invisible sideways (which I no longer am, thank you). But i think that even beginning to realize thinness wasn’t my only “thing” was one of the biggest steps in my recovery.

    • Hey Nicole!

      I have certain ED-recovered readers who I always have in mind when I write this kind of post, and you are definitely one of them. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here, as I looked forward.

      Therapy is key, and mine lasted a while. Keep it up. I’d also just say that while you may not go a lifetime without every wishing to be invisible sideways again, you can simply judge your recovery by how seldom those little pangs of longing are. A long time ago I learned not to judge recovery in a linear way: that is, if I had a bad or disordered day, I didn’t suddenly decide that I had moved backwards and undone my progress. Instead, I learned to judge my recovery relatively: did the moments happen less than they used to? By those standards, I made leaps and bounds each year.

      Point is, every revelation you have pulls you forward by miles. Be proud, be determined, and know that I think you’ve made giant cognitive leaps and done tons of emotional work already.


  6. Oh I just read this (late, I know) – and Gena, you hit the nail on the head 100%. I’m at a point where I’m slender but not ‘anorexically so’ and I must admit that a part of me is almost sad (though not ‘sad’…it’s hard to find the right word) that I won’t be noticed for being that way anymore, because it defined me for so long. But you’re right – there are other qualities to focus on. Just today, i saw my physio, and we had such a good time, chatting and laughing, I really wished that I wasn’t slender so he wouldn’t think ‘oh she’s thin’ – I wanted him to notice ME, as in what i was saying!
    So’re totally right, and I love your posts so much. You always say what i wish I had the words to, and you say it SO well.
    Thank you!

  7. I think this is a really great post, Gena, and I’m glad you brought this topic to light. I think that in the depths of my ED, I experienced BOTH wanting to stand out and wanting to blend it. While I wanted to shy away from everything, I wanted to feel special, and part of being special and distinctive was being thin since I didn’t feel confident about other aspects of myself. One of the hardest things to go through in recovery is strengthening the healthy unique qualities of yourself without submitting to the over-controlling food mindset that “tricks us” into thinking we are special because we are thin. Only until we increase our self-worth beyond what we look like can we recover-something I still work on today. Thanks for a thought-provoking post, as always 🙂

  8. Gena–this is awesome! I haven’t seen this aspect of ED recovery covered much, but for me, especially coming back from the extreme, it was one of the very hardest things of all. Honestly, I think that I still have a tendency to hang on to the health problems that I now suffer as a substitute for my identity as an emaciated person, and still struggle to fulfill my potential otherwise because of this identity issue.

    I would love to post a blog about ED awareness and link to yours: am I too late to do so? (It was my bday yesterday and so I’m behind, blog=backlog!) I’d love to do it and participate if there’s time.

  9. Such an important topic, thank you for this post Gena. It’s important to remember that at the core of an eating disorder is self hatred. So it makes sense that we would find out identities in self destruction. That is why, as you pointed out, that therapy is so important! When we start to loose the accomplishment of thinness through recovery, we are back to where we started, not liking the person we are interpreting ourselves to be. It is often necessary to get some help in realizing all the things that make us unique and amazing. And that thinness fleeting, but who we really are is amazing and permanent. I also love your point about turning outward to the people you love around you, it is so important in the healing process to see that the world around you is so much bigger and more important than the number on the scale. Awesome Gena!

  10. Gena this was such a powerful post. This is something that I am struggling with right now and as you know it is a very difficult path to be on, however, your story gives me hope that I can do it. I want to thank you for being so open and forgive the pun, but raw and sharing such personal and intimate details of your own journey. I believe this is how stigma is shattered and how those who are going through a difficult time in recovery learn to understand that they are not only not alone, but that there is so much more to their life and world than their eating disorder. It is so interesting how this disease just warps your mind in so many ways, and I really liked how you articulated that being abnormally thin is the least interesting thing you have done. It really made me think about what I have accomplished thus far and how my eating disorder fit into all of that. There is so much more to my life than recovering from anorexia, and really, what thing of significance am I proving to the world by having an ed? Thank you again for such a beautifully written and emotional post. I truly enjoy your writing and the mixture of health and emotional topics. You are an inspiration. Enjoy your day!

  11. Gena,

    I love this post. Last night, I saw Jenni Schaefer speak at my school about recovery, leaving behind “ED,” and defining the person you are without ED coming along for the ride.

    I can safely say I’m doing well in recovery. God has saved me. Music has saved me. Veganism has saved me. But, most importantly, I have saved me…from a life of perfectionism and constant struggling to meet this inconceivable standard.

    Thank you for your constant love and kindness towards eating disorders. Your words are so eloquent and truthful!

    Stay lovely,

  12. This is nothing short of a masterpiece, Gena. As always, you get to the real (as opposed to stereotypical) root of the issue: identity.

    As smart and insightful and eloquent as this post clearly is, equally deserving of praise is every brave soul who has shared in this discussion; each fleshes out your reflections with nuance and personal insight. When one reads the entire stream of responses along with your superb introduction, personal and likely pivotal epiphanies are bound to arise, or become renewed, for every reader. In fact, I am certain that our collective voices will benefit many, many sufferers, and those of us who consider ourselves fully recovered, alike. (I wonder if a PDF of this entire – growing – file would be of any additional value as a resource.)

    What a generous contribution you have made with this post, Gena and all, to the NEDA conversation!

  13. You said,
    “if I ate normally and looked healthy, I’d ever feel special again.
    What I didn’t see then was that under eating and obsessing about food and body had been the driving force in my life for so long that I had simply lost touch with my other passions, capacities, and talents.”

    I think that is brilliant.

  14. I think I just got more insight into my eating disorder from this post and from the amazing comments then I did from 3+ years in psychotherapy. I particularly appreciate Charlotte and Elizabeth’s conversation above, which helps me unravel the paradox of desiring radical individuality while at the same time wishing for closer connections with loved ones. In my case, it was a problematic family relationship – one that precluded my establishing a sense of self – that prompted me to try to individuate in an unhealthy way. I can imagine a relationship with a close friend or a romantic partner having the same effect. I think that’s why recovery involves both cultivating one’s own strengths and interests AND, as Gena says, reestablishing connections with supportive friends and family members.

    Thanks to all of you for sharing. I can tell I’m not the only one who has benefited from this discussion.

  15. “being thin is just about the least interesting thing I’ve ever done.”
    That just made ” click” in my mind.Totally tru even for me.. I´m going through this phase of doubt and reason..on and off but I´m confident now that I have found love and passion in my life I have come to realize that beeing thin was only important to me and it really doesnt make who I am, although..just writing that ..feels like I still don´t belive it,I know the truth but old habits die hard…wich is absolutly no excuse..
    so thank you for this!
    For giving support!

  16. What a wonderful, inspiring post Gena. Thank you.

    I can relate to this on many levels. After struggling with disordered eating for years and gaining the weight back over two years ago, I still found myself in a “transition” phase for nearly two years. I struggled with personal identity, because like you I identified myself as the “thinnest girl in the room,”. That’s who I was. I was the “super healthy” (or so I thought) girl who ran a lot. I thought I was powerful for being able to control what I ate while running such long distances.

    It took a long time and a lot of changes after I returned to a healthy weight to regain my personal identity. It was a struggle and nothing less figuing out who I am, and who I want to be in this new, truly healthy body.

    Now, with those thoughts behind me, I am coming into my own. I am accepting myself for who I am now, and I am my own person. I am happy for things other than my weight and ability to restrict food. I can embrace my skills and passions without my thinness overriding their importance in my own mind. It took nearly three years for me to get to this point, from the point of starting recovery until now. It can be a long, hard journey and I feel for every woman (or man) going through this. It’s not easy, but it is possible to get through it.

    Thank you for this.


  17. WOW. Gena, you blow my F-ING mind! Although I have never been anorexic or bulemic, I am interested in all things ED and recovery from every angle and I so enjoy every morsel of your brilliant writing. Outstanding!

  18. Gena, that was perfect. As someone who has battled an ED for well over half of my life, I can say that giving up my distinctiveness is a never-ending struggle. Objectively, I know being the skinniest girl in the room is a crazy way to think, but I also know that we need to acknowledge whatever thoughts are going through our heads and address them. All of those old passions (music for me) get pushed aside when you are obsessed with food and calories. I’ve accomplished a lot in my life. I’ll never know what more I could have done without the ED taking up so much of my time and energy, but I can’t look back. I am what I am and moving forward, with a healthy attitude, is the only way to go.

    Thank you for your beautiful words.

  19. You make a very interesting and valid point Gena, about how some people who have suffered from EDs can use it as a tool for self-loathing at the same time as seeing people of normal weights as being less than. What you’ve discussed in this post is rarely talked about openly, even in ED literature. Thank you for sharing.

  20. Firstly, thank you for writing this post. I don’t write my own blog, but I imagine that if I did, one of the most difficult things for me would be the fact that many readers would angrily disagree with me. While I appreciate debate, I definitely struggle with criticism and anger. So mostly I thank you for putting yourself out there, even if it means upsetting some, so that we may all have this conversation.

    Ok I’ll try to keep this brief… One of the things that pissed me off the most about my own eating disorder was how everyone stereotyped me and made assumptions based on the “typical” anorexic portrayed in books, movies, etc. For that I appreciate that we all have shared our own personal experiences and responses. One thing that I can relate to that you have expressed in this post is the pursuit of thinness, and this making me unique. I was so incredibly ashamed of my eating disorder and being so thin. I constantly tried to hide my thinness, and cringed whenever people pointed it out, whether stranger or friend. Yet, interestingly, I took comfort in always being the “smallest one,” and also couldn’t imagine not holding this role. It’s that catch-22, and only one of MANY paradoxes I personally experienced. I didn’t know how to be defined but by my eating disorder, and I guess it scared me think of myself as “normal.” I wanted so badly to not be seen as this “sickly, fragile, girl,” yet what a relief it felt at the time to be “the thin one.”

    That girl is way in my past and I am happy to report that (although definitely still slender) it feels effing GREAT to not be viewed by others as something less than a person. People now see me for who I really am! Talk about Comfort!

    “It’s as if I want to grab the world by the shoulders and shout: ‘just in case you’ve forgotten, I’m capable of all that.'” I also feel this way from time to time. And then I think- “you know what’s really cool? Not that I once was capable of that, but that I am where I am now! Despite suffering from something of this magnitude. I made it to where I am now, and that is something that I’m damn proud of.”

    I’m sorry if I’ve included too much personal info, but I really wanted to comment. Again, thank you for writing, and also for reminding us all that we are all unique simple because we are!

  21. What a great post. I’ve never had an ED so it is really interesting to hear some of what it is like from the other side. I had never thought about people deriving a sense of identity and uniqueness from disordered eating, but it makes a lot of sense.
    It reminds me of the great life coach Tony Robbins – he holds (and I have found him to be correct 100% of the time in my own experience) that people have 6 basic needs that all other needs boil down to. One of them is significance – the desire to feel special, unique, strong, better than others at least in certain ways, etc. It sounds like this is exactly what is happening in many disordered eaters – they derive a sense of significance from their self-control and noticeable appearance.
    But Tony Robbins also holds that the only reason people really want to feel significant, deep down, is because they want to be loved and to feel worthy of love. And it’s sad but true that because they are unaware of this, people will often sacrifice love to feel significant, and then wonder why they feel empty, lonely, and unhappy. Focusing on loving others (and ourselves) and learning how to receive love is so much more fulfilling than erecting false, isolating barriers to try to feel more significant than everyone else.

  22. Typical, Gena! 😉 A whopping load of insight I’m sure you just sat down and typed in a few spare minutes!
    I think this is a really nice take on the emotional root of an eating disorder. “Control” is the typically cited root cause, but control of what? Maybe the most general way to describe it would be control of our own selves- who we are in this world, what our role is, how we are perceived, and what our autonomy affords. A sense of personal uniqueness is a large part of this- a sense that we can be distinctive in life, and that we have the locus of control to make it so.
    From my own experience this could not be more true- I identify my ed’s emotional root as the need to be in control of my life literally (I was very over-protected) and socially (I was socially anxious and felt I had no control over whether others liked me). I also felt very out-of-control in my eating (overweight) and my emotions (angry, depressed, anxious). While I never wanted to be the thinnest girl in any room, I wanted to be one of the thinner girls, not one of the overweight ones. My distinctiveness became my ability to go from very overweight to very bony, to manifest my deepest desire, to fit in, to be in control of my personal appearance and social niche.
    It is interesting- and aligns with your theory- that in recovery I have maintained (an ever diminishing) desire for others to know that I was once anorexic. For some I know this feels like an admission of failure or lack of control, but for me it is the remainder of that feeling of distinction: I can be anorexic, I was, and I could be- but I’m worth more than that, and I value other things in life more than appearance. Luckily I feel distinctive in other ways in life, and developing confidence in those things was a part of my recovery. So for those struggling to recover- remember- you have already shown your distinctiveness through your ed. What about showing your distinctiveness through having *had* and ed, but then recovered? By rising above that pattern? By being a role model for others? By doing that hard work of defining your distinctiveness through your substance, rather than your absence?

    One final thought before this comment gets out of control long 😉 … this post addresses anorexia, and it now addresses bulimia in a lot of ways. But what about binge eating? Perhaps the element of secrecy, as one reader commented, but what about the simple addiction to over-eating that can come from depression, anxiety, etc? I’ve been on both eating of the ed spectrum and I feel like this post might not address binge eating. Not that it set out to, necessarily, but I thought I’d raise the question. For me binge eating is somewhat of a manifestation of stress and hopelessness… I can’t stop, won’t be able to, can’t be distinctive, I fail, panic, etc etc etc. Instead of trying to establish an identity based on control, it crams food in place of those feelings of emptiness or lack of control. For me it’s a long-term battles between the two strategies, with some tense peace agreements that are tenuously upheld :). Would love to hear other thoughts on this!

  23. I skimmed this post earlier and, oddly, it did not resonate like your posts often do. As the evening wore on my mind kept finding its way back to this post with feelings of frustration

    In my opinion the strong connection you have placed between uniqueness (whether it be through thinness, or secretive activities/capabilities) and eating disorders is in error. This perpetuates the myth that eating disorders are a choice or based on tangibles without getting to any of the actual underlying issues like low self-esteem, lack of coping skills etc.

    I doubt I am the only eating disordered person to not relish in the distinctiveness an eating disorder gave them but in fact be horrified. I am still smaller than average and when people comment I cringe.

    “Maintaining disordered eating habits becomes a way of experiencing that thing we all want to experience: the sensation of being unique.”

    Throughout my eating disorder I was ashamed. I was ashamed through both my initial battle with anorexia and later bulimia. When my arms where too skinny and looked bony and out of place, I felt ashamed. My secretive cability to vomit was disgusting and made me feel the complete opposite of smug. I felt so much shame around my eating disorder. Yes there were moments where I felt being eating disordered was the only thing I could ever excel at. And at times appreciated my ability to get away with it. It provided me with a psychological relief (albeit through a really “unhealthy” mechanism.) But pride? No.

    My eating disorder was never an adventure into being special. And yes even after I maintained disordered eating habits for years there was not a sensation of being unique. I wanted to blend in and be unnoticed. Even five years into recovery I have a hard time telling anyone about my eating disorder.

    That being said I can understand how/why others may do this. Eating disorders aside, people grab onto labels and identities to give meaning to their lives and world around them. This is normal (and perhaps an evolutionary necessity) and how we live.

    It may be a byproduct of time spent suffering from an eating disorder for some but I feel this should not be confused as a symptom or barrier of recovery for an eating disorder.

    (I apologize if I am over reacting. I do recognize and appreciate your using the term “disordered eating” and not “eating disorder”. Although bulimia and anorexia are mentioned. As someone who believes the line between the two terms is a often a blurry continuum, I may be out of context with suffusing them together for this post)

    • Jem thanks for this comment, it is really interesting to me. You’ll see (below) I am a reader who identifies with this post strongly, but I’m not surprised if others don’t, because I know many people are ashamed of their eds and wish (at one level) they did not have them. I am curious if your experience if more akin to (but opposite of) what I describe for binge eating? Not being able to stop the behavior, doing it to numb or escape, but being ashamed of it?

    • Hi Jem:

      One of the tough things about writing about EDs or recovery is the fact that you simply can’t write about all varieties of them. As Laura notes below, this post may be more relevant to anorexia and bulimia than it is to binge eating. And even within those categories, there exists a huge variety of behaviors, motivations, consequences, and habits. As one reader notes above–smartly, I think–there’s no use suggesting any uniformity among EDs. The best we can look for are broad patterns that do at least feel relevant to a chunk of us, and other patterns that are relevant to another chunk.

      This post was a cobbling together of my own experience and that of many of the women and men I work with. It certainly isn’t meant to describe all ED sufferers: just some. As the comments suggest, it does speak to many people, but there’s nothing surprising about the fact that it doesn’t speak to you in the same way: every experience of an ED is different.

      Also interesting: I tended to hide my body too. The feeling if distinction I describe wasn’t the same as pride in my body; it was more pride in the fact that I felt I could withstand hunger, and force my body into weight loss. Maybe a subtle distinction, but pretty salient.

      In any case, thanks for sharing, and reminding us of the variety of ED feelings and sensations.


    • Jem, I agree with you. While I do get what Gena is saying and that this reflects her own battle with anorexia, it does not resonate with me. I´m in the beginning of recovery and I´ve never ever felt pround of my disordered eating, ever. Ashamed, yes plenty, but proud, never. I do, however, suffer from binge eating.

      • Thanks for chiming in, Anna!

        Jem, I did also want to mention that I don’t think it’s fair to call my assessment of disordered thinking “in error.” Just as your experience of an ED isn’t “wrong,” and neither are your subsequent reflections on the causes, my own experience and subsequent analysis isn’t wrong, either. We simply seem to have lived through it and come out on the other side with different conclusions.

    • I’ve been wracking my brain to try and recall if I ever over the course of 8+ years felt anything like shame. Honestly, I don’t think so. Self hatred, sure, but ironically the ed mitigated that. A lot of anorectics experience denial; I think on some level I always knew what I was up to, and I was rather smug about it. I did relapse, a year and a half into grad school, two years post recovery, and that was some cause for shame, but I recovered quickly. And I never, once, envied women who ate “normally.” On the contrary, I felt disgust, and contempt, which in retrospect I probably wasn’t very good at hiding. I still get kind of disgusted when i see people eating in movie theaters, on public transit,etc. Old habits die hard. Interestingly, I did mostly hide my body, and to this day, even though a decade of yoga has added considerable girth to my arms, I prefer looser fitting clothes. I’m not sure what that’s about.

  24. Comment got eaten again. Hope it doesn’t double post. Anyhow…

    I found this post insightful because I would never have guessed that an ED stemmed from a desire to be unique. But people do things for a variety of emotional core needs and realizing them can be a step to recovery. Thanks for sharing. I am sure it wasn’t easy.

  25. Wow. hank you. This post really spoke to me. I am so grateful to have healed from that place, but I too still struggle. Especially when I run into ex-colleagues or people I haven’t seen for 3 years or so. I want to immediately blurt out, “I know, I got fat.” I feel like I have to defend myself, like that ‘uniqueness’ is gone…or almost, like I failed them, as if they wanted nothing else from me except for me to be thin. I know it is just my mind going back to that place where being thin was paramount, but it still does happen.

  26. This post really hit home and I feel like it actually helped me understand some things about my own issues that I’ve never really been able to verbalize before. I was a chubby kid and when I was ten I became anorexic. I was hospitalized and “recovered” but remained average/thin for several years. During high school I started gaining weight, and by the time I reached my highest weight (still very much within the range of average) at the end of high school I felt like I had lost everything. I literally felt like I was nothing. I hated myself beyond belief. That was nearly four years ago, and I have lost a lot of weight since then, making me technically underweight, but this is the only way I feel “safe”. I feel like my thinness protects me somehow–it is like my buffer against the world, but at the same time the only thing that allows me to interact with the world with any sense of self-worth. I’m scared of who I’d be without it.
    I’m generally a healthy eater and I don’t purge or over-exercise, but my BMI is technically underweight…and more importantly I know that my obsession with calories and my fear of weight gain are not healthy. I’m still struggling very much but I think a very important first step is being able to envision myself positively–or at all–regardless of my size.

    • “It’s the only thing that allows me to interact with the world with any sense of self-worth.” Wow…ditto.

  27. Once again you’ve managed to say something that seems impossible in the most perfectly eloquent way. While I never had anorexia or bulimia, I often struggle with this exact same issue anyway, putting my self-worth on something that isn’t actually important. A post like this helps me realize many people think this way, which actually helps me more than anything. Thank you for sharing this.

  28. It is interesting that there seems to be a huge connection between formerly disordered eaters and food bloggers. I wonder if it is related to the need for finding an identity through food, but taking it from self destructive means to positive ones.

  29. I agree with everything you said, 100%. Having gone through a terrible eating disorder, I recognize every single thing in the life I used to lead. Your eating disorder becomes your “best friend”. You isolate yourself from all else, and listen to the voices and impulses controlling you rather than reason and the concern of others. It is unfortunate and scary, and sadly, it is near impossible to realize how distorted your mind has become until you snap out of it and realize that you WANT and NEED to become better for yourself, and not for others.

  30. Gena,

    Thank you so much for articulating what so many eating-disordered and recovering individuals are terrified to recognize – how heavily the disease is motivated by a longing for uniqueness. I know that I have struggled to admit this myself, for fear that it would trivialize the disorder to an issue of vanity – but I think that the most important message from this post (for me) is that it’s okay, and even normal, to feel this way. And that realization remoes a layer of the shame associated with eating disorders, which is part of what NEDA is all about, right?

    It’s ironic how deeply this post resonates with me (and from what it looks like, many other readers), given that the common binding factor is a hunger for individuality. I’m so glad you’re encouraging your readers to seek it through healthier, and actually substantial, avenues. Thanks again for the best thing I’ve read all day!


    • Hmm. Your comment has me thinking; I always thought it was a hunger fir connection underneath it all, but maybe it is a hunger for individuality, or, psychological individuation. I think we have to individuate, break the damaged familial bonds, before we can own our hunger, for food and for connection. And anorexia is a part of what’s an ultimately healthy process. If only we didn’t get caught in. But in a strange way, I think all of us who come out the other side come out ahead. Very insightful comment – thanks.

      • Hey Elizabeth!

        I certainly didn’t mean to put a stamp of uniformity on all eating disorders; each definitely has a unique history and set of underlying causes. I think I just got excited to read the post and realize that a lot of feelings I had been struggling with, Gena put into words…and then I spoke too soon in a way that made it sound as though all eating disorders have the same causal factors. In fact, I agree with your assessment that less-than-ideal relations with family or other intimate people in one’s life tend to be a “risk factor” in those who engage in any sort of self-harm. For me, I guess it manifested in a (sick) desire to spark their attention with my thinness, ie: a way to assert my individuality. Also, I agree that if one is able to come out on the “other side” of an eating disorder, it’s a testament to her strength that can be carried through to other aspects of her life.

  31. Gena,

    This post hits very close to home for me because finding my identity outside of my eating disorder is something that I am struggling to do presently. I am seeing a nutritionist who asked me to picture what things would be like for me if I didn’t struggle with distorted eating and body image. The idea of existing without those difficulties as a crutch and a source of stress relief was and is scary to me. I am still trying to figure out what balance really means and it is really helping me to have the guidance of others during this difficult process.
    Your post could not have come at a better time – it really helps me to see that there are others out there who are and have struggled with the same issues that I am currently tackling. It also helps to know that there is recovery down the road and that peace will come with time.

  32. Thank you so much for posting this. I’ve never had a full blown ED, but I’ve definitely engaged in unhealthy diet and exercise regimes in the past. These practices were fueled by being told by people I trusted in life (family and friends) that thinness was my only attractive physical feature. If I even came close to a normal weight, I was deemed chubby.

    As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that this is so far from the truth. I don’t think I’m super beautiful, but physically, my reddish brown hair, hazel eyes and tall stature are what make me unique. As far as personality goes, I stand out by being a good listener, creative and adventurous. The recovery process was never easy, but rediscovering myself made it worthwhile.

  33. I’ve often had a hard time articulating how I felt while I struggled with disordered eating, and I’ve always said one of the most difficult parts of recovery is losing what I considered part (if not all) of my identity. Thank you so much for putting this to words.

  34. Hi Gena. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. I am recovering from disordered eating, and just last night I was gripped by panic with some of these very thoughts. I found peace when I told myself that my body does know what to do, what size to be, etc. I thought that I do not share anyone else’s mind, talents or abilities, why would my body be the same as theirs? I am myself, inside and outside, and I can’t be afraid to let that show.

    Also, I fully agree that each person has much more to give than a “tired body and tired mind”.

    Thanks again Gena for this beautiful and honest post.

  35. This might be my favorite post that you’ve written so far, Gena. Thank you for your beautiful words and inspiring vulnerability.

  36. This is such a good post and it rings true for me. People would tell me I was “tiny” and “so little”, I loved being that girl. I’m past my active ED but I notice people don’t say these things anymore and a part of me longs for it. I also know that I wasn’t happy and if I were thinner now, it wouldn’t solve problems in my life that I need to address.
    Thank you for writing this, it’s hard to figure out who you were before the ED and who you are after but I know I’m getting there. : )

  37. This is exactly what I need right now. I’m still battling in recovery to really let go of maintaining a low weight and this feeling of “uniqueness” definitely feels like the cause. Your advice is really great and I am actually finding that forcing myself to discover new hobbies or rediscover old ones, along with reconnecting with others and learning that I have qualities which are a lot better than “being thin” is moving me further away from this ed.
    Thank you so much.

  38. I think this is the best thing you have ever written. It’s like you took the words right out of my mouth. Thank you.

  39. This is a wonderful post Gena. Sometimes I do have thoughts where I wish I was the smallest like I always was throughout my life. For years I hated being the smallest in school, etc. and then somehow I became attached to it. I still struggle sometimes to remember that their are other things that make me who I am and how I am uniquely different from others.

    This was so beautifully worded and thought out. Thank you for sharing.

  40. This is a wonderful post. I’ve never had an ED myself, but I remember all too well how similar feelings of specialness have held me back in other areas of life. Realizing that I’m just like everyone else was both depressing and yet a huge weight off of my shoulders. I think, as you said, that many people will identify with this idea of holding on to uniqueness at all costs.

  41. Hi Gena, thank you for sharing this beautiful post with everyone. The candor and realness and authenticity are wonderful and I know that it will help those who need to read a post like this.

    In actuality, most of us can benefit from reading posts like this because I think that many of us struggle with trying to find our place in the world, to stand out, to be unique; but also to search and find that place where being unique but also conforming to socially acceptable mores and values intersect. We are all looking for our place, our identity, our role. Sometimes this search goes down a slippery slope, though, as you have pointed out.

    Thank your for sharing your story and thoughts.

    And I read some of your tweets the past hour..hang in there 🙂

  42. Eloquent post. I’m not sure this ever goes away completely. The way I describe it is that eventually the healthy part of me became stronger than the sick part. But it’s not as if the sick part disappeared, completely. It’s just that it doesn’t stand a chance anymore; there’s way too much at stake. Over time those other sources of distinctiveness become more important to us than being thin, and not worth risking. I still tend to lose weight – never deliberately anymore, but when I’m stressed, etc. – and I still feel glee when my bones start to protrude. But I feel a kind of horror too, so I’ll eventually start to amp up the smoothies! I’m also naturally slender, and more often than not, I’m still the thinnest person in the room. I’d be lying if I told you that I never gloated (inwardly) over that fact. But thankfully, I can chastise myself for those feelings even as they come up. As a source of confidence, being “skinny” doesn’t begin to compare to the confidence that comes from professional success, strong relationships, and a healthy body. To say nothing of the sense of psychological stability that comes from having integrated my appetite(s), finally.

  43. ps… do you think that veganism/raw foodism/etc etc could maybe, in a way, be to fill the void of thew loss of a sense of pride and identity? I am passionate about veganism and healthy eating/living, but sometimes I can’t help but wonder if I needed something to replace the eating disorder…

    • I sometimes wonder about this myself, but really the interpretation is the important part: eating ethically and sustainably versus eating greens because you know they’re not calorically dense. But you definitely can’t rule out the idea of veganism as something unique. I personally don’t get a sense of uniqueness out of being vegan, but my experience is certainly not generalizable, and I think it’s great that you brought this up, Sabine! I can’t wait to see some more replies!

    • I think it absolutely is (speaking in general terms)- but I think it’s a great substitute, as long as it is approached as healthfully and reasonably as possible. If you get a little superiority kick out of it, instead of your past ed… what the heck, there are worse things in life! I think it’s a great way to re-focus energy on food and distinctions around food, but re-orient them towards health and ethics.

      • Ian & Laura, thank you so much for your replies :). I feel good about eating vegan, I feel good what I am doing for the earth and animals and it makes me feel like a better, as in more compassionate, person. However, sometimes I feel guilty. I feel guilty for feeling good about it and good about myself, as formerly I felt so superior because of my ed. But Laura as you pointed out so what? In the end I am still helping and doing a good thing.

        • I think it takes a long time for the former ED sufferer to not feel as though eating is a sign of weakness, sloth, conventionality, and a lot of other crappy things. I battled this terribly, and felt a lot of shame when I ate, especially in public. The more I fell in love with quality food, the easier it got, and by the time I went vegan I had already made a lot of peace with it.

          For that reason, I don’t see my veganism as a sublimated form of my past ED. But I think there are many good reasons why so many former ED women are vegans. For more on that, check out my “hows and whys of my veganism” post, where I touch on it.

  44. Gena this was such a great post, and I am happy I reminded you :). I actually loved you ’embrace your appetite’ post so much I link to it on my ‘top posts’ (from other bloggers) page :).

    This post especially struck me because even though I feel recovered, I have phases where the disordered thoughts swipe through my brain and trying to get hold, which feels really awful, but I am trying to just let the thoughts be and of course not act on it. Thank you for writing about this subject 🙂

    ps- your link to me doesn’t work 😉

  45. This is so eloquent and wonderful. As we have discussed, my weight never dropped dramatically, despite my clearly engaging in eating disordered behavior, but I remember deriving a sense of special-ness from being able to eat very little while others around me were eating a lot. This satisfaction, in hindsight, would be part of what would cause me to engage in this behavior again and again over the years (ie there would be periods of comparative normal eating, followed by longer periods of restriction). It was only when I got to law school that I had a revelation, namely that eating very little meant I was constantly light-headed, and therefore would not do well concentrating or in the all-important law school exams, and that I would just be sabotaging myself by eating very little. I had just spent several months restricting my eating and had fallen back into my eating disorder patterns, and was all set to keep that pattern for all of law school when, somehow, I had this epiphany one day early my first semester. That logic is one I still go back to today, despite being several years out of law school.

  46. I find it very interesting that you say its a craving of uniqueness. I suffered from an eating disorder and that was the opposite of my desire. I wanted to be normal. It was based off I didn’t want to be unique I just wanted to eat like a normal person. But fear is the underlying cause of it all in my opinion. Fear of not being good enough, or unique, or not normal. Thats just my opinion that not every desires to be unique 🙂

  47. Yes, I agree. It really is a wonderful post, a good reminder for everyone really, ED related or not. It also identified that feeling, which I never could quite define, so it was enlightening too.

  48. What an eloquent and important post. As someone with a history of anorexia, I relate to eveything that you said. I also think it is important to mention, however, that it is not just thinness or restriction which makes people feel special. My eating disorder, like many others’, started as anorexia and gradually shifted into ednos/bulimia. For the majority of my struggle, I was normal weight or slightly overweight. Because my disorder wasn’t obvious to the outside world, I took pride in my ability to “get away” with hurting myself. I have now come along way on the road to recovery, but I still stuggle with losing that part of myself. I liked having a dark side to myself, even if no one knew about it. I felt like my secret struggle made me interesting and layered. I’m still trying to convince myself that that is a lie. I am learning that it is not your struggles that make you interesting or admirable or attractive, but the way you deal with them and your ability to come out the other side.

    • This is such a good point. Thanks, M, for bringing it to my attention. I actually just went back and tweaked some language in the hopes of making clear that it isn’t just feelings of thinness, but also feelings of self-harm or furtiveness or self-perpetuating cycles, that’s at work here. Read again if you like 🙂

      • So true on the furtiveness. My (disordered) sense of smugness, which you can read about below, also was rooted in that. Because I never got very low in weight, I was always very aware that no one but me knew about this, and it definitely tied into the attraction of the feeling.

      • Gena,
        I really appreciate that you added that language. Especially the part about self-destruction; that desire, even more than thinness, is what drove my eating disorder for so long. I didn’t want to seem nit-picky and I know that you were writing based on your own experience. However, I guessed, correctly it seems, that I wasn’t the only one who might feel this way.

        Also thank you for saying “Recovery doesn’t mean never again experiencing a disordered thought.” That is something I’m currently grappling with in my own recovery.

        • I also appreciate the changes you made to the language, Gena- I read this earlier, before you made the additions, and I spent several hours thinking about it because I did feel that I related, but as a long-term bulimic I never actually got very thin. My recovery has been very hard and I don’t seem to be getting any better (which is why I need to email you again!), and one of the reasons I think I have been having so much trouble is that I am so used to my private time, my secret, which helped me be unique in my own eyes. This secret, which I still have trouble not viewing as the ultimate form of stress relief even though I am aware of how much stress is actually costs me, is my identity even though most people do not know about it.

          This post has definitely been thought provoking and I hope that I will be able to, someday, “see the emptiness in (disordered eating), and… start to feel pangs of excitement for the real accomplishments that lie ahead of you.”

          • “This secret, which I still have trouble not viewing as the ultimate form of stress relief even though I am aware of how much stress is actually costs me”

            I could have written this myself. I once told my therapist that I was afraid I was afraid I might never find anything that was as effective as purging, and she said “you probably won’t.” You have an eating disorder because it serves you in some way. It’s okay to grieve the loss of that coping method. However, you have to just push through and realize that it isn’t a healthy one. I still sometimes feel stuck in recovery because I know what to do to make myself feel better but I can’t. The truth is, though, that any “relief” I get from behaviors is very temporary, and it never really works as well as I think it will.

          • This stream of comments makes me think of the place where restriction and purging and compulsive overeating all meet in the middle. It appears that it is all in an effort to NOT feel what emotions are really happening within us. Something that I work on every day in my own recovery is allowing myself to feel–whether it be as simple as feeling tired, or as complex as being angry–just feeling is something very new for me. And it is certainly harder than overeating to numb myself. I have been helped along on this journey by yoga/buddist thought in that I have learned that I can actually step back from myself and observe these emotions and then actually say to myself, “Wow, Wendy, look at how anxious you are feeling” and putting a name on it and allowing myself to be the observer of my own emotions has helped tremendously. But it doesn’t mean that the urge to compulsively overeat and stuff down my emotions goes away. It just means that I now have tools and a method to deal with it when I am aware of it. I think recovery from ED does not mean that you are no longer a disordered thinker, it just means that you know how to talk to yourself differently.

  49. Gena, this is an inspiring post. I have met many people with EDs since I started blogging and this post helps me think how I might be of support to others. Thank you.

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