Sarah Lang is no longer embarrassed about her former struggle with disordered eating. She hopes her story will help others.
TW: This story contains discussion of eating disorders and bulimia
Extreme dieting. Over-exercising. Binge-eating. A little bulimia. I experienced all these things between the ages of 17 and 26. Damn, I wish I hadn’t. And damn, I wish I had appreciated the body (and the face) I had. Because, actually, I was beautiful and I didn’t know it.
For me, it was less about eating disorders, and more about ‘disordered eating’: eating behaviours that disrupt lives but fall short of the strict criteria for the full-blown eating disorders anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder.
‘It was upsetting when someone saw my disordered eating as a choice. It really wasn’t.’
Rather, disordered-eating behaviours include extreme diets; yoyo weight loss/gain; compulsive overexercising; occasional binge-eating; and even ‘drunkorexia’ (not eating when drinking to offset the calorie intake).
It began when, as a teenager, I realised that I ‘went out’ at the waist (fine) then ‘went out’ again at the thighs (not fine). I thought of it as having ‘saddlebags’ attached to my outer thighs, which wasn’t a body shape I saw in Dolly or Cleo magazines.
If I was tempted to eat any treat, like a Tim Tam, I’d imagine it going straight to those saddlebags. At 17, I started dieting, but though I could change my weight, I couldn’t change my shape. Recently I saw a photo from my seventh-form ball. I was tiny.
When I was 17, my boyfriend – the first guy I slept with, a few months in – told me afterwards that my thighs were a bit chunky but that the rest of me was fine. OH THANKS SO MUCH FOR THAT COMPLIMENT, TOM, AND I WILL SOON REALISE I CAN DO SO MUCH BETTER THAN YOU.
When my next boyfriend, Jamie, told me how slim I was, I thought, ‘wait til he sees my thighs’ (which he did, of course, but it didn’t seem to dissuade him). When I moved from Whanganui to Wellington to go to uni, and his career was leading elsewhere, he said he didn’t want to break up because I was ‘pretty, hot, smart and funny’. I thought, ‘really? That’s everything I want to be, but surely it’s not true’. We broke up, sadly.
During my first year of university, living in a student hostel, I gained what, in the U.S, is sometimes called “The Freshman Five”. You know: you’re eating whatever you want in the dining hall including desserts, you’re drinking a lot of alcohol, you’re not exercising.
In one year, I gained an unprecedented eight kilos. My self-esteem plummeted. That summer, back in Whanganui, I felt nauseous for months (because my parents split up then, or because I was working at a fume-filled petrol station) and the weight fell off.
Back at uni and now flatting, I started gaining weight again. So I dieted again – at one point, eating only fruit and vegetables. I’d go to aerobics for an hour then the gym to do weights right after. I was getting compliments about how I looked, which made me feel I was doing the correct thing. But it turns out I was pushing myself too much.
One day at uni, between classes, I was going to buy a salad and instead got a slice of pizza, then a donut. I started binge eating, feeling out of control and unable to stop in a way that’s hard to explain. I’m not sure how long it lasted – maybe nine months. I was eating junk. Eating when I wasn’t even hungry. My body ballooned. It embarrassed me. I never dared weigh myself.
One day I managed to stop. I’m not sure how. I do remember the shock of seeing purple stretch marks on my thighs. And I do remember walking up the street after a night out, saying to myself, ‘from tomorrow there’s a clean slate. One step at a time.’ Going back to aerobics, I saw the instructor recognise me with what looked like horror.
‘Someone at work asked me to grab lunch and I slipped up and said ‘I’m not really eating at the moment’.’
I’d lost most of the extra weight, but had plateaued and was still a little ‘padded’, when the bulimia started, following a major trauma. That was the only full-blown eating disorder I ever had. It was compulsive. And, man, it was horrible – you didn’t even really enjoy the food, because you knew you’d go through the horrible process of throwing it up. The stomach acid from the bulimia ruined the enamel on my teeth.
I can’t remember how long it lasted – maybe on and off for a year. I can’t remember how I stopped. I think I managed to say that ‘tomorrow starts a new chapter’. I never qualified for any help in the public-health system because I wasn’t ‘bad enough’ – and, as a student, I certainly couldn’t pay for private help.
I dropped to my ‘ideal weight’ when I was stressed in a new job and in a difficult situation romantically. Experiencing some bloating made me think I wasn’t digesting food properly. Someone at work asked me to grab lunch and I slipped up and said ‘I’m not really eating at the moment’. I drank only Diet Coke for lunch. I wasn’t anorexic, but I was severely restricting my food. When I dipped under 50kg, I knew I had to reset.
That’s when I found EDEN (the Eating Difficulties Education Network): a small not-for-profit that was doing crucial work in disordered-eating prevention and early intervention; running education programmes for schools, gyms, health professionals and others; and campaigning for change at a societal level.
At an EDEN support group, I realised that disordered eating wasn’t just a weakness or ‘wrongness’ on my part. There were women who had very similar stories to mine. I gradually equipped myself with the tools to deal with triggers. I also did volunteer work for EDEN. Unfortunately, EDEN shut down as it never got government funding, which it damn well should have.
You could say I ‘came right’ aged about 26. But it’s important to understand that, before then, disordered eating affected me a lot at times, and at other points nowhere near as much. Think background noise, or the volume on a radio: sometimes turned up loud, and sometimes quieter, or even muted. That concept of a variable volume is useful for people supporting someone struggling with disordered eating; they can perhaps rate their state from a one to a 10 so you can get a sense of where they’re at.
Please understand one other thing: when I dealt with disordered eating, it was only ever one facet of me. One of many facets. Throughout my last year at high school, my six years of university and my two first years in a ‘proper job’, I was also a confident, fun-loving person who had many friends, who loved to socialise and go to parties, who did extremely well academically and at work, and who (apart from that one drastically overweight year) didn’t lack attention from males. I didn’t mention the disordered eating to boyfriends or ‘almost-boyfriends’. I was too embarrassed to tell my male friends in case they’d think less of me.
Of the people who did know, it was upsetting when someone saw my disordered eating as a choice. It really wasn’t. I didn’t choose it. It happened to me. ‘What a waste of time all that was,’ a friend told me years later. Well, yes, it was. But it wasn’t like I thought ‘hey, I’d like to have eating disorders for nine years just to have a topic of conversation’.
Disordered eating was one part of a chapter in my life – and not even a whole chapter – because I was so much more than that.
From age 26 through to now, at age 42, I largely put disordered eating behind me. I try to eat intuitively, listening to my body, eating healthily most of the time, indulging sometimes. However, there have certainly been some phases of ‘being good’ then falling off the wagon. Of wanting to be a certain weight. Of over-eating certain foods past fullness. All things that many people do.
I’m a bit sad, writing this, thinking about how it all happened. Was I a victim of my then-perfectionism? Was it never being good enough for my father? Were magazines flaunting models with impossibly perfect bodies to blame? Was it living in a society that congratulates weight loss? Was it friggin’ Tom who criticised my thighs? Maybe all of the above, and then some.
But you know what? Disordered eating was one part of a chapter in my life – and not even a whole chapter – because I was so much more than that. It never defined me – and, should you be struggling with disordered eating, it doesn’t need to define you either. Yes, it can be debilitating. So please, reach out for help if you need it, starting with a GP (ed.org.nz/getting-help/speaking-to-your-doctor). If you see someone you love struggling, encourage them to reach out. Because things can turn around. They really can. I promise.
WHERE TO FIND OUT MORE AND GET HELP
* EDANZ: advice for family members
*ed.org.nz/getting-help/eating-disorder-services (this offers support to people with loved ones who have an eating disorder