Our culture tends to make the most basic concepts way too complicated, even something as simple as putting stuff in our bodies so we can keep living. In one corner, we have evil food companies who trick you into becoming addicted to foods that will kill you, and in the other corner, in the blue trunks, we have our cultural obsession with things like the ever-elusive "thigh gap." It's no surprise, then, that some people become clinically confused, resulting in drastic measures like starving themselves or having their cake and puking it too.
Outside of shitty Lifetime original movies, though, nobody really talks about the everyday reality of eating disorders. We sat down with two young women who have struggled with anorexia and bulimia and got a look at what has to be one of the most misunderstood mental illnesses out there ...
#5. It Involves More Than Just Starving or Puking
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We all think we know the basics -- anorexia means you starve yourself to death, bulimia means you eat and then puke it up. And already we're wrong -- many bulimics, for example, never throw up. There are as many ways to purge as there are exit routes in your body, and there are probably a lot of those that you never even thought about. And, uh, some that you did. Such as your butthole.
You've never seen steaks so well-browned.
According to one of the women we talked to, Sara, that can be just as effective of a route as the other end, with a little help from your friends (laxatives, that is, which are really no one's friend). Also, diuretics can get rid of all the pesky water loafing around in your body by directing it straight to your pee tube. On one hand, these might be more pleasant than shoving a finger down your throat to trigger vomiting, but on the other, you have no control over when the "purge" happens. So, we hope you've got plenty of time for frequent bathroom breaks, as you've now chemically turned your body into an unholy calorie-excreting cannon.
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"Ride of the Valkyries" blaring before every toilet session isn't normal.
The other woman we talked to, Christine, was a big fan of diet pills, which keep your hunger at bay and speed up your metabolism at the same time, for a one-two punch straight to your heart. So, you're walking around tempting death while everyone tells you how great you look. "You have to tell me what diet you're on!"
But then there are the less obvious exit routes, like sweat. Exercise bulimia is a thing, and it was Christine's preferred method of purging. She exercised several times every day, for a minimum of two hours at a time. "But Cracked," you might be saying, "why even call that an eating disorder? Athletes exercise all the time, too. Are you claiming they have some kind of mental illness?"
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No, it becomes a disorder when it turns into a compulsion that you can't control. In other words ...
#4. It's Not a Choice
The hardest part of any mental illness is getting people to acknowledge it even exists. And just as the average person has a horrible time separating clinical depression from merely being sad ("Just cheer up, little buddy!") people also can't separate "she has an eating disorder" from "she wants to be thin and pretty like the girl on the magazine cover." People will use "anorexic" to mean someone who is vain and shallow about their looks. ("Why do girls want to look like one of those anorexic starlets?") So let's clear this up right now: One study showed that 97 percent of eating disorder patients were found to exhibit at least one other psychiatric illness, such as severe depression, anxiety disorders, or substance abuse.
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"I'll tip you an extra $100 if you let me tell you about my childhood for an hour."
So the eating disorder is basically just an expression of those illnesses, but for some reason everyone seems to think that psychologically healthy people just decide to start puking on a regular basis because bikini season is coming up. This misconception can lead to a lot of ineffective and even downright harmful messages. For instance, there's a big push in the culture to promote self-acceptance (despite interrogating one of the greatest comedians of our generation about her weight every time she gives an interview, mind you), but it comes with this bizarre tendency to try to shame people out of eating disorders. It sounds open-minded to say, "You have a beautiful body, why do you want to look like one of those gross anorexic girls?" Unless you happen to have anorexia, in which case it comes off like you're being blamed for ruining society.
"The California drought: Are water-wasting bulimics to blame? Our report will shock you."
Sara compared eating disorders to an abusive relationship -- some entity outside of herself that constantly bullies her. Christine agreed, explaining that she felt a constant urge to exercise so strong that she often left the house in the middle of the night to go to the gym, hitting the Nordic Track until roughly ass o'clock in the morning. "I had to keep going until my brain was happy," she says. Of course, it never really was. If that sounds kind of like an addiction or even obsessive-compulsive, that's because that's what it is.
So, no, it doesn't help to just sit the person down and reassure them that Hollywood's beauty standards are bullshit. They're kind of beyond that point.
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The camera adds 10 pounds of crippling self-doubt.
Don't get us wrong, nothing occurs in a vacuum -- it has been shown that the introduction of Western media in non-Western countries dramatically increases the incidence of eating disorders, so that's not to say that fighting impossible standards of beauty isn't a worthwhile goal. The problem is that once that compulsion has you in its grip, telling a person who has an eating disorder "You're beautiful just the way you are!" is about as helpful as asking someone who is clinically depressed, "Have you tried not being depressed? Because I'm here to tell you that no matter what Hollywood says, depression is bad!"
#3. You Can't Tell Who Has an Eating Disorder
Unlike those other mental illnesses, you're probably pretty sure you can spot someone with an eating disorder. Someone who is depressed might be able to force themselves to put on a happy face, but you can't hide an exposed collarbone. For many who suffer from eating disorders, though, that collarbone is already exactly as hidden as it should be. When Christine noticed that, like her, most of the women she saw at the clinic where she was treated were pretty normal-looking, she did some research and found out that the majority of bulimics never become scarily underweight.
It makes sense, if you stop to think about it. No matter how quickly you purge, your body has already started doing its absorbing-calories thing, and different methods have different efficiency rates. Add to that the Midwestern Irish Catholic family-sized meals most bulimics are eating and it balances out to a pretty typical caloric intake.
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Carbs find a way.
Furthermore, eating disorder sufferers become very good at hiding their condition. Sara says she became a masterful liar, inventing excuses for eating or not eating on the fly with more skill than a professional improv team. If she was in binge mode, she would eat a huge meal at home, go out with her friends, and beg them to hit up the dollar menu because she "hasn't eaten all day." Then she'd go home and shuffle the food around in the pantry so it didn't look like so much was missing.
And then, of course, there's the purging, which came with its own cover-up tactics. People start to get suspicious when every time you go to the bathroom, you leave behind the distinct aroma of half-digested chicken nuggets, no matter how many cocktails you claim you had the night before. So Sara started vomiting in the shower, outside in the bushes, and even in containers that she kept in her bedroom. Think about that for a second. Think about sitting in a room surrounded by Tupperware full of puke. That's some impressive dedication, and it worked, because nobody knew she had a problem for over a year and a half.
They figured something was up when they had to have a 13th Tupperware party.
If that's making it sound like having an eating disorder is a complicated, life-altering project, you should also know that ...