Feeling you are not “sick enough” to have an eating disorder can be a hurdle to seeking help. Whatever it looks like for you, you are valid and deserving of support and care, says Emma Garavini.
[Content Warning: eating disorders]
It took me a lot of mulling over and back and forth to settle on this topic for a blog. Why?
Because who am I to talk about this? What can I possibly contribute to the conversation? Surely, there are people out there who have a lot more to say than I do. What if I am taking up the space of someone who is more deserving or knowledgeable?
All too common thoughts of the infamous imposter syndrome.
It’s something that, here at McPin, seems to be a common experience among the team in various ways. It’s a topic we have held reflective practice sessions on and a subject that results in a chorus of “I know what you mean”s when someone brings it up.
Imposter syndrome refers to: “The feeling that your achievements are not real or that you do not deserve praise or success.”
An experience that can leave people who are perfectly worthy, skilled and capable feeling as though they aren’t deserving of their success, job, qualification, or that they’ve simply found themselves lucky.
Imposter syndrome and eating disorders
This got me thinking about times when I have experienced imposter syndrome and I landed on an experience which, for the purpose of this blog, I will refer to as “imposter syndrome in eating disorders”.
It’s a darker experience of imposter syndrome when experiencing disordered eating/eating disorders of feeling invalidated either by yourself or others.
It turns out I’m not alone with this Venn diagram intersection. It only took me a quick google to see blogs and chat room threads by people posing questions such as:
“Does anyone feel like they don’t have an eating disorder?”
“I’m a normal weight with an eating disorder but I don’t feel like I have one”
“I feel like I eat way too much food to be anorexic”
A hurdle to getting help
As someone who has struggled with an eating disorder, these thoughts are all too familiar and can be a major hurdle to reaching out and engaging with help and support. How can you seek help for an eating disorder when you don’t “feel” like you have one? If anything, this kind of imposter syndrome can make someone feel worse or they need to “do more” to prove to themselves and others that they do have an eating disorder, which can be an extremely dangerous slippery slope.
Often, the first port of call for people is a trip to the GP, which can result in being weighed. NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) guidelines say that your GP should take into account a range of factors when assessing an eating disorder, not just weight. But how your doctor responds to the number on the scales can make imposter syndrome worse.
I’d also like to note, eating disorders seem to have historically and even presently been associated with something young, white, able-bodied, Western women contend with. If someone falls out of these demographics, I imagine this can add yet another hurdle with reaching out and receiving support, and more imposter syndrome.
Fine line between “diets” and eating disorder behaviours
Another thing that can contribute to feelings of invalidation in eating disorders is sadly that some eating disorders can start with, and be masked by, the guise of an “innocent diet”.
It’s important to note, diets do not cause eating disorders and not everyone who goes on a diet will develop an eating disorder. Eating disorders are brought on by a multitude of factors which are specific to the individual and often need therapeutic/psychological support to address.
However, the diet industry promotes a lot of concepts which can be the foundation for disordered eating: counting calories, fasting, the concept of burning and earning food, food as “reward” and the sheer concept that there are “good” and “bad” foods, to name a few.
This foundation can get strengthened as dieting involves a fixation on food. If you are thinking about food for a large chunk of the day this can be an early warning sign. Social media doesn’t help – a 2 min scroll on the Explore page of Instagram can quite quickly get you stuck in a hole of “what I eat in a day” videos, which further normalises this fixation on food, calories, macros, exercise, you name it.
All of this can blur the lines between a diet, disordered eating and an eating disorder.
No such thing as “sick enough”
Ultimately, you need to ask yourself who and what is defining “sick enough”.
Eating disorders don’t just happen overnight, they creep up on you. This so-called threshold of being “sick enough” is a lie. A lie that an eating disorder will lure you into believing.
A cruel irony that I found, was the more I descended into my eating disorder, the further away that “sick enough” to need help became.
There is no level you must attain to reach out for support. We are all deserving of care, support and help.
No “one way” to have an eating disorder
Knowing someone has experienced something similar to you can be validating and comforting. I may have started off this blog wondering who was I to write about this, but now I’ve got this far, I hope that me voicing my experiences may be helpful to others.
I find myself more open and candid about my experience of my eating disorder with friends who also have a similar history, experience or diagnosis. There’s a lot of shame and secrecy with eating disorders and I’ve found this lessens when speaking to friends with similar lived experience. However, I always enter these conversations with an awareness of how triggering these conversations can be for myself and especially for others.
Being able to have honest and explorative conversations with people who have similar lived experience made me realise how multifaceted, nuanced and intricate a diagnosis it can be.
For example, certain behaviours, rituals and thoughts patterns I had experienced were never experienced by them and vice versa.
So, please know there is no right or wrong way to have an eating disorder. There’s no checklist or tick boxes.
No matter what you do or don’t do, think or don’t think – you are valid and deserving of support and care.
The earlier you seek help, the better
Early intervention for eating disorders is crucial. If eating disorders are left untreated, they can become more severe and less receptive to treatment.
If you find yourself placing more importance on weight, food or body image and are often preoccupied with thoughts surrounding these – speak to someone you trust. This could be a friend, parent, neighbour, teacher, youth worker, cousin – you name it.
If you’d rather seek support elsewhere, I’ve put some resources at the end.
Taking that step to reach out for support can be scary and conflicting. Please know you are not alone and your courage to seek support is a wonderful act of self-care.
Emma is a trainee Youth Involvement in Research Officer at the McPin Foundation. Find out more about McPin’s Young People’s Network.