I took a British Literature class in high school, and one of the poems we read has still stuck with me, even after all the years: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot. One of verses in the poem reads,
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
The reason I’ve remembered it for so long is because I can relate to it. It describes a long, painful season of my own life when every evening, morning, and afternoon was measured by spoons.
Or spoonfuls. Cups. Ounces. Bites. Grams. Pieces. Calories.
Not only did I measure my food, but I measured my days according to the amount of food I did or didn’t eat. I measured my body, my clothes, the size of my thighs. My feelings about those measurements determined my entire attitude and perspective for the rest of the day, and I consequently ‘counted’ my days as good or bad depending on how I felt about food and my body.
Throughout my recovery, I’ve learned the sad truth that a person doesn’t need to have a diagnosed eating disorder to struggle with those all-consuming, shame-filled thoughts. Anorexic or not, millions of women measure their lives according to food. And according to the size of their pants. Or their daily exercise. Or their body fat percentage. Collectively as women, we’ve wasted so much precious time focused on avoiding food and whittling down the size/shape of our bodies. We could have used that time for so many other things — more important things — had we not believed the lie that in order to contribute to the world in meaningful ways, we first had to be thin.
I will be honest that developing an eating disorder didn’t just boil down to thinness. There was a complex web of experiences, beliefs, traumas, and triggers that set me up to spiral as I did. But it was the obsession with thinness and the false security of numbers that held me captive once I’d found them. Choosing to willingly surrender the “safety net” that counting calories, weighing myself, and wearing a certain size gave me was more terrifying than addressing the issues that led me to that place in the beginning. But had I never chosen to recover, I would’ve missed out on the abundant life that God had waiting for me — past the numbers.
Measuring our lives with food holds us back from the opportunity to measure our lives with more meaningful things. Food can’t make us good or bad, and it can’t determine the outcome of our days, either. Ultimately, gaining a few pounds is meaningless. A changing body doesn’t make us less lovable, and logging more hours at the gym doesn’t make us more so. A smaller pant size isn’t more beautiful. Eating within tightly controlled, carefully calculated eating parameters might help us towards a goal of losing those extra few pounds or dropping down to that next pant size, and it may even help us reduce anxiety when the rest of life feels like a whirlwind. But it doesn’t solve any real problems, and more often than not, it creates new ones.
Even the best of the “good days” in my eating disorder pale in comparison to the life that I have now, without it. Of course some days are still better than others, but the measuring stick that I use finally has nothing to do with food. Obsessing about what I ate or how my body looked never actually did anything to make my days better. It actually only ever made them worse. And the very best things in my life today are things I couldn’t have if food was still my #1 concern — things like my marriage, education, close friendships, and faith that God is the one in control.
Another thing I’ve learned through recovery and in working with women in a clinical setting is that we don’t have an accurate measuring stick for the harm that comes from food and body image struggles, either. The ‘diagnostic criteria’ for eating disorders doesn’t accurately encompass the millions of women whose lives are overcome with obsessive and shameful thoughts about eating and exercise. You don’t need to have a formal name for your experiences for you to deserve to seek help, because you deserve to live a full, balanced, joyful life. Every day measured according to food is a day wasted, and God has so much more for us.
[For more on God’s plan for the role of food in your life, check on Faith, Food, Freedom — a 20-day devotional exploring the intersection between food and faith.]
This post is written as part of the NEDA campaign. National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (#NEDAwareness) is February 24 – March 1, 2020. We’re changing the conversation around food, body image, and eating disorders! Join the movement and #ComeAsYouAre, not as you think you should be. www.nedawareness.org