We’ve all seen the typical portrayal of eating disorders in mainstream media. The white, middle class, teen-aged girl stops eating as she strives for perfection. After a terrifying descent into an emaciated body, her family intervenes. She is sent away to treatment and returns to live happily ever after. While this depiction of anorexia and bulimia may ring true for some people, it is actually NOT the norm. The hard truth is: eating disorders do not just affect white, thin, teenage girls. Many women and even men struggle with eating disorders long after their teens and into midlife.
My Own Experience
As my 40th birthday approached a few (OK, several) years ago, I noticed an emotional storm brewing. Initially unsure what was going on, I slowly started to recognize the source of my internal conflict. With my 40’s looming ahead I realized I had been struggling with an eating disorder for more than half of my life. A resounding thought repeated in my head.
This is not how I imagined my life would turn out. I don’t want to spend the next 20 years consumed with my weight and body.
While I initially met the criteria of the stereotypical young white girl with an eating disorder, time passed and I grew into an adult. I became a wife, and then a mother. Yet I was STILL struggling with an eating disorder into midlife.
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The Hard Truth
I do believe recovery from an eating disorder is possible at any age. And I am a fan of treatment and early intervention. But the hard truth I have come to realize is this:
An eating disorder will not simply fade away if the deep underlying work is not healed. Unfortunately eating disorders continue into midlife for many people.
Silent Eating Disorders Midlife
It turns out, my experience is not a unique one. Studies show that eating disorders are occurring at a high rate in women and some men in midlife. And alarmingly, most of these people are NOT seeking treatment for the disorder.
So why aren’t people in midlife seeking treatment for their disorders? There are likely many reasons. Eating disorders are often entwined with feelings of shame and secrecy. In my own experience, I was incredibly embarrassed to I still be battling food and body image. I felt like I “should know better.” A fairly intelligent woman with my life mostly “together”, I struggled to simply feed myself. Thoughts such as, “I should be over this,” and, “I know better than this,” kept me spinning in a cycle of self-hate.
A lack of awareness also prevents people from seeking help midlife. Many people simply do not realize it is possible to have an eating disorder later in life. Sadly, disordered eating is the norm as we all live in a culture obsessed with health and thin bodies.
Why Are Eating Disorders Occurring Midlife?
Every single person’s journey through life is unique. At the same time, there are phases that are common to go through. While teens may rebel and seek identity from their peers, people in their 20’s often begin to focus on career and perhaps starting a family. By their thirties, many people are knee deep in raising children and simultaneously climbing the ladder at work.
The Happiness Curve
Scientists who study happiness have found that over a life span people experience what is known as the happiness curve. The idea: if we graphed the level of happiness most people experience over their lives, it would look like the letter “U”. Typically we have higher levels of happiness during childhood that decline after youth and hit a low during middle age. Often happiness begins to rise again as people are in their 50’s.
So during midlife, many people are at the “bottom” of this happiness curve. This experience is often attributed the increase of responsibilities during midlife. While raising children and working full time, women in midlife are also helping care for aging parents or coping with grief of losing them. Eating disorders may develop (or return) as an unhealthy and unconscious way to cope with difficult and uncomfortable emotions. In other words, it is easier for me to focus on the size of my pants than the decline of my parents’ health or the future of my children.
Pseudo-recovery Is Not Full Recovery
When I married for the second time, in my mid 30’s, I wanted nothing more than to become a mom. I knew that in order to conceive and have healthy pregnancies, I had to keep my eating disorder “under control.” (Well, my OBGYN reminded me of this actually). And so, on my honeymoon, I stopped restricting. And I put on some weight.
What I thought was “recovery” at the time, I realize now was really just stuffing the eating disorder underground.
Yes, I ate, and I allowed my body to grow. But in my mind- this was only temporary. It was for the children I desperately wanted. The minute my children were born- I was bombarded with messages about “getting my body back.” At the same time, I was the most exhausted, depleted, and stressed I had ever been. My entire identity had changed. Now literally responsible for the lives of others, my “self care” took a back seat. And the eating disorder came back full force.
I believe that many women with eating disorders go into a sort of psuedo-recovery. Some are able to have children, some grow into a career, many do both.
When an eating disorder is not truly dealt with, it continues to simmer under the surface.
As children grow and mothers are needed less, the ever changing experience of life can be hard to grapple with. Left clinging to a youth that will leave no matter what, mothers are no longer needed to change diapers and wipe faces. Many women see their bodies as a thing they can and must control. It is much easier to focus on dieting than it is to sit in the terrifying feelings of having a teenager. Or sending your children away to college. Or even questioning the purpose of your life. Those eating disorders that were never dealt with are simply waiting for a life stressor to resurface.
Obsessed With Youth
Our bodies change through out our lives, yet our society is obsessed with maintaining a youthful appearance. In addition to being bombarded with the messages to keep their body small, women in midlife are suddenly targeted by the beauty industry with the impossible task of staying young. Did you catch that? This task is impossible. Now instead of solely focusing on keeping our body the “right” size, we are also plagued with worrying about wrinkles, grey hair, varicose veins and other signs of aging.
Trying to keep up with the impossible beauty standards is exhausting. It is like running a race where the finish line keeps moving. For those of us with a history of disordered eating, we have often found a false sense of control by successfully shrinking our bodies. Again, it is easier to focus on shrinking my pants size than it is to face the fact that as I am aging.
If I am drowning in obsession about my body size, I am distracted from confronting my own mortality.
Despite our most rigorous efforts- we are all going to age. Until, of course, we die. From the time we are babies within our mothers’ swelling bellies- we are growing, changing, and aging. And yet, it is the norm to fight and resist the natural aging process.
A Terrifying Image
I have become more introspective over the years. As thoughts of aging summersaulted in my head, I started to notice women around me. The white haired woman I saw furiously walking every morning before the sun came up. And the elderly lady at the grocery store filling her cart with only lettuce and calorie free soda. The empty eyes that stared back at me from the woman at the playground as she fidgeted with the bracelet around her bony wrist.
I feel sad when I think about how many people are spending their precious time and life energy trying to shrink their bodies. And I don’t want that to be my life. Nor do I want it to be yours. I believe we are all here in this life with a purpose. And while I can never know fully what someone else’s purpose might be, I can tell you what it is not.
No one is here in this life with the purpose of shrinking their body.
When I am dead I am not going to be remembered for the size of my jeans. No one is going to cry over my grave proudly exclaiming, “She was always so skinny.” I may have spent half of my life obsessing over my food, body, and weight, and I can’t change that. But I can choose to live the rest of my life in a different way. I can choose to be free from the weight of fat phobia and live my life in alignment with my true purpose. And I can choose to trust in this truth:
Life is about so much more than weight and size.
Healing From Eating Disorders In Midlife
When I got really honest with myself I admitted I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to break free from my eating disorder for decades. Once I mustered up the courage to return to my therapist, despite my fear and shame, I followed her advice and sought more intensive help. I received the support I needed to learn to feed and care for myself. And while re-nourishing my body and restoring my weight were important steps towards my freedom, this time I needed to do the deeper work.
Terrified I would be the oldest person in treatment, I was stunned to meet other women in their 30’s, 40’s, and even 50’s there. And when I continued my recovery journey by taking amazing online courses, I connected with even more warriors who were my age. Doing the healing work that lay underneath the eating disorder along side other brilliant, caring, resilient, and brave warriors was incredibly transformative. One after another, I witnessed warriors take their lives back after struggling long into midlife. Beyond a doubt, I believe it is possible for anyone to recover from their eating disorder. Regardless of their age.