Celeste C. candidly shares how the flames of her eating disorder were fanned by remarks about her body from family members alongside experiences of trauma and loss. In this article we explore the complex links between cultural expectations, diet culture, and healthy eating taken to an extreme. As a person of South Asian descent, Celeste talks about how remarks about her appearance, even from loved ones, affected her deeply enough to internalize harmful messages about her body.
Q: Tell us about how your relationship with your body and/or eating habits first began to change.
A: I was roughly 10 or 11 when my thoughts about my body and eating habits began to change. I grew very quickly when I was young, I hit puberty much younger than my peers, and I immediately noticed that my body looked different from those around me. It felt different too. Additionally, when I was 11, I experienced a traumatic event that would result in a family member having permanent brain damage, after months in the hospital. Suddenly, it was the needs of someone else that seemed most important and I subconsciously felt the need to support my family and take on responsibilities that most children my age would never think of. In comparison, the events of my own life seemed insignificant and I was reluctant to reach out for support or connect with others, worrying that I would bother them.
I recall being about 12 or 13 when my aunt commented that I had ‘thunder thighs’ – I’m 25 now and remember this day so clearly. Throughout my youth, it was obvious that the way my body changed made me less acceptable to my family who are of South Asian descent. In particular to my aunts, who vocalized their opinions openly without regard for those who were listening. I was often told that I wasn’t lady-like, and that I should watch what I eat because “gaining weight was easy and losing weight was hard.” The message was clear to me: larger bodies are unacceptable, unhealthy, bad, and lazy. I found myself even more uncomfortable because I understood that I was a child still, yet strangers perceived my body in a different way, and I had no control over these perceptions. Almost immediately my ideas about food began to change; subtly at first, followed by years of living with orthorexia.
Q: What were changes in your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors that you noticed during this time?
A: Everything about my physical body felt uncomfortable. I constantly looked at myself in the mirror, gazed at my legs when sitting because I was thinking they were too big, imagined “pulling” back parts of skin to make myself appear smaller, felt “too big” for any and all spaces, and observed other’s bodies as if to compare myself to them and my “ideal image.” Somewhere in those thoughts was a need to control something so that it would create a sense of security and to help numb painful feelings that I tried desperately to avoid. There was the idea that if I only managed to shrink myself or lose a certain amount of weight that somehow I would feel a degree of control that made life satisfactory or that would make me happy. Obsessing over food and exercise felt like a neatly packaged way of addressing these issues while avoiding unwanted attention from others.
Looking back, I think I was disillusioned and only told myself that I was happy and that I felt good or healthy. While the behaviors I engaged in certainly play a part in a healthy life, for me, everything was done to an extreme. By the time I was 16, I planned and tracked every bite or sip, I punished myself with lengthy workout sessions to “make up” for food I had eaten, I obsessively counted my days in the gym, and frequently passed up social events or seeing friends or family so that I could either avoid eating food I did not cook (and didn’t have control over nutritional contents or calories) or ensure I never missed a workout, or both. When I could not avoid social events, I restricted myself before (and after) to allow myself to eat during these events.
On several occasions, I attempted to purge by throwing up after eating meals with family members or eating meals out; I misused laxatives to avoid feeling bloated. Since I had been undereating for so long, if I did consume what was considered a normal amount of food, I would feel immense discomfort. I frequently ate too little and exercised too much; I slowly but surely developed an ever-growing list of foods to avoid only to be met with intense dissatisfaction and the need to restrict or over-exercise if, by chance, I did consume them. I made every food substitution you can think of (without a relevant nutritional need), I avoided cultural foods out of fear, I silently ridiculed others at the grocery store when I saw the “unhealthy/unclean” food items in their grocery carts.
I was completely obsessed with this idea of being healthy but I was the furthest thing from healthy. Ironically, it was this illusion of health that kept me from pursuing more severe behaviors such as eating very little and exercising as much as I could get away with so as to not end up severely ill or draw too much attention to myself. However, I inevitably also experienced frequent fainting spells, dizziness, amenorrhea*, agitation, heart palpitations, and developed micronutrient deficiencies* over time.
My sense of perfectionism was aimed at my body and my habits and allowed no room for flexibility or enjoyment. I lost all sense of the simple joys in life. I needed to look and feel a certain way at all times. If only I spent some of this attention looking inward, I would have been much better off!
*Amenorrhea is the absence of menstruation, whether they never began in the first place or suddenly stopped
*A micronutrient deficiency happens when there is a lack of essential vitamins and minerals needed for proper functioning, growth, and development
Q: Were there any cultural expectations, beliefs, or customs that played a role in how you saw yourself?
A: Yes and no. My family was very traditional in some ways and very non-traditional in other ways. Most of my family are of the opinion that as a woman, I should be docile, quiet, gentle, slim but not “too” slim, and almost subservient. They would always comment on weight gain or how much food I ate (which was apparently more than I should be eating), and discouraged exercise because that would make me look “too muscular or manly” even. I grew up hearing my mother saying that she was “fat” or that she should be on a diet. She tried out strange diets and weight loss products on a regular basis. By contrast she always made comments on my appearance, saying it would be nice to look like me, not realizing that I agonized over my appearance for so many years that I couldn’t really enjoy my life. Luckily, my dad has always had a completely different opinion and helped me feel like I didn’t need to comply with the rest of my family’s expectations. My dad always encouraged me to pursue the physical activity I enjoyed, and actively discouraged me from worrying so much about my appearance or weight fluctuation. He taught me to stand up for myself in all situations, but it was especially valuable when it came to body image and familial/cultural beliefs.
Q: Did social media negatively or positively impact your self-esteem growing up?
A: Social media did not have a huge impact on my self esteem growing up, I think partly because social media was not as big as it is today and didn’t have a big place in my life until I was 16 or 17. Since I was exposed to social media at a slightly older age, I think I was protected from the need to compare myself to others that a lot of young people feel these days. I have always felt that I had high self esteem as long as I can remember actually, but social media gave me a whole new way to be self-critical even though I already felt I was a bit of a perfectionist (especially with regard to my body and diet). Social media furthered my need to overanalyze the way I looked, I was always finding things to “work on” that didn’t exist in the first place. I was already always competing with myself and social media added to that fire. Social media also made it very easy to find misinformation or to discover extremely unhealthy ways of changing one’s body.
Q: Did your relationship with loved ones change in any way during the early stages of your journey? If so, how?
A: To be honest, I don’t even recall my relationships with family or friends at this time. I guess that goes to show how consumed I was by my own behaviors and compulsions. Looking back, I have specific memories of events but no real grasp on how I felt. I recall that I often felt agitated and frequently spoke without thinking which undoubtedly must have influenced the people around me.
Q: What did loved ones do to support you that you found helpful or what kind of support do you wish you had received?
A: To this day, only my close friends are aware of my history of disordered eating. I never felt the confidence to speak about these issues with my family as many of them are also brainwashed by diet culture and would probably congratulate me for my eating disorder instead of trying to help. I don’t know that I’ll ever feel comfortable speaking to them about this past. Since my disordered eating was also so tightly connected to mental wellbeing, there’s another reason I couldn’t speak to my family: there is so much stigma around mental health in South Asian families, and I would probably be told that I have a roof over my head and clothes on my back and I couldn’t possibly be struggling. I wish that my family was more open to speaking about mental health and understood the impact that words can have. Often priding themselves on being “brutally honest” there were many times that words spoken were more brutal than honest. It shaped an understanding that there will only be judgement and resistance. I couldn’t fathom having the energy to stand up to them, and speak up on something that had so much stigma attached to it. It felt isolating.
I feel so grateful that my closest friends are the most empathetic, non-judgmental people who never force conversations but are always there to listen when I feel ready. They let me speak about my experience openly without trying to immediately fix or try to understand. It was nice to feel heard without those listening feeling sorry for you.
I also clearly remember very early on before I was aware I was orthorexic, I reached out to a friend of mine and told her my thoughts about food and exercise. She listened and simply reminded me that all of these things can be wonderful but to just not overdo it. It seems like simple advice but knowing that she cared in that moment means a lot to me, even all these years later. However, since I didn’t fully acknowledge what I was going at this time, it would have been helpful if someone was able to help me understand that there are so many other healthy coping mechanisms that I could explore. Even encouraging me to go to a therapist or counsellor or acknowledging that there is value in that to begin with would have been helpful.
Q: Did you seek treatment or support? What played a role in that decision?
No, I didn’t. For many years I was actually in denial of what I was going through. It wasn’t until I was prescribed medication for a separate issue and experienced rapid weight change, that I started to become aware of my harmful behaviors and frame of mind. Although my awareness increased, so did my motivation to engage in unhealthy ED/DE behaviors. Aside from being in denial, it was especially tough for me because growing up, orthorexia* wasn’t a “real” condition (it still isn’t). I didn’t even know it existed until I was 19 or so. Without a diagnosis or some medical evidence, it felt like I wasn’t dealing with a real condition, and that there was no help available even if I had wanted it. This also somewhat reinforced my ideas about health/food at the time and that made it harder to see that there was something wrong. The toughest part about orthorexia is that your compulsions, obsessions, and behaviors are often praised and accepted by those around you. People compliment your discipline, your willpower, and physical appearance and it creates a cycle of positive reinforcement that is difficult to challenge. Diet culture is so pervasive in our society that no matter what I did, someone would find a way to be inspired by these behaviors, not knowing that they consumed my life or were a coping mechanism for other issues that I was ignoring.
*Orthorexia is an eating disorder in which the individual is extremely preoccupied with healthy eating
Q: What resources or types of support did you find most helpful during this time?
A: As I previously mentioned, I did not seek treatment or support during the height of my ED. Now I am fortunate enough to work with a counsellor on a regular basis. I have found the counselling experience to be tough, but incredibly rewarding. I don’t think that I was in the right frame of mind to be helped when I was living with orthorexia. Through counselling I have been able to reflect on how my ED was a way to cope with previous experiences and have been working to unpack all of those traumatic memories while learning to prioritize my mental health. In the early stages of my journey, I enrolled in a nutritional science program at university (at the time that this was an extension of my obsession with food), yet it was my higher-level education and experience that helped me to understand the value of food and well-being beyond nutrition labels and calorie counting. I grew to understand the complex factors that influence the ability to access, let alone consume food, I began to understand the value of cultural foods and social connection. My concept of food expanded as I learned about all the social and economical factors that influence the way humans eat. By the time I finished my undergraduate degree, I had a completely different appreciation for food. I was just as interested as when I started, but my passion came from a different non-judgmental place.
Q: What kinds of self-directed behaviors did you find helpful?
A: My recovery was mostly self-directed from the beginning. I actually am not a fan of the word “recovery,” because it seems very linear to me and I feel that the journey to a truly healthy life is anything but linear, especially post-eating disorder. I also don’t feel that achieving recovery means that you wake up one day and no longer have thoughts about your ED/DE. I still face a lot of these thoughts and have to confront these old habits every day, I am just now better equipped to do so. I grew to enjoy meditation (whether it was while being still or while running or doing some kind of movement), walking, listening to music, and journaling when I need a physical experience to manage things I am feeling. What is most helpful for me, however, is learning to face my ED thoughts; I read and try to improve my understanding of where my thoughts are coming from, and evaluate whether they are rational or not, and if there is another way to frame how I am feeling in the moment. I lean into my nutrition education and think about how I would speak with a client who presented those thoughts.
Re-framing is a technique that is hugely helpful for me; it allows me to stop and think, bring awareness and compassion for why I may be feeling a certain way, and then make a decision about what to do about it in a healthy way, rather than taking it out on my body. Lastly (this isn’t a glamorous one), but taking a lot of time away from exercise and dieting helped to break habits over time. I needed to learn to accept my thoughts and my body instead of using food and exercise to avoid or punish myself. Breaking these old habits allowed me to create new habits.
About the Author
Celeste graduated from UBC’s Nutritional Science program in 2019 and currently works as part of a healthcare administration team. She is planning on completing a masters of human nutrition and dietetics in the near future, aiming to specialize in eating disorders and nutrition counselling. Her own experience with disordered eating and mental health inspires her to raise awareness about EDs, and to break down the influence of diet culture.