Many people are aware by now of the dangers of eating disorders, the emotional inner turmoil, the isolation, and the potentially fatal consequences. However, one of the biggest dangers that isn’t quite as discussed is the fact that eating disorders can be incredibly competitive. It sounds odd and it is quite hard to explain how an illness can be competitive, but basically if anorexia was ever personified, it would be the person who becomes dangerous when playing board games and is prone to breaking valuable ornaments in the home over an unlucky roll of the dice in a game of Monopoly.
I think most people, often and unknowingly, see other homo sapiens as threats for many different reasons in every day life. At work you may feel in competition with someone to get a promotion, in a supermarket you might choose the best looking bunch of bananas so that yours will be better than those of whatever potassium craving customer comes after you, or in a car park you might discreetly race another vehicle to get the last available space. Maybe your competitive streak involves competing with your gaming arch-nemesis to be captain of the tiddlywinks championship team, whatever it is, at some point in every day, whether we realise it or not, most of us enter into little competitions with our fellow humans and in turn those people become threats.
It is rare however, for people to compete with another person’s illness, and I have often wondered why eating disorders are so different in that respect. Possible reasons I have come up with are things like the tendency for people with eating disorders to naturally be high achieving perfectionistic people, or that eating disorders are an illness that usually involve a lot of numbers and in turn, ways the illness can be “measured”. Obviously, in reality the severity of someone’s eating disorder is impossible to measure no matter how many scales you weigh them on or how many calories you see them eat, but no matter how incorrect the idea, people who do not really understand eating disorders to be a mental illness rather than a physical one, tend to measure the severity of an eating disorder by the physical effects they can potentially lead to. If people see a thin person they will wrongly assume that person to be more “anorexic” than their equally troubled neighbour who just so happens to be a healthy weight. With other illnesses though, this ability to gauge how ill someone is just by looking at them, however inaccurate the final judgement may be, is far more difficult in comparison. For example two people can have a liver disease but when they are walking side by side in a park, you cannot guess as easily who you perceive to be the sickest unless you take a few blood tests and maybe open them up with a scalpel (which would probably lead to them asking why you were wandering around a park asking people for blood tests and performing major operations).
When an illness is seen as focused around numbers then, comparison and thus competition tends to breed. Over the past decade I have met people whose eating disorders have led them (for I highly doubt someone’s individual personality would compete about such things), to compete with regards to numbers as to how much someone weighs, what their BMI is, how many calories they consume, even obscure things like who takes the longest to eat a meal, who has been into hospital the most times or who has the lowest white blood cell count. It is a disgusting, sick and twisted side to the illness since you are basically competing to see who can kill themselves the best, but I cannot deny it happens.
For this reason I actually think the more distanced a sufferer attempting recovery is from the intense eating disorder community, the better. If you are living in the middle of nowhere with a family of healthy people, you simply have your eating disorder to wrestle with (and lord knows one is still far too many). In hospital settings like inpatient eating disorder units, therapy groups, or even social media recovery accounts online, you are surrounded with other sufferers and thus other eating disorders to battle with. Don’t get me wrong, it is lovely to have people you can relate to, but the ability to relate to other people who are unwell and spending large amounts of time with them can lead to a loss of perspective.
Gathering a group of people with eating disorders together, either physically or online, is sort of like gathering a group of wild gorillas in the middle of the rainforest (I would avoid both of these gathering activities if I were you as neither are particularly safe…if you are an avid collector or gatherer may I suggest gathering stamps or Pokemon cards instead).
There are probably a hundred reasons as to why gorillas sometimes stand on their haunches and beat their chests, but from my dedicated research and observation (I watched Tarzan), when a gorilla beats its chest in front of another gorilla, it can be interpreted as “look how big and mighty I am! Have you ever seen such a fine specimen of gorilla? Look at my hairy arms! They are fabulous! I am the best gorilla in all of the world and far superior to you! I am the best! Leave my forest or I will strike your hairy behind! Back off I say! Flee! Flee!”.
All the gorillas in the rainforest will naturally want to be best gorilla around to ensure their survival, establish their right to the most attractive mate or the biggest banana. They aren’t doing it for laughs (maybe the odd titter), but they are naturally born with that competitive instinct so that they can stay alive.
Similarly, when a group of people with eating disorders gather, their internal eating disorder gorillas perk up and start beating their chests to let everyone know that they are the best and strongest eating disorder around. Ironically though, unlike the real gorillas, the “winner” in terms of measuring who is the most physically ill from their eating disorder, the thinnest or the one who has gone the longest without eating, is the least likely to stay alive the longest.
If you are reading this as a healthy minded person you are probably thinking that competing as to who can lose the most weight is ridiculous and sick, and when it comes to that judgment, you would be right.
However I think people often forget how much competition there is with regard to weight loss even in “healthy” circles. On TV shows like The Biggest Loser, people compete to see who can lose the most weight with a cash prize for the winner, and though perhaps less extreme than competing with white blood cell counts, surely this is similar? What about in local weight loss clubs when people compete with their next-door neighbour to see who can lose more weight than anyone in their area in order to be awarded with the sash declaring them “Slimmer of the Year”. When you think about it, in our society, competing around food and weight is not as alien an idea as people with eating disorders can make it seem.
There is however one reason people often suggest as the answer to the “why are eating disorders competitive” question, that I strongly disagree with, and that is the idea that people compete purely because they want to be the “thinnest” and that the competitive drive is all about vanity and outer appearance. If anything, I think the drive is the total opposite to vanity, and more to do with insecurity and low self esteem regarding the internal self.
When you live with an eating disorder you basically live with a voice in your head telling you that everything you do is wrong and no matter how hard you try to please it, it will never be satisfied or see your “efforts” as enough. No matter what you eat, your eating disorder will tell you it was too much. Even if the portion was initially decided by your eating disorder, it will tell you that you could have left a bit or maybe it will tell you that you ate it wrong; too quickly, too slowly or with the wrong sized mouthfuls. Whatever you do, the voice will tell you you are not living up to the standards you should be, you are not good enough.
My drive to lose weight is not to see a nice patch of rib cage, it is to achieve something that my eating disorder tells me is “better” than my former self. Of course there is nothing “better” that can come from starving yourself and if I were talking to any other sufferer I would tell them that the “best” they can be is the healthy version of themselves who is able to nourish their bodies and enjoy a healthy relationship with food. Yet still when it comes to me, the eating disorder somehow manages to manipulate my thoughts in that direction that I am a “better” me, less repulsive, less annoying, less deserving of a punch in the face, if I stick by my eating disorder’s rules. I am constantly held up between my past self, current self and encouraged to compete against them to reach this “superior” future me. When you add another sufferer into the mix then, it is yet another person for my eating disorder to compare me to. No longer is it telling me to lose weight or starve because I am not good enough compared to the potential me I could become if I were to behave myself, now I am also not good enough compared to the person or group of people surrounding me. I don’t follow the rules to the standards my eating disorder would like in an ideal world, and when I am around other people it tells me that I am even more inferior because they are following these stupid rules better than me. I don’t feel competitive because I am vain and want people to admire my collarbones, I feel competitive because I despise myself, because behaving well and following all my rules gives me a sense of self worth, a sense that I am doing something right, so if I am not following the rules “the best”, then I am not good enough.
So why are eating disorders competitive? Well, there are many reasons from internal anorexia gorillas to self hatred, perfectionist personality traits or the ability to compare and misunderstand the importance that physical numbers have to play in a mental illness. Obviously this competitive undercurrent is wrong, needs to be tackled and is disgustingly disordered, but we are dealing with eating “disorders” so I suppose it makes sense. What I want more people to know though, is that of all the reasons, as sick and twisted and horrible as they are, they are not reasons that derive from vanity or any sense of bodily pride compared to the person in the next bed to you. If anything it is about desperation to be good enough in the eyes of a devil that is constantly telling you you are worthless, both in yourself, and in comparison to everybody else.
Take care everyone x