This post is a word of caution to the “-frees”: people who avoid a whole category of food, such as gluten or dairy, without a firm diagnosis. I write this as a woman who struggles with an eating disorder and has acknowledged it for over a year. Many of my friends are -frees who legitimately feel terrible from eating certain foods and, after trying elimination diets, feel that they have identified the cause. I have been there. I have only just begun to question my relationship with peanut butter, to feel an affinity to the stories shared by people with anorexia and bulimia, and to admit to myself that unhealthy levels of self-control have led to manipulative behavior.
Which is why I ask: why are the -frees disproportionately women? Why are they so often Type A, physically active, social butterflies? Why do women who are affected by this frequently deal with anxiety and perfectionism? Why aren’t doctors, naturopaths, and therapists asking why?
I lived in Washington, DC for four and a half years, and I never got my period naturally while I lived there. I began to worry that something was wrong. Gynecologists and specialists told me my ovaries were fine, my reproductive system was healthy, and my BMI (Body Mass Index) was within the correct range. Their message was clear: I was being neurotic for worrying that my body wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do. So I went to a naturopath seeking a more holistic answer.
While my naturopathy sessions involved no hospital gowns nor medical instruments, and I filled my entire appointment with talking, her prescription was purely physical: a food log and an elimination diet. I remember meeting my boyfriend for lunch one day and ordering a salad from a café. He stared at my $10 plastic container meal of romaine, spinach, green peppers, cucumbers, avocado, olive oil, and vinegar. There was not only judgment but also a concern in his eyes; he stayed quiet knowing this was “prescribed” for me.
My naturopath took extensive notes on my anxiety and concerns, but it did not result in questions to guide my treatment. She reviewed my food log and noted my obsessive exercising, yet she never considered that regimenting my food might feed the cause of my amenorrhea. It did not occur to her that I might continue to lose weight and increase in stress as a direct result of her prescribed diet. My anxiety and depression went unobserved and undiagnosed.
Nothing changed until I started seeing a therapist. I had an inkling that my mental health was not good — my inability to sleep, panic attacks, late-night food binges, and blacking out when drinking told me as much. I had no idea that I was using food to control everything. My therapist told me, in our very first meeting, that I had disordered eating. I gaped at her. I had friends who had struggled terribly with anorexia and bulimia. Their illnesses resulted in hospitalizations, near-death experiences, nerve damage, and lifelong mental illness. I had seen it, called it out, supported them, been so up close and personal that I knew I would never do that to myself…and yet I did.
It is not the same for everyone. The media has made anorexia and bulimia commonly known terms, but orthorexia, compulsive exercising, and other concerns are not as widely known. In fact, some of these behaviors are applauded among my peer group of women. For example, I never threw up my food, but I did put arbitrary rules around when, how much, and what I could eat, all rooted in “healthy” and ethical eating principles I’d culled from reliable nutrition and health sources. They started reasonably, and devolved as I made up my own rules:
- Don’t eat past 7 pm, or less than three hours before bedtime.
- Don’t eat packaged or processed foods, mostly whole ingredients.
- Don’t eat before yoga.
- Wait until 1 pm to eat lunch, or else I felt guilty for eating out of boredom.
- Avoid sandwiches because the bread is full of gluten and they’re calorie-heavy and nutrient-poor.
- Eat no more than ¼ cup of oatmeal in the morning; no sugar to sweeten it, only a spoonful of homemade jam.
- No juice — it’s empty calories.
- Never finish an entire meal when I’m out to eat. (In other cultures in which I’d lived, eating your plate clean indicated you would like another serving.)
- Beer and alcohol are so calorie-dense that they’re the same as a meal — no need to eat.
These weren’t written down but I followed them like my own personal code for existence. When I broke one, I felt personal failure that needed to be made up the next day or meal. When my stomach hurt or I got a headache, I blamed it on the gluten, or the sugar, or the fat. Not on my imposed starvation and stress.
When friends tell me they are -free, they are most often women I identify with. They are high achievers who are career-driven, with many friends and hobbies. They seem to have it all. The world looks at us and sees success; we look at ourselves and see lack or, euphemistically, “room for improvement.”
How do you compare yourself to others?
When these women walk into doctors’ offices and share how they feel after eating a bit of toast or a piece of cheese, I wish the doctor would ask, “Tell me about your life.” I wish they would ask about joys and hardships, schedule and career, friends, hobbies and exercise regimen. I wish they would refer her to a therapist first, before prescribing an elimination diet. I know it won’t go over well. We want a pill or a diet or a physical reason we can fault to fix the hole in our soul. We don’t want to examine the hatred and disgust we feel for ourselves, to change our lifestyle or quit our job or stop exercising.
But we need to be given the chance to choose health.
Doctors need to help these women find worth in themselves instead of feeding the darkness and illness. Someone needs to question the paradigm of perfectionism for these women because sometimes being “-free” means being able to freely choose it all.