Eating Disorders and Competition, Comparison
One of the most exhausting things about having an eating disorder is the non-stop racket in your brain. And while some of that chatter is about calories, food, and exercise - a lot of it is how you compare with other people.
Is s/he skinnier than I am? She's eating a salad - she must think I'm so fat for eating a sandwich. So-and-so used to spend X hours at the gym - I only spent Y.
More than anything, I just wanted my brain to shut up.
Comparison and Competition Over Eating Disorders
In all my time in treatment for anorexia, I have never met a woman who thought she was "sick enough" to be in treatment. (I suspect the same holds true for men with eating disorders, but I have been to female-only treatment centers.) It was a reality my dietitian had to prepare me for when I went into treatment the first time: "There will be women who are sicker than you and thinner than you. But make no mistake," she said, "you've earned your place in treatment."
Even now, after multiple trips to treatment and a stack of treatment plans almost as tall as some of my school books, I find myself doubting that I was ever really sick. "After all," I think, "didn't you just have a hamburger last week? Clearly you didn't really have an eating disorder. Jane Doe hasn't had a burger in XX years - she has a real eating disorder." To be sure, this is the voice of my eating disorder, always trying to suck me back in to this mind trap where I am lacking in some quality or trait - which can easily be fixed by bingeing, restricting, exercising, whatever.
Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better
Even if we're not conscious about it, as people with eating disorders we are always competing. And if we are conscious about it, we're not talking about it. But the reality is - every one of us is trying to be the "sickest" - the "best at the eating disorder" - the "thinnest."
It's why some people come out of treatment centers sicker than they went in. It's why maintaining friendships with people you meet in treatment can be so potentially disastrous. It's why I don't use numbers or specific behaviors when I write this blog.
Every single one of us is trying to beat the other. We are all trying to snag that blue ribbon that proves we're "the best."
You know what that blue ribbon looks like? A gravestone.
Because this is a zero-sum game. You will never win when you compare yourself to others. You only win when you die. And I can tell you most assuredly that nobody is waiting for you in the afterlife, ready to pin a ribbon on your shirt.
You can't win with an eating disorder. So quit playing the game.
Hudgens, J. (2014, March 20). Eating Disorders and Competition, Comparison, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, February 3 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivinged/2014/03/comparison-competition-and-eating-disorders
Author: Jessica Hudgens
I love this post. You hit the nail right on the head. This reminds me of all the reasons i'm recovering. Thank you!
I have suffered with anorexia and exercise addiction for the last 6 years and even now, when I'm a long way through recovery I still compare myself to everyone else, regardless of whether they are "ill" or not.
As Jess mentioned earlier, I often felt like I wasn't sick enough; in fact because ED treatment is very limited where I live I was told I wasn't "sick enough" to recieve any proper help. Luckily later I was given treatment but I felt very much like Jess: I had failed enough in everything else and I couldn't even have an eating disorder properly. This competition and comparison was entirely in my head as outwardly I wouldn't admit that anything was wrong, because like Katia and Sarah, I was ashamed.
Thank you Jess for your post. It helps to know that there are other people who feel the same.
For having suffered from bulimia, I can honestly say that really, when I look back, any kind of comparison I ever experienced or engaged in, was probably when I was at my worst.
The need for validation in 'how far' I had taken it compared to others, maybe mattered at the time. What lied beneath all of this comparing, was immense suffering. This was not an easy post to write and I have to command Jess on being able to talk about the difficult issues occuring in recovery, especially within groups of people getting treatment or simply talking about past experiences once better.
It's always great to read comments on the posts, and I thank everyone for taking the time to leaving a note.
Conversations about eating disorders are needed, not matter how difficult they are.
I actually agree more with Missy and was about to comment basically what Katia said. The term "competition" doesn't really ring true for my story. I felt embarrassed, ashamed, and very private about my eating disorder (once I knew it was an eating disorder…for the first few months I didn't even have any real awareness that I was "that" sick, which is what you are talking about in your first paragraph!) Once I realized that I WAS that sick, though, I was super embarrassed about everything that I had done to get there and had to do to get better. I never really discussed it with people outside of those that I felt closest to until I was far into the recovery process, and even then, I don't share a lot of details from my sickest. Now, in recovery, when I see people who are clearly actively engaging in an ED, I feel grossed out and/or secondhand embarrassment and sadness for them. To the best of my memory, it has never been a competitive thing for me.
I had an acquaintance with an ED at the same time as me (although we actually got to know one another as friends after both entering treatment.) I know she took some pride in her sick appearance and continued to put pictures out there of herself at her sickest even after weight restoration and "healing," which really irritated me. It was like she wanted attention for being sick. I couldn't relate at all. I didn't take photos when I was sick and I asked friends to get rid of photos the they had taken. Of the few that I do have from vacations and whatnot...I have them in a folder on my computer that I keep to remind myself that it happened in case I ever think "it wasn't that bad" or start feeling tempted to engage in behaviors again, but I do not look at them. It is just too painful.
As Missy said, the term comparison works a little better for me. I do compare my weight to others, much like Missy said, but not between me and a clearly sick person. I don't want to draw those comparisons because I just don't even really want to look at them or be anything like them because I know the pain they feel. I wish I could not compare at all, and I think that would probably be healthiest, but sadly, I think I hover around the "norm" for our society in terms of comparing instead of being at some pathological level where I feel super motivated to work on it. I definitely don't compare my story to others' in terms of who was sickest/worst (although when people say "I had an eating disorder in high school" and go on to describe this one time when they thought they were fat and went on a diet for like a week before realizing they should love themselves and stopping, I do get mad because it minimizes the term "eating disorder," which makes me feel like my story is minimized.)
Thought provoking post and well written as always!! Clearly you got some conversation going and lots of self reflection!
PS I didn't judge you for anything you ate while you were visiting! :)
It's been really interesting to hear so many "dissenting" opinions. Knowing more of your story, I wonder if your focus on your academic goals and your strong sense of sort of "family duty" caused you to feel more shame and distress about being sick - versus someone like me, who had a large part of her identity wrapped up in her illness. In my mind, the running tape was always, "You're such a failure at everything and now you can't even be good at being crazy?"
And it seems like the compare/compete terminology is a sticking point. Maybe it's semantics, maybe it's not.
Either way, it sounds like you and Katia are in great places in your recovery and I can't wait to be there myself one day!
I'm not offended by this but I don't necessarily agree with all of it. I never wanted to be the best bulimic. I never wanted to be the best anorexic. I DIDN'T WANT TO BE SICK. I was SO embarrassed that I prized thinness above all else. I'm still embarrassed that I care so much about it. Does no one else feel this way?
It enraged me that people DID compete at it, in a variety of ways, but the most aggravating to me was the showdown in the dining room of treatment centers that consists of the contest of "who can eat their food the slowest" and "who can look the most pained about having to eat ice cream".
I didn't want my labs to be off and cried when a week later I was still getting stuck w/needles to test them (it was my first crying experience at CFC, and one of the only ones). I've never taken much pride in being sick and didn't want to admit that it was true, but I'm faced at the reality that I was very ill.
Of course I wanted my brain to shut up. I still do. And did I want to lose more and more weight? Of course, but it just wasn't in competition with anyone else, and I don't know what else to do to portray that.
And to the person that thinks that I couldn't feel like I was "sick enough" (I'm not currently ill as I don't actively engage in an eating disorder), I have no desire to look like the anorexics I see day to day. I have a pending bar application in Colorado that I had to release my records to so they could review them. I will have to look at them and explain, with no other reason for the things that are on there, that I was very sick at the time. I fully believe that, and I was not the thinnest at the treatment center, by any means. Nor was I the fattest. As far as treatment centers go and purging anorexics I was maybe average at best. I wish I could forget that part of my life. I wish it had never happened. I wish more than anything that I didn't have these records to haunt me and be reviewed by members of the bar who will demand an explanation, but I do accept that at that point I didn't have a choice whether or not to enter treatment... it was that or a hospital.
I promise you, when it impedes your professional career or you have to answer for it in your profession, you will not want to prove you were the best anorexic, or the best bulimic.
I appreciate your comment and can definitely relate to some of the shame and regret surrounding your suffering with an eating disorder. I have a multitude of regrets from those years and do not readily talk about my eating disorder in my graduate program. Fortunately, my ultimate career goals align well with the work I am doing here on the blog and my efforts to write honestly and transparently - but I do understand that is a major concern for you and many others.
The problem with thinking/writing/speaking in absolutes is that there is always an exception to the rule. I still stand behind what I wrote and believe it holds true for the vast majority of those with eating disorders (with the exception perhaps of BED, which is always shrouded in secrecy and shame). But you make a very good point - everyone's eating disorder "behaves" differently, if you will. Even across the course of sickness, our own eating disorders will morph and shift.
The only way someone can really understand what a person with an eating disorder is going through is by making themselves open and available to hear that person's experience in his or her own words.
Thanks for the reminder!
Jess -- I can relate more clearly to a "competition" with oneself ... in a way. I also know that this sort of scenario plays out more in group environments.
I suppose mainly my objection is the competition to be "sick" or win at having the problem. I just want to feel comfortable in my skin .. and that typically entails losing weight. I may striveto lose weight to feel more comfortable but I never feel like I strive to actually get sicker. Get more diagnosable.
Katie made a really good point in her first paragraph -- the experience of what Jess is talking about may be played out in certain ways or experienced differently. Like... I don't care if so and so had to get a tube..etc. BUT I am guilty of comparing weight. I may not want to be as skinny as the "scary" one in the room but I guess the main idea is in the comparison.
Also - I recall DISTINCTLY visiting Jess in treatment and seeing one of her friends...it FLOORED me. I walked out of there thinking "I'm not sick. Nope. THAT is sick."
So...yeah. Comparison and competition. I think I thought the two were very different but I guess they are more related than I thought. I think I was mostly alarmed at the use of the word "competition."
I think this post brings up good points about unspoken comparison, even in recovery settings. Okay, maybe not EVERY SINGLE person with an eating disorder is competing... but I would bet that most are competing / comparing over something on some level. For example, I don't have an exercise issue, and really don't care if the person sitting next to me ran 15 miles this morning. I also don't care if they cut their banana into 128 pieces and ate it with a fork. Maybe it's triggering or just plain annoying, but I'm not thinking "I only cut mine into 64 so I'm not sick." However, I am absolutely guilty of looking around the room and comparing weight... because I care about that. And I do it even when I'm not in a treatment environment, but it's amplified in a group setting because it's some kind of meaningful criterion.
It's easy to observe this in any kind of group treatment, especially when you add a not-so-healthy influence into the mix. All it takes is one person refusing their supplement for everyone to start struggling with it more. With this example and with the weight thing, I think you are just looking for some evidence to prove your maladaptive belief systems like "I'm not sick, I don't deserve treatment, I don't actually need to do this," etc. Isn't that the nature of belief systems -- to find any evidence to confirm and perpetuate them?
To the commenter who thought this article was offensive (or almost offensive) -- yeah, that's why it's probably unspoken. Very few people want to admit to it. I don't think most people are proud of it -- especially when you are in recovery and do have healthy intentions a lot of the time. And I think a lot of it is built on insecurities and fears. But mostly I feel like individuals with eating disorders (and I'm going to call out anorexia in particular, even though they are on a continuum and people bounce around between them and all of that) are like beta fish. You don't put two of them next to each other.
One more thing. You'll notice that in any outpatient group, people who are doing well don't stick around for long. Sure there are exceptions, but in general that's the rule. And maybe it's because they don't "need the support" anymore, but I bet you it's really because being surrounded by others with EDs is not good for you, regardless of how far along you are in recovery, and even if you're not in a place where you're trying to be sicker or prove that you're "the best."
If you disagree, I challenge you to join some kind of treatment where you're surrounded by individuals who are "sicker than you." If you can still feel validated without comparing your situation to everyone else or reminding yourself of something about your disorder or life that makes "sick enough", then okay, you can be the exception.
I like what you say, Jess, about it being a competition with others AND with oneself. I know in treatment I had a lot of competitive thoughts that really plagued me for quite a while, and before and after treatment, it was a lot of competition with myself. I find this particularly true these days in very sneaky ways, especially with the notion of "clean eating," which goes completely against intuitive eating (which I hope to be able to do one day). I see people touting their "sugar-free, fat-free, gluten-free, (taste-free, fun-free)" habits and it makes me feel so awful about my well-balanced nutrition. And while it isn't exactly one of the most obvious avenues of competition and comparison, I find these sneaky things just as damaging.
Thanks so much for bringing light to this "ugly truth" that people never really talk about.
You know I love you - and I hear the message you are hinting at ... BUT
There are a lot of statements here that I strongly disagree with. I think your generalizations are too broad and I think your are to bold in your statements.
Even if we’re not conscious about it, as people with eating disorders we are always competing. And if we are conscious about it, we’re not talking about it. But the reality is – every one of us is trying to be the “sickest” – the “best at the eating disorder” – the “thinnest.”
It's - quite simply - NOT true.
While I was reading this I had the insight to really cross examine myself .. really check my thoughts and feelings to see if these were feelings I could relate to but perhaps am loathe to acknowledge. I can relate to a bit of comparison in terms of my body BUT I do that automatically subconsciously with everyone and it is almost objective. Just something I may notice - but not really feel much about. As for the other stuff? Cannot relate. Not at all.
I still come to the conclusion that overall, this article is really pushing the boundaries into something that can be viewed as offensive. I think it is really one of many contributing messages that stigmatize this disease which leads to so many misconceptions. (It's all about vanity, It's a choice to "be anorexic," It's a childish and attention-seeking behavior..etc).
Do you really feel that EVERY SINGLE person suffering from an eating disorder feels this way?
"Every single one of us is trying to beat the other. We are all trying to snag that blue ribbon that proves we’re “the best.”
I appreciate your comment and recognize that it seems to have hit a nerve with you. I challenge you to look again at your own feelings about this topic. Maybe the word "competition" doesn't resonate with you, but think of it this way: in your eating disorder, you are always looking for the next "accomplishment" or "achievement" - that might be a weight, a behaviour, a size, whatever. And if you're not around people with other EDs to compete with, you're probably up against yourself and your eating disorder's expectations.
I will also say that this plays out differently between anorexia and bulimia. In bulimia, the competition doesn't usually begin to show itself until you are surrounded by other bulimics in a treatment setting. And then it is about different things - what was your biggest binge/purge? How many times a day do you purge? What do your labs look like? All of these are markers of how "sick" we consider ourselves and others to be.
It's less pronounced in day-to-day life unless you are around people with eating disorders a lot. But it is extremely prevalent in treatment centers and nobody talks about it. It's a sort of "ugly truth" we don't like to face, but need to.
And I don't think that bringing light to this topic adds to the stigma of an eating disorder. If anything, the fact that we (as people with eating disorders) fight to be "the best" at killing ourselves makes it that much more clearly a mental illness.
Another powerful entry, Jess.