Westwood Horizon

Invisible Illness: Orthorexia

Mae Bruce, Reporter

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Every 62 minutes, at least one person dies of a direct cause of an eating disorder. Modern culture romanticizes mental illness in a way never seen before, and people are dying as a direct result of this strive to be perfect. Being skinny has become the ultimate achievement for young girls and women, creating an obsession unlike any other. Eating disorders, among many others, affect people across different walks of life. One particular story at our very own school, a girl who has chosen to go simply by ‘Alex’, exemplifies this very own instance of how our society demonizes imperfections.

“I had orthorexia, which was where you’re so caught up in this mindset, and you focus on how much you dislike your body,” Alex said. “I tried to fix that through my eating and through exercising, and I would over-exercise and under-eat. I was in the deepest parts of that for two and a half to three months. If I kept going, I would have probably ended up in the hospital.”

Orthorexia is an eating disorder where a person will fixate on the need to have a healthy diet and food rather than weight. It’s a massively unknown illness, and while it may not seem like as huge of an impact as bulimia or anorexia, the effects can stick around for years. Having an eating disorder, no matter which one, can not only affect your body, but also the way you think, the people around you, and so much more.

“Even from freshman year I always went through these little phases of working out and eating healthy,” Alex said. “And it would only last like a couple weeks or a month or something. This time during sophomore year, it was October. I remember I was at a Halloween party and all my friends were on a swim team or dance, and they were talking about what they do. I was intrigued by that because they told me different sort of exercises and stuff that were fun.”

Influenced by her friends and insecurities, Alex quickly fell down the hole of trying to get fit. She was determined to make her attempt at eating healthy and exercising more than just a phase. Alex focused on herself more and more, and the orthorexia began to emerge.

“I got comments from my friends and I took it in a good way,” Alex said. “People were like ‘Yeah, you’ve got so much skinnier!’ I don’t really think I set a specific goal, but in the back of my head I knew it was I just wanted to be skinnier so I could be happier mentally. I got to that point and I didn’t see it. I was so oblivious to the fact that I was so thin. I lost so much muscle and fat, it was scary.”

Alex lost 19 pounds and was considered underweight for her age and height. But the doctors and her family failed to recognize the problems she was facing alone. She worked out so much and ate so little that she was actively losing body mass instead of gaining muscle.

“Looking back at the pictures now and videos of me, it was so unhealthy and awful,” Alex said. “I couldn’t fit in my pants anymore, my bra sizes went down, I lost my period. I was so fatigued all the time. I would fall asleep in class a lot and I just felt so weak, physically and mentally, it all reflected each other. There were so many slight physical changes that it wouldn’t be apparent to other people really, or in my head that’s what it was, and everyone told me all of these things.”

Despite losing weight, Alex couldn’t realize how the illness was affecting her. In her eyes, she only saw failed attempts at exercise and eating healthy, and she only became more wrapped up in the tangled mess of mental illness.

“I perceived myself as not good enough and I could always do better. I couldn’t achieve what I wanted to because I just kept trying and trying,” Alex said. “But it was also like I just felt inferior to others and that I wasn’t good enough. I perceived others as they were always so much better than me like no matter what their body looked like or what they did. I just always thought that everyone was always better than me and they don’t have to worry as much. I just put so much weight on myself.”

Alex’s illness not only affected her body, but also her relationships with others. The strain that orthorexia caused on her mind and body led her to pull away from help and friends instead of seeking help.

“Because of what was happening to me, emotionally and physically, it made me distance myself from all of my closer relationships,” Alex said. “It’s not something I wanted to talk about. And then I had all these underlying emotional problems that were mainly social. I felt like I didn’t have a whole bunch of close friends. I just didn’t really talk to people as much. It changed my mindset about everything. Everything deteriorated.”

The root cause of Alex’s illness stemmed from what she was going through emotionally in her life. She fell into the draw of social media and the unrealistic expectations of women, and all of these causes only made the illness more intense in her mind. She felt as if she couldn’t open up to anyone because they wouldn’t understand what she was going through.

“I realized that what I was going through basically reflected off of what I was feeling emotionally,” Alex said. “I figured that out because I was talking to my mom about it, and it was really hard to open up to my mom about it because she saw me differently and she didn’t see that I had a problem. Whenever you have like an eating disorder or any like mental illness, it’s mental and it’s like all in your head and to have an eating disorder, it’s not always reflected on your body and what you look like. In some extreme cases, that’s whenever you know. But, it’s all linked in your mind.”

Through the hardships she faced, Alex had to wake up and realize exactly how the eating disorder was affecting her. She pulled herself together because she knew that how she was treating her body wasn’t healthy and she couldn’t continue to do it.

“What helped me get out of this, like I finally realized that I knew I was hurting, it got to the point where I was so caught up in what I was eating and when I was working out, and I was so unhappy,” Alex said. “I had so many breakdowns and I felt so alone. No one could help me, it had to be myself. I finally realized I had to do something. I didn’t want to see a therapist because in my head, that was defeat. That’s when I just let it take over.”

Her first step to recovery was removing all of the catalysts from her life. She deleted the apps that initiated the obsessive behavior that orthorexia caused, shifted her focus from food, and got back on her feet.

“I had like calorie trackers so I could track how much I was consuming,” Alex said. “I thought that the number was always way too high, I wanted it to be lower and lower. I never got down to like 900 calories a day but I felt like I was actually going over, when in reality I was eating so much less than I actually should’ve. I deleted those apps, I deleted Pinterest because that’s how I got different recipes, and it was always just a focus on food. Whenever I had free time in class I would just look at Pinterest and it was so bad because I filled my free time, I could’ve been playing a game or talking to people around me, but I was on Pinterest, I was watching YouTube videos on how to be healthy.”

In order to regain a healthy weight, Alex realized that her whole world did not have to revolve around food and making “healthy decisions.” She stopped narrowing her food palette and opened up the door to choices that she had once deemed unhealthy.

“I wanted to mend my relationship with food and realize that it’s okay to eat this. It’s okay to eat over,” Alex said. “And one major thing that really helped was joining a team sport. That’s what I do now to help, because I still have those thoughts and I still get caught up in that mindset, but it’s not as extreme as it was then. From joining, it gave me more of a community and allowed me to exercise and have a coach tell me what to do rather than having myself tell me what I need to do. From that, I was able to exercise and I felt that whenever I exercised, it gave me room to eat, and because I was building more muscle whenever I was working out, I was able to eat more and gain muscle, but along with gaining muscle I gained fat. That was also scary for me because I felt like all that work was for nothing.”

From this experience, Alex gained a wider understanding of herself and how an eating disorder can take over an entire life. After confronting her illness, she had to begin to rebuild everything that she had lost during the months that she had struggled.

“You are your biggest critic and that’s what I sort of realized in this whole thing,” Alex said. “No one’s going to judge you on how much stomach fat you have and I still struggle with that. And so, after the season was over, I went back to working out and I started hanging out with my friends again and I had another community. I focused more on friends and building relationships rather than focusing on myself. It’s hard to describe how it all happened, and now that I’m like analysing it and looking back I’m like ‘Oh wow’. I had to build myself back up again.”

The first step to recovery is always the hardest, and Alex learned first hand. She sought out help from online resources, but every first step is unique to that person. To begin recovering, Alex had to focus on herself and what she specifically needed to lead a healthy life.

“It’s different for everyone, but I think the biggest thing is that you need to accept yourself and even doing that is difficult,” Alex said. “People say all these things like, the first step is to do this, but how do you find that? And that’s something that you need to find on your own. Everyone different, everyone’s story is different, and their journey is different. And it can be simple things, like, you know if someone else was going through the same thing maybe working out or joining a team would hurt them even more. I think that people should find a community and talk to other people that have been dealing with similar experiences. Just be more loose with yourself and it’s okay.”

It’s okay to be recovering, and an eating disorder is especially a hard experience to go through. At least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S. alone, and it’s our job to get the word out. By sharing Alex’s story, she hopes to not only bring awareness to the millions of unknown eating disorders out there, but also to offer advice to those struggling with their own problems.

“I would tell myself that if you get any of those thoughts that make you compare yourself to others, to not,” Alex said. “Don’t put yourself down because you strive to be someone else. Your body is just the vessel that you’re in. I just wish I could tell myself that you’re never going to change who you are.”

If you are struggling with an eating disorder and want to seek help, use these helpful resources and remember that you are not alone.

National Eating Disorders Hotline


Resources for Eating Disorder Treatment



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