Aging and Eating Disorders – recovery is worthwhile at every age
For 55 of my 67 years, I have struggled with an eating disorder, namely anorexia nervosa. I wasn’t formally diagnosed until age 65, about which I can only say, “Better late than never.” Because I didn’t shrink my body enough to cause alarm, I was able to fly under the radar for years. I wonder how different my life might have been if I’d been diagnosed sooner. Gratitude is the main feeling I have for being diagnosed at all. It would be tragic to waste the rest of my life in the constant hell of an eating disorder. Recovery is worthwhile at any age.
When my daughters entered puberty, I was entering perimenopause, a time when changes were happening to their bodies and mine. Hormones were raging in our home right then. I was determined to glide through menopause without changing how my body looked or how I behaved. I was determined not to gain weight; I would not give in to the dreaded middle age spread. When some fat (later I would learn this was my body’s way of storing estrogen) accumulated around my middle, I was horrified.
I went to the doctor, mainly to see if I needed to lose weight or if I had a tumor growing in my abdomen. Frankly, I was sort of hoping for the tumor. My eating disorder jumped for joy when I learned there was no tumor because that’s when I decided to join a popular weight loss program and nip this weight gain in the bud before it got out of control. That was when the eating disorder dug in and became louder and more tenacious than at any other time in my life.
I thought I was taking care of myself
That final quest to lose weight quickly became an obsession to not just lose weight but to do it better than anyone else on the planet. I was devoted to the program, religiously tracking what I ate every day. I didn’t know I had anorexia; I thought I was taking care of myself.
The intersection of wanting to lose weight and getting older wasn’t obvious to me at the time, but it is now. It never occurred to me that being able to fit into my teenage daughters’ clothes was unhealthy and potentially dangerous. The praise received not only from my program leader, but my doctor, friends, and family was intoxicating and validating. At one point, my program leader gently warned me that if I lost any more weight, I’d need to bring a doctor’s note, saying it was okay to remain in the program. Today, I bless her for saying that but at the time, I was indignant and became more determined.
I went to my doctor, and she provided the note without batting an eye. If only that doctor had asked, “Why is losing weight so important to you?” Such a question might have made all the difference. If the doctor had explained that weight gain during menopause is normal, I might have developed a new respect for my body instead of fearing and hating it. As it was, I was given permission to keep damaging my body and my health, both physically and mentally. The doctor’s note provided the proof I needed to refute any concerns about how thin I was getting.
Pressure for women to look younger
Our society fuels this obsession with weight loss and dieting by declaring that there is only one type of beauty and that is thin and young. The media feeds grown women a steady diet of images of models barely out of their teens selling clothes, cosmetics, and skincare products. When the phrase 60 is the new 40 came along, it created more pressure for women to look younger. Wrinkles were the enemy, and those extra pounds were disparaged, leaving a large portion of the population feeling ugly, frumpy, worthless, and old.
Not until I began treatment for anorexia, did I learn that the weight gained during menopause is nature’s way of protecting women from heart disease. The way it was explained to me, was that since the ovaries no longer produce estrogen, the weight gained at this time provides the estrogen needed to keep our hearts healthy. One person described the weight around her middle as her life preserver rather than her spare tire.** If only healthcare professionals told women this at that crucial, hormone-laden time of their lives, the shame and guilt about simply growing older could be reduced significantly.
Changes happen to us all as we age, in addition to possible weight gain. Vision and hearing decline, hair turns gray, and conditions like arthritis set in, to name a few. While science and technology can help make it easier to deal with these changes, no one should feel they’re worth less if they don’t have procedures done to “correct” the natural effects of aging.
I admit—I’m vain. I don’t know if this is a function of my eating disorder, but I’ve always cared (too much) about my appearance. I’ve never had the money or the inclination to have cosmetic procedures, but I know women who have, in order to look younger. I’m all for people doing what’s right for them, but I feel sad that many people, especially women, are made to feel they need to “improve” in the first place. A bright, shiny new appearance on the outside might improve self-esteem for a while, but we’re all basically the same person on the inside and continue to age just the same.
Recovery has made me feel empowered at the same time society is saying I’m worth less
As I restored weight during recovery, I was faced with not only additional pounds, but the sense that I was becoming invisible, mostly due to my age. It’s an interesting paradox because when I was actively participating in my eating disorder and keeping my body small, that should have been the time I felt like I was disappearing because in a way, I was. The fact that I was maintaining a low weight to appear younger, somehow made me feel more worthy. Once I restored some weight, I assumed that I was now in the invisible, old lady category and that my inherent value was diminished. I’ve found this somewhat confusing because recovering from an eating disorder is one of the hardest things I’ve done.
Recovery has made me feel empowered and strong at the same time society is telling me that I have less value and strength. It’s an odd situation, but I’d much rather be here than in the throes of anorexia. Sometimes I mourn the loss of my younger, slimmer self, but I am being true to me now. Learning to trust nature and my body to do what it needs to do has been difficult, but this is far better than fighting it.
Don’t worry about weight, wrinkles, and gray hair
On days I look at my recovered self and miss the way I used to be, in many ways besides my weight, my response has become more compassionate than judgmental. I might wear a larger size, my vision is not what it was, and various aches and pains remind me that my body is slowing down, but all these changes are privileges of getting older. Gone is the desire to look 40 again. The difference is that I wish I could go back to my 40-year-old self and tell her not to worry about gaining weight or getting wrinkles and gray hair. That’s not what really matters; that is not where my value lies.
As I navigate these final chapters of my life, I want to fill them with gratitude, grace, compassion, wisdom and above all, love. These are the qualities that matter, that create a life that has value and that will hopefully make my little corner of the world a better place.
Focus on respect and compassion
My wish for the world is that western culture treats our elders with the respect and compassion they deserve, rather than dismissing them as too much of a burden or an inconvenience. Imagine how much sweeter life can be if we no longer live in fear of getting older, but rather focus on embracing and appreciating each year for what it is — another year to grow in wisdom and love.
**Personal communication. Dr Margo Maine. November 7 2022.