There is a plethora of individuals who make it their mission to promote education and awareness around mental health issues—a mission to which I not only relate, but work hard to make a part of my daily life. One of the difficulties in performing such a task is encompassing all the various essential aspects of recovery and the tools with which to do so.
When I first started telling my story, my mission was to show the reality of one person’s struggle and road to recovery. I wanted to highlight that a disorder can strike anyone at any time, and that the prevalence is unfortunately growing at an alarming rate. I also wanted to show that I am not particularly unique or special, but that I was fortunate enough to have the access I had to care and support. Finally, I wanted to show others—whether it be those struggling, families or the average individual interested in learning more or perhaps convinced that eating disorders and mental health diagnoses are not a part of our community—that hope is real and recovery is possible.
As my journey toward advocacy progressed, I found that I began to integrate lessons related to body awareness, acceptance and positivity as related to self-acceptance and confidence—confidence about who we are and how we interact in the world, as this creates less of an emphasis or pressure on the body encapsulating our souls.
At this time, I have engrossed myself in the face-to-face position of advocacy; I work with clients and families at a treatment center, as well as in my private practice, and I speak regularly at schools and other institutions, not only to the students but to train staff members and to create further understanding of imperative issues. As I do this, I am aware of the messages being spread, namely in print and on social media, around recovery, acceptance of all foods and hope.
I’ve recently questioned the methods by which this is being done. Namely, I see clinicians posting foods that are typically not accepted by current society, highlighting why these foods are “okay.” For example, snack foods, desserts, sodas etc.—I have even been one to post like this, as I recall having rigid food rules within my eating disorder and want to promote that all foods fit, including—my favorite—doughnuts. I do this, as others do, because when we give food power or label food as “good” or “bad” or “junk food” we promote a subconscious idea that when we eat these foods we become bad. (Please note, some individuals need to be mindful of intake due to a medical condition. I highlight this almost every time I write, to indicate that I am not ignoring the population who are directed to do so for authentic medical concerns.) Culturally, there are messages swirling all around us dictating that with thinness will come happiness and success, when in reality, success and joy come from within. They come from a place of acceptance and they definitely do not come when we are too busy focusing on dieting to reflect on inner growth and development.
It makes sense to me, therefore, that so many advocates focus on modeling that all foods are okay. However, this usually ends with promoting eating those “taboo foods.” I’ve begun to ponder why we do not also see recovery role models and esteemed clinicians posting themselves eating a variety; doughnuts are okay just as salad is okay—both are okay. I suppose that the taboo foods are used because they are so often vilified. Yet, I also believe that by doing so, we put pressure on those in recovery from an eating disorder or disordered eating to be able to eat these “taboo” foods and to focus on these foods, rather than the full variety that actually makes up “normalized eating.”
For example, I am someone who does not restrict or deprive myself. I eat when I’m hungry, stop when I’m full, and have full variety—no cutting out food groups or foods unless according to taste preference. I am not one to post lots of food pictures, but if I did, I would want to highlight that all foods are okay. This includes pizza as well as grilled chicken, so long as the individual eating this meal enjoys the taste of both.
I think that when those in recovery see clinicians acting as role models there is a sense of freedom—cookies are okay, etc. and I know this because these men and women show me that it is okay. And yet, I worry that individuals in recovery then question, “Can I eat kale if I like it when I recover, or am I not allowed to since I mostly see recovered people eating not-salads?” or “If I choose the salad am I restricting?” or “I don’t feel quite ready yet to have the cake as it is binge food, but it seems like I need to be able to in order to show that I’m normalized with food.”
I write not to judge the practice of promoting confidence around eating the foods that are so often judged as “bad,” but instead to promote the idea that we must be aware of how individuals will take these messages.
I also feel it is essential to show all sides of recovery just as we must show all sides of normalized eating; to highlight only the successes can be challenging as, again, it may show an individual struggling that success should be around the corner. Rather, indicating the difficulties of recovery as well as the challenges that one is able to overcome shows the reality of recovery in that it may include a success one day, and two steps backward the next.
There is nothing wrong with an emphasis on the permission to be able to feed and nourish ourselves with foods that are feared. But I would also like to promote the realities of recovery including the toughness of the road along with the emphasis that hope still exists. I would like to highlight the ways to feel safe in one’s body, related to food, but also to validate the issues that are beneath the food or symptom, and that lead to food as being the medium of maladaptive behavior. When we, as a community, can be aware of these realities, we can best support one another and also promote a lifestyle in which growth is more important than a diet.
By Temimah Zucker, LMSW
Temimah Zucker, LMSW, is the assistant clinical director at Monte Nido Manhattan and also works in private practice in NYC focusing on eating disorders, body image and mental health. Temimah speaks nationally on the subjects of advocacy and awareness. To learn more, visit www.temimah.com.