When I give talks to patients and families I’m sometimes asked if there is
one piece of advice that I would give to ward off eating disorders. To a
point, this question makes me cringe, since these disorders are such
complicated beasts and so often entangled with other complex circumstances
and conditions. However, there is one common denominator that all eating
disorders share, and that is fear.
Fear of being fat. Fear of being imperfect. Fear of being criticized. Fear
of being exposed. Fear of being rejected. Fear of being unloved. Fear of
being smothered. Fear of being honest. Fear of being at all…
Quite simply, anxiety is the root of all eating disorders. It is far from
the only root, and it is hardly unique to these illnesses, but it is a
core component that both instigates and feeds anorexia, bulimia, binge
eating disorders and all the other variations on the spectrum. So fighting
anxiety – fear – can go along way toward both preventing and recovering
from these disorders.
How do we do that? By cultivating fear’s antidote – love.
I am not talking about love in the romantic sense or necessarily the
religious sense. I am talking about internal passion, the experience of
feeling engaged and enthusiastic and curious. I am talking about appetite
When I speak to school groups I often begin by asking girls what they,
personally, are hungry for that they cannot eat, wear, or buy. Most say
love. But I push them, then, to think about love that they do not depend
on another person to deliver – love that they hold within themselves. What
do they love doing? What do they love studying? What do they love to hear,
to see, to feel?
Next, I ask them to consider how many of their decisions are driven by
these internal passions. Do they crave straight A’s because they actually
love the class or the subject they’re studying? Are they applying to Ivy
League colleges because there is something about these colleges that they,
personally, love? Do they really love all the things they do, or are they
sometimes simply afraid of being rejected by family or friends if they
want to do something different? For that matter, do they love how they
feel around friends and family, or could they disentangle the parts of
these relationships that they love from those they would like to change?
What girls find, all too often, is that most of their choices are driven
not by genuine love but by fear – especially by fear of failure in the
eyes of others. Instead of learning to direct their own future according
to passions of their own, they let the standards and expectations of
others shape their future. This fear creates a steady undercurrent of
anxiety that is a set-up for problems like eating disorders. It also is a
recipe for an inauthentic life.
Women of all ages struggle against pressure to conform to the rules and
expectations of others, and because of this, women of all ages tend to let
fear, rather than passion, direct their lives. Instead of living from the
inside out in a healthily “self-centered” way, we too often center our
lives on the demands of others, and end up living outside-in, as if we had
no right to our own genuine interests and desires. We all need to reverse
this trend not just because it is a recipe for eating disorders but
because it is a recipe for existential misery.
I believe that eating disorders physically signal an existential disorder.
When sick, we do not feel that we have the right to properly feed our own
existence. The best way to prevent and cure this existential disorder is
to develop our own internal passions.
Love who you really are, from the inside out, quirks and all, and make the
choices that shape your life out of this love instead of fear. Choose work
that you love to do. Choose studies that you love to learn. Choose to
surround yourself with people you truly love. Choose to make a home that
you love. Choose to get to know the teachers and mentors you love. Choose
to create a life that you love.
It is impossible to have a perfect body, face, family, or life, but this
does not prevent us from loving what we do with these “imperfect” gifts.
It does not prevent us from making choices that give us genuine
satisfaction and make our existence feel meaningful. Passion is the root
of love, and each of us has the power to cultivate a whole host of
passions in our lifetime. Love, in this sense, is not the prize of a
“good” life; it is the key to life itself.
Causes Aimee Liu Supports
PEN USA, Academy for Eating Disorders, Women for Women, UNICEF, Amnesty International