More than a year into a deadly pandemic, when disordered eating and eating disorders are on the rise in every demographic, all anyone can talk about is how to help your family drop the "Covid-19." Instead, we need to talk about our collective struggle with food, body image, and self-worth, because it has been silently eating away at us for too long.
Being trapped in a back brace for 23 hours a day, seven days a week, from the age of 11 to 13, to treat my scoliosis, was uncomfortable. I felt ashamed of my body and like I was taking up too much space in the world. Squeezed in this big, clunky contraption, I just wanted to be smaller so I wouldn't feel so different and so I would feel worthy. Food, as a way to shrink myself, started to take up all the space in my mind. I told myself these thoughts were “healthy,” but they slowly started to become my main focus.
Alyson Gerber in her Boston back brace for scoliosis.
I knew I didn’t have an eating disorder. I learned about that in health class and read books about it. And thinking about losing weight was different. It seemed totally normal because my friends and our parents and grandparents talked about diets and “being good” about what they ate all the time. I was living in an endless cycle of disordered eating — negative self-talk, thinking about food and my body all the time, restricting, weighing, binging, and fad dieting. It took a huge toll on both my mental and physical health. At 21, I finally admitted I couldn't manage my pain alone anymore and got professional help. I started to work toward recovery.
What makes disordered eating especially challenging is that it’s encouraged by many people, including some doctors. We live in a culture that values a person’s weight, shape, and size over their well-being. We have for generations. So, disordered eating is like a toxic family tradition that's been passed down and has evolved so much that it almost seems good for us because it's familiar. But it's not good for anyone. And it starts a lot earlier than most people realize. Before the pandemic, at least fifty percent of eight year olds wanted to be thinner, and they felt better about themselves when they were on a diet. A 2008 survey reported that seventy-five percent of women have disordered eating. And we know that disordered eating is underreported by men.
I wrote my new book Taking Up Space when I was pregnant with my daughter, in the middle of a disordered eating relapse that was triggered by my changing body and my adolescent trauma. I recognized almost immediately what was happening and got help. I also knew that kids with parents who struggle with food and body image have a much greater chance of struggling with the same unhealthy eating behaviors. And I was determined to stop the cycle and make sure my daughter didn't become a statistic.
Alyson and her daughter making art at school just before the pandemic.
I dove into this project, interviewing experts and reading every book I could find on the history of diet culture. I knew this story was so much bigger than me. When I really thought about it, almost everyone I knew had complicated feelings about food and their bodies that they didn't want to pass onto their kids. I wanted to understand how this happened and write a story that could help us all heal. I wanted to change things for myself and for my daughter and for all the parents and kids who are having a hard time feeling good in their bodies and struggling to value themselves. My hope hope is that readers will see that they matter and their pain is real. And they are worthy of food and help and love, always.
TAKING UP SPACE by Alyson Gerber is in stores now from Scholastic.