Eating Disorders And The Fear Of The Ordinary

In graduate school, we have this thing we call “imposter syndrome” — the gnawing fear that you don’t really belong there, that you don’t have what it takes, that you somehow slipped through the cracks in the admissions process and are actually an intellectual embarrassment, an incompetent fraud who knows jack-all about anything — and that sooner or later, like the Wizard of Oz, you will be found out and exposed for the humbug you really are.
This phenomenon is one that the eating-disordered are all too familiar with. Only in our case, of course, the fear is broader and more all-encompassing: we fear we are imposters at life; that in some generalized galactic sense, we don’t really belong. Moreover, we, like the tearful first-year graduate student, are horribly afraid that somewhere along the line somebody will figure this out. We are convinced in the teeth of the evidence that there is something fundamentally flawed about us, something that needs fixing and yet is unfixable. We believe ourselves a race of unique fuck-ups set apart from ordinary men, and so we erect walls that make Mr. Gorbachev’s look like a monument of Tinker-Toys. Ironically, the whole thing is a crude sort of megalomania: we think we are so damn special that we should be sequestered in some sort of leper colony for the unfit to live. It’s miserable, sure, but it’s also seductive.
Much has been written about how girls with eating disorders tend to be drawn from the ranks of the best and brightest. We are, if we are to believe the literature, an exceptionally savvy and intelligent bunch, abnormally intuitive and introspective, hyperaware of ourselves and our surroundings, and gifted with uncanny insight into what makes people tick. This is all unfortunately true. And it only reinforces our twisted sense of reverse-entitlement, enabling us to crow with confidence, See? I really am Different. I’m a Woman of Mystery. I Have Scars. You Don’t Get Me. Exit Stage Left, Asshole. The message we project is unmistakable: you will never understand why I am the way I am, so don’t even bother. Most of us lack the impetus to recover because — although we would rather snort barbed wire than admit it — we like our self-imposed exile. We wallow in it. It’s fascinating, even orgasmic. “You belong in a Graham Greene novel,” a friend in college once told me. “You’re too fragile for real life. You belong memorialized in pen and ink where you can’t do any real harm to yourself.” I — perversely — insisted on taking this as a compliment, as confirmation of my Otherness, which only goes to show that at the end of the day, most of us would rather be screwed up than happy. Happy is boring. Happy is passé. Happy is for lesser mortals. Give me misery or give me death.
Don’t get me wrong — most of us have legitimate scars. Tolstoy’s famous opening to Anna Karenina — that all happy families are alike, but each unhappy one is unhappy in its own way — is equally true of the eating-disordered. No two stories are alike. Some of us were abandoned or neglected. Some of us were sexually abused. Some of us were victims of domestic violence, children of alcoholics, survivors of mental illness, or pawns in parental divorce. All of us were ravaged by relationship carnage of one kind or another. We’ve trekked through hell and pushed the outer limits of what the human spirit can bear. Nobody’s disputing that. Something precipitates that first momentous decision to forego dessert and starve yourself dizzy. From the moment you stick your fingers down your throat and puke till you see blood, the handwriting is on the vomit-spattered wall: something is not right. Normal people don’t subject their bodies to unspeakable torture just for the hell of it. Slow suicide just isn’t on their radar. They get their kicks elsewhere. So it’s safe to say that you’ve got to have more issues than National Geographic to put yourself through that kind of hell on purpose.
But the trouble with scars is that eventually you start wearing them like a badge of honor. Like Hooper and Captain Quint in that scene in Jaws right before the shark shows up, you strip off your shirt and swap stories about them in a spirit of gleeful one-upmanship. You take perverse and inexplicable pride in those scars; they validate you, comfort you, prove something to yourself. You throw a gaggle of eating-disordered girls together in a room and guaranteed, the conversation will turn into a macabre game of Whose Life is the Most Messed Up, Anyway? in thirty seconds or less. I’ve seen it. I’ve played it. I’ve won it. If you can call it winning.
And the really ludicrous thing is that we think it makes us special. Those of us with eating disorders have gone to absurd lengths to distance ourselves from the ordinary run of humanity. We’ve felt alone and out-of-place our entire lives; we’ve kicked and screamed and flailed to no avail. And so, predictably, like the kid who’s run out of steam after a temper tantrum, we have given up and gone limp on the kitchen floor. If you’re doomed to be alone, might as well be alone with panache. Might as well give up the fight and revel in the aloneness.

But what’s so funny about this whole self-fulfilling prophecy is that we aren’t really alone, and our methods aren’t really as terribly original as we’d like to think they are. The statistics don’t lie: there are eight million eating disorder sufferers strong in this country alone, each and every one of us absolutely convinced that we are unlike all the others, that we are somehow Extraordinary.

Extraordinary. What does that even mean?
I’m always reminded of the Mena Suvari character in American Beauty, whose most fervent wish is to be thought extraordinary and whose most crippling fear is fear of the ordinary. In an ironic twist of fate, however, it is her very self-destructive impulses to act out and impress others with her “extraordinariness” that ultimately reduce her to being flat, dull, prosaic — shrinking her soul to something small and mean and ordinary.
Those of us with eating disorders have known, intimately and oppressively, the fear of the ordinary. It was never enough, growing up, to be merely yourself, precious and unique, loved and lovable, unique, unrepeatable, irreducible. Nobody ever told you you were any of those things. The pressure was always on, and the external and internal compulsions to be Something, to be Great, to be Extraordinary, were both ubiquitous and unbearable. In our unceasing efforts to impress our parents, our friends, our enemies, to prove ourselves worthy of love, we got straight A’s, were valedictorians and salutatorians, graduated summa cum laude, danced through the hallways of academia with self-promoting narcissism masking the self-loathing lurking just beneath. We became great students, writers, actresses, singers, dancers, athletes. We lusted after elusive perfection, seeking with an insatiable and hellish desire to be the best, the brightest, the prettiest, the wittiest, the smartest, the sexiest — all embodied in being the Thinnest — whatever the cost. Eventually, we lost ourselves in the process, turning violently upon our own person, destroying our very selves in our desire to obliterate the imperfect bits. Embracing imperfection is still a near-impossible task for most of us. But it’s time we recognized that chasing the extraordinary is what almost killed us in the first place.

What is all this “extraordinary” nonsense, anyway? Cosmically speaking, what kind of achievement is it to be the thinnest woman in the room? Does that really make you extraordinary? Or, like Mena Suvari in American Beauty, does it only serve to make you pathetic? If your greatest achievement in life is a weight in the two digits or the ability to shimmy into a pair of size zero-jeans — if the only impact you have made on the world when you die of cardiac arrest at age twenty-five is that they play James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” at your funeral and everybody cries and they emblazon across your tombstone the dubious distinction “She Was Thin” — if the world remembers you not for the size of your heart but for the size of your waistline — then I would venture so far as to say your entire life has been in vain, has been — dare I say it — ordinary.
It’s time we reevaluated and redefined what it means to be extraordinary, because clearly, what we’ve been doing all these years isn’t it. In her Pulitzer-nominated memoir Wasted, Marya Hornbacher writes, “My entire identity-being was wrapped up in (1) my ability to starve and (2) my intellect. I had a complete identity crisis when I realized neither of these was impressing anyone.” I think many of us have undergone a similar crisis in the long, slow, painful process of recovery, but it’s about time we understood, like Marya Hornbacher eventually came to realize in treatment, that we are “actually good at something other than starving and puking,” that, in her words:
“It was entirely unoriginal to be starving to death. Everyone was doing it. It was, as a friend would later put it, totally passé. Totally 1980s. I decided to be something slightly less Vogue.”
So be a real rugged individualist.

Do something really innovative and cutting-edge.
Try something really extraordinary.
Stop hating yourself.
Love God.
Love yourself.
Love other people.
Be happy.
I’m not extraordinary, and I’ve nearly killed myself trying to be — but what I am is perfectly imperfect. That’s what I have to offer this world — and that’s fine by me. TC mark

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  • Alkaline Suicide

    I love this. Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    Daaaang. This is some powerful stuff. i love it all. as a woman who has suffered herself, i can say that– although there is an allure to that “otherness”, in the end, we need to push down our barriers and embrace the togetherness with the humanity-we arent different, we are of the same level- we arent the best or brightest, we are all equal. we are like everyone else. putting ourselves in another category is dangerous & triggering. One.

  • Lily

    Just wow… yes. 

  • Alison

    A+. Beautiful, raw, inspiring. I loved it. 

  • Valentina

    Brilliantly written! Every word speaks to me. Genuinely thank u for the article. 

  • Lala

    girls with eating disorders aren’t the only ones who feel this way

  • Anonymous

    It’s a first for me to find a TC article that resonates so powerfully with me and mirrors my own past experiences so closely. It’s interesting though, because being a man with an eating disorder carries its own special level of shame and self-loathing. It’s hard to feel that “twisted sense of reverse self–entitlement” that your skeletal appearance makes you “special” or “extraordinary” when you’re a boy in a world where you’re expected to bench your own body weight and eat like a human garbage disposal. In no way am I discounting how horrific these disorders are for women, but I think it’s easy to forget how many men suffer silently in their own personal hell without nearly the same level of understanding or acceptance that women have gained in both the medical community and a society which is believed to promote these illnesses in women. To sound as cheesy as possible–my heart truly goes out to the boys and men who are going through it and how lonely it can feel. You are not alone. 

  • AmandaSofia

    I really like this article, but I think it would have been interesting if you included the point of view of people with over-eating disorders, in addition to the more well-known disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. 

  • Paul S

    I dated  (and was genuinely in love with) an amazing woman who was ALL the above (and so much more).  It’s crazy how these struggles that seem so personal really are quite universal.

  • Beast.With.In.The.Beauty

    I was so touched reading this for this has been my life…As an abused child, I figured if people wouldn’t love for me(my father), then they would love me for being beautiful, special and hell be damned perfect. I turned to anorexia at 12 and have been playing with bulimia since I turned 15. Im 18 now and Its been bitter sweet…relationships never work because im convienced they dont like me, because its impossible I dont even like myself, its been a lonely hellish ride. Ruining my health seemed a small price to pay for being stunning, addicted to being adored and wanted…sadly in all the wrong ways and wrong people….because Ive always been the damaged child, numbness wasnt new nor was pain so hurting myself didnt even seem wrong to me, it got the results I so desired. Thank you for giving me the hope and motivation to continue getting better, Its my third day(so proud) in treatment and Im and slowly starting to learn how to love me. Thank you

    • Donna

      Keep fighting. You are beautiful, and worth it.

    • Natasha Reeves

      Treatment saved me. I completely submitted myself to it. If you are ready, you can free yourself. My mantra: “Set her free”. Proud of you!

  • Nikki

    I was so afraid this article would be another triggering “this is my casual life with an eating disorder” but it’s not, it actually outlines eating disorders for being exactly as they are- a coping mechanism that fucks up everything. I needed this so much, thank you for writing something truthful and inspiring.

  • Reader

    Thank you

  • Anonymous

    This was something I really needed to read today. Thank you

  • Gormenguest

    this is so self-aggrandizing

  • Caitlin

    Good read, but don’t we all feel like this? I don’t have an eating disorder, but I thought everyone felt like this. 

  • Vanessa Aldrich

    So, I am not the only one.  *sigh of relief*

  • Amy

    Beautiful. You couldn’t have explained it better. Thank you. 

  • El

    You nailed it Donna. Hit the nail on the god damn head. 
    Inspiring in the most down to earth way. Thanks. 

  • Brownladesh

    This really addressed well many of the factors that most people overlook, how so often eating disorders are more than the body, appearance, and weight. I may be seeing this through my male eyes too much, but in my experience eating disorders are often a way to become ordinary rather extraordinary. Bulimia used to give me hope that i could be on par physically with my male competitors, rather than try to further myself away the norm. 

    • Natasha Reeves

      It certainly is a paradox, either way you look at it…

  • Lux

    This was absolutely stunning. Honestly, chills ran through me. Thank you so much for writing this-I (like so many others) needed to hear it.

  • Sarah

    Funny how this popped up on my twitter feed as soon as I got home
    from my evening outpatient program for my eating disorder. This article is
    beautifully written and definitely speaks to me, however I think some of the
    statements, though true for many people, are a little too generalized and
    attempt to speak for the “whole” of the eating disordered population.
    You write:


    “In our unceasing efforts to impress our parents,
    our friends, our enemies, to prove ourselves worthy of love, we got straight
    A’s, were valedictorians and salutatorians, graduated summa cum laude, danced
    through the hallways of academia with self-promoting narcissism masking the
    self-loathing lurking just beneath. ”

    I was never a straight-A student or perfectionist (at least not
    academically). Many of the generalizations and “causes” for eating
    disorders in this essay don’t apply to me. You also write “All of us were
    ravaged by relationship carnage of one kind or another.” All of my
    relationships have been pretty standard. I don’t oppose any of the things you
    say, just the assumption that all people with eating disorders share the same
    influences and histories. The influences for my anorexia have been thoroughly
    analyzed in therapy and groups, and tonight was my last night of my outpatient

    All that being said, many things in this article I absolutely
    identify with. The fear of being average is what I see as the biggest part of
    my eating disorder; you hit the nail on the head.

    Just some food for thought (haha).

    • Ilovemacmiller

      i was completely with you until the last sentence. theres nothing funny about living in hell and not knowing how to “fix it” or even where it came from. 

      • Sarah

        Sorry if that hit the wrong chord; I find that sometimes small jokes can lighten my mood when I am feeling super overwhelmed by treatment, like now. I know not everyone thinks this way, I didn’t mean to offend you!

  • AS

    This is so spot on. Absolutely raw and revealing. Thank you for this. 13 years of my life have been vested in this struggle, when I should have realized I was worth more than perpetual turmoil. My heart goes out to the millions of people who know this level of discontent and unrest. The scars are deep and long lasting, but the struggle is surmountable. I wish everyone who has felt this, who got chills when they read this because it resonated so deeply, the strength to grow, the patience to give yourself a much needed break, and the kick in the ass to turn it all around. It has been said so many times before, but whatever makes you hurt this much, eating disorder otherwise, you can persevere, and more than anything, you aren’t alone.

  • Anon

    This article definitely hit some truth. And I feel like this article applies to more than just eating disorders. Some of the statements about the need to be extraordinary and comparing stories to see whose is more messed up could apply to people struggling with a range of issues depression/cutting/eating disorders as well as simply the drive to suppress other parts of being a healthy person in pursuit of perfection in any aspect of life. Maybe it is only my personal experience, but the motivations described are the same motivations that I’ve seen cause a range of ‘unhealthy’ coping mechanisms in myself and those around me.

  • Anonymous


    I will say upfront that I neither have personal knowledge of or experience with an eating disorder, nor am I trying to offend anyone who has a real one.  I was really put off by how many words it took you to say “Eating disorders are very painful. Sometimes people with eating disorders use that pain to create a false sense of validation. They feel special or unique – and therefore valuable – for winning a race that they are only in with themselves. I’m not special because I had an eating disorder, and no one should think that an eating disorder is really a remarkable trait in a person. Everyone stop starving and go think about someone besides yourself for a change.” It’s strange because that message hints at the kind of ED that is a choice masquerading as a disease. 

    What I glean from the eating disorder epidemic –  and it really is one –
    is that 1) some people genuinely have a disease that has nothing to do
    with “impressing anyone”, 2) some people develop disordered eating habits
    to cope with other trauma and either recover or willfully maintain these
    habits, and 3) other people just want attention but lack the talent, or
    commitment to develop it, to get as much attention that they want. XxOODyiNG2bThiNxX #hipbones #thighgap

    1) 50+ year old ladies I see at the gym who are seriously and scarily tiny, prim-lipped, and are well past the age when being a damsel-in-distress is at all attractive or validating. They’re not waiting to be told how thin they are; they are not trying to out-disease anyone but their self.

    2) People who use an ED to gain a sense of control, or are controlling in other aspects of their lives and the ED becomes part of it. It seems like an ED could just be a symptom of other more general personal qualities (disordered thinking), and thus recoverable.

    3) All of the people who have tumblrs, myspaces, talk about how much they’re not eating, or use other virtual or real platforms to actively or passively make it known that they are TROUBLED and WOUNDED and STARVING. That is the epidemic. Whiny, selfish people who believe that thinness is so important a quality as to qualify as a substitute for personality.

    I wish you have made more of a distinction between the differing levels of intensity and public recognition between EDs, and how some people literally decide to follow a practice of disordered eating and how that relates to the internet. Because from documentaries I’ve watched of old women with EDs, I’m not so sure that everyone is in the same po’ me mindset as you are. Your article seemed to be addressing the kind of people who can recover (or just cultivate a real personality) from their disorder. The points you make are good, but it took you so long to get there that I question if you really have gotten over the self-praise that you write about.

    • Tracey

      Are you acquainted with this website? It’s not a straight to the point infomercial. It’s a gathering of highly creative writers who like to indulge in witty mouth karate. Also, I have a feeling you would have had more appreciation for the article if you had had an eating disorder, as Donna takes those who have/had one on a familiar emotional tour that only dramatically teased out sentences can take you on.

      • Anonymous

        Yes I am acquainted with this website. I’m just saying that there are aspects to the “fear of being ordinary” with regard to eating disorders that are coaxed on and celebrated by the websites. I know what thinspo videos are like. I know what pro-mia and pro-ana sites are like. It can’t be denied that this is part of the “I am special, this is a special community” mindset. As a community with public opportunities for expressing approval (reposts on tumblr, retweets on twitter, likes on facebook, thumbs up on youtube), the notion of having an Eating Disorder to be special becomes even more seductive. I wish she had talked about that in her witty mouth karate; her writing in this article didn’t really pack a punch for me.

        I’m sure I would have had more appreciation for it if I had an eating disorder. I was responding to the article as a piece of writing. I feel that if a writer is trying to reproach a particular kind of serious self-inflation or self-aggrandizement (as another commenter put it) she really shouldn’t reenact it in her writing. I would hope that irony is counterproductive in this instance.

      • Paul S

        I think you missed the point that a great majority of EDs are born out of abuse, and there are far more people out there that have been abused than you might think.

      • Victoria

        As someone with an eating disorder, I can affirmatively testify that eating disorders are NOT about being special. They are also not about being a damsel in distress, all ‘woe is me’ and such. People with eating disorders want to be left alone. They want to disappear, to gain control, to just be better at what they do, or whatever that entails for that individual sufferer. 

        It is absolutely true that many people who are suffering are high achievers, are well-rounded and elite in their subject(s) of interest. The control that eating disorders demand does not just come out of nowhere. There are three general paths that can be taken:
        1. The individual knows they are gifted and achieve well academically/athletically/what have you, but they feel sub par with regards to their weight/food choices. Being out of control of something in their life is truly unacceptable to them. They start restricting/binging and purging/etc to gain control. Feeling like they are in control of literally everything in their life makes them feel better.
        2. They feel sub par about their academic/athletic/what have you achievements (many times also they are degrading their abilities, and cannot see their talent.) They realize that restricting/binging and purging/etc makes them feel like they are doing something right, that they can be truly in control and “good” at something. 
        3. Their disorder was a result of past mental trauma, abuse, or otherwise genetic disposition. 

        No matter what path the disordered individual has taken, they all end up at the same place at some point – being forced to recover in one way or another. Losing their eating disorder is like losing their compass which guides them through life. No matter how much pain it has caused them, it was always there for them, a comfort to get them through their life. They feel lost without it. They have to build themselves back up to living in the comfort of their own bodies, despite all the distaste and discomfort they have for it. It’s awful, and sometimes seemingly downright impossible. Having experienced an eating disorder and having to build myself back, I know that there is no glamour to the disorder or the recovery. It’s not fun to be constipated for days, to lay awake at night with your knees bruising simply from contact, shivering and plagued with insomnia, to have your hair fall out, to become socially withdrawn, to have your thoughts consumed by your disorder. 

        When it comes down to it, you are not trying to outdo anyone. But if you’re in group therapy and someone says, “I only ate x amount of calories for x many days, and I eventually got to x weight”, you are going to feel like a failure; not necessarily because you are jealous of them, but because it triggers your eating disorder to think that you weren’t really sick. You didn’t get to where that person did, so you don’t deserve recovery. Of course it’s not rational thought, but it’s called a disease because that’s what it is. It instigates ill mind and ill thought. You become your own enemy.

        Pro-ana communities are completely separate from eating disorders, and I know that anyone who has truly suffered would be mortified to be associated with such a truly disturbing, pathetic group of individuals. Some eating disorders are born out of these communities by people who were already genetically or environmentally susceptible to developing an eating disorder. There are pro-recovery movements, but there is only so much we can do as people to censor the awful pro-ana community. We can only balance it out with positivity while trying to juggle fighting our own eating disordered battle. Some true, non-eating disordered individuals have myspaces/tumblrs/etc because that is where they get support. Mental illness still has a stigma surrounding it. Many people don’t have the luxury of therapy, either. That is where they can post their feelings, and others can relate and offer words of encouragement and support. Their intent is not to gain sympathy. It’s simply there so people can relate. Recovery blogs are a great tool to monitor your progress, become motivated by others that are doing well, and try to figure out where the holes in your recovery are. 

        I wasn’t anticipating my reply to be this long, but I hope this sheds some light on some of the misconceptions that were posted in this comment thread.

      • Anonymous

        ** I’m just saying that there are aspects to the “fear of being ordinary” with regard to eating disorders that are coaxed on and celebrated by the users of different websites.

  • Sarah

    Thank you Donna. This piece resonates deeply.
    Your exposé has rightfully deconstructed some of the stigma attached to
    sufferers of eating disorders. That is, the materially frantic “must be a size
    zero” mentally which is so often fused with the diagnosis of an eating
    disorder. I struggled intensely acknowledging my problem. In my subconscious
    efforts to excel academically, socially and physically I hardly had time to
    recognize the acute abnormalities in my thinking and behavior. Thank you for so
    tenderly revealing some of the intricacies behind eating disorders.  I hope you are able to explore yourself,
    accept yourself and make up your mind to be well and happy in the foreseeable
    future. Warm regards!

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