Alliance Through Language: Why ‘Disorder’ is not a Dirty Word



The Hungry Feminine talks about eating disorders, disordered eating, and maladaptive uses of food. These can be scary words for people who just want to explore why they emotionally eat. So let’s tear it all down.


Disordered Eating

Food is something every living being has a need for.


But more than that, it serves interpersonal, sentimental functions for humans.


Food comforts us through the bad times and helps us celebrate the good; social events revolve around food in order to quell our anxieties, we feel nurtured by home-cooked meals, offerings of food are anticipated signs of care, radiating with feelings of home and safety. As a basic need, nourishment is one of the first ways a human being is cared for, or neglected, depending on the circumstances. Naturally, given food’s significance, availability, emotional value, and the pure pleasure of taste, complexities were bound to arise in the way we relate to it.


In the context of these writings, it’s far more important to look at the universality of a behavior than the specific nuances of a diagnosis. In other words, it may be easier for us to believe humanity is divided up into two halves: the disordered and the healthy. But when you strip away the need to pathologize and moralize, you might see that we’re not divided in such black-and-white ways and instead have more in common than not. Which means we can learn from each other, share our experiences, and evolve in our understanding.


While eating disorders is the universal taxonomy for mental health professionals to use when conceptualizing clients’ treatment needs, disordered eating is more commonplace, with dis-ordered serving to describe a disruption in a systemic function; something being out of place. Disordered eating simply means relating to food without regard for means, needs, and/or physical safety; recurrent emotional eating, uncontrollable eating, shameful and secret eating, compulsive overeating, restricting, purging, and the like.


Never, at least not here, is the word disordered meant to indicate badness; something wrong with you in need of fixing. Judgment of self or others is an unhelpful inhibitor in an otherwise expansive conversation.


Food Addiction

I hold carefully the weight of the term addiction with regard to food, honoring that alcohol and drugs alter states of consciousness, foster chemical dependency, and present acute threats to the physical human body that may be present in food addiction to a lesser degree. For this reason, I sparingly use the term addict in relation to food, and, where I do, I do so with intent.


However, the term addiction is defined broadly enough; compulsive engagement in rewarding stumuli despite adverse consequences. There are things we consume daily, casually which are known for their addictive qualities — sugar and caffeine, for example — that play to our brains’ reward systems and keep us craving more, despite known health repercussions.


Early in my food research, I progressed naturally toward comparing binge eating disorder with other eating disorders and addictions. Drawing these comparisons helped me value what each of those communities of addicts and compulsives share: the life conditions and human emotions that inspire or require a person to seek external substances or behaviors to quell internal pain.


Whether it is the high of a drug, the low of alcohol, the dominance of sex, the protective walls of clutter, the approval of technology, the distraction of material consumption, the fulfillment of food bingeing, the penance of starvation, or the exorcism of purging, most addictive behaviors are created from the same selection of ingredients: depression, anxiety, fear, shame, loss, abuse, trauma, unhealthy attachments, and an inability to be with oneself in one’s own skin.


And so…

With empathy arguably being our strongest human asset, understanding our commonalities can be a source of empowerment for all involved. As can owning typically pathologizing language, such as disordered, addict, and fat. Using these terms in the context of our own discovery and education instead of judgment and fear, can help bridge the gaps that lay between us and allow us to shed our shame as we grow beyond it.

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