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Monday
May192014

Of Eating Disorders and Food Blogs

 

ED Blog post illustrations

Today, I'd like to discuss eating disorders. Yup, you heard me. True, this is a topic which is not often discussed on food blogs, it's a subject about which I am extremely passionate.

It's not a secret that I have suffered from various eating disorders in the past. I'm not alone.

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, in the United States, 30 million women and men have suffered from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life. That's reported cases: it's estimated that only 1 in 10 eating disorders is ever reported or treated. 

And this doesn't include eating struggles that don't technically classify as eating disorders. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that in the US, as many as one in every five women struggle with eating or have a clinical eating disorder. 

ED Blog post illustrations

But I am CakeSpy. 

My case is interesting and unlikely in that today, I happen to run, and be best-known for, a blog dedicated to dessert. A history of disordered eating may seem at distinct odds with the fact that I write about, draw, and pretty much live dessert and sweet treats. 

But with a little more explanation, it might not seem all that crazy.

We all deserve dessert.

Whenever I am part of Q+A sessions, at book readings or panels, the most frequently asked question does not involve my work much at all. It is this:

"How do you stay so thin?". Oh, there are variations: they may say "how are you not 300 pounds?" or "you can't eat MUCH of what you bake..." et cetera. 

At moments like this, part of me cringes, thinking of how my website and writing present an all dessert all the time image. With a history of disordered eating, does this mean I've been living a lie? 

Nope. I do enjoy sweets. I adore sweets. I eat something sweet every single day. Sometimes it is something small like a chocolate truffle, sometimes it is something big and fat, like a slice of behemoth crumb cake (one of my all time favorite recipes).

The difference between me and a non disordered person is that after I eat a fat slice of cake, there is a voice that wants to tell me IN ITS OUTDOOR VOICE that I am absolutely not permitted eat for the rest of the day, and maybe tomorrow too, just to be safe. An eating disorder tries to tell me that I don't "deserve" things that other people do.

Following years of personal work and therapy, I have learned to make a concerted effort to supercede these voices with a healthier one that tells me that I am OK, that I deserve to enjoy delicious things.

I strongly believe that the perceived "negative" or "unhealthy" aspect of desserts is far outweighed (pardon the pun) by the benefits they offer to your very soul.

As a result, it has also become part of my goal to ensure readers that they are ok, too. I suffered a lot with eating disorders; I want to do whatever I can to ensure that others do not.

So when I say that you deserve to eat a nice, creamy slice of cake or fat wedge of pie, I mean it--for you and me both. We deserve to enjoy things purely because they are delicious and make us happy. Let me put it like this: you could live without cake. But what kind of joyless life is that?

So when people ask me how I "stay so thin", I am honest. I tell them that I eat a balanced diet, that I do yoga every day and walk almost everywhere (nobody likes these answers, btw, hoping instead that I will tell them I have a medical condition or at least gave up gluten). But I also tell them that I refuse to deny myself sweets. Believe it or not, giving yourself permission to enjoy sweets makes it far less likely that you'll over or under-indulge. Pretty revolutionary, huh?

So when you've made a dessert like cadbury creme eggs benedict or cookie cake pie, it is in no way a good idea to eat the entire thing. But will a small serving kill you? No. In fact, it might just make your day a little sweeter.

ED Blog post illustrations

Why speak up about eating disorders now?

Disordered eating has been on my mind a lot recently, for a few reasons.

One: I have been working on writing what I hope one day could be a memoir of my story--from eating disorder to dessert queen. I'd buy the book, but then I'm biased, am I not?

Two: Recently, I shared on my personal Facebook page that I had done a phone interview about my eating disordered past. This was the update.

The reaction to it stunned me. Not only in terms of "likes" and comments, but also with the behind-the-scenes reactions. I have been contacted by numerous women and men privately, who have shared their own tales, and sympathized with me.

Very importantly: more than one of these private responders was somehow connected to the food industry.

This fact was equal parts heartening ("I'm not the only one!") and horrifying ("we've all been alone together!").

All of the aforementioned things have made me realize that now more than ever, it is important to be open about my story. Why? Eating disorders have a huge shame factor. If I can shed some light on the subject, perhaps it can help erase some of the stigma so that others can begin to emerge from the darkness. 

ED Blog post illustrations

My story, Readers' Digest form.

Some say that people with eating disorders are like loaded guns: they have all of the genes in place to pre-dispose them to disordered eating, but some event needs to "pull the trigger."

For many, including me, this thing is dieting. I started my first diet at age 12, following a comment before my 8th grade dance that I had "thick ankles". Here I am on the day of that dance:

Mardi gras magic

(Thankfully, the offensively thick ankles are out of the shot)

What I heard, of course, was not that my ankles were thick but that my ankles were fat, which quickly grew in my mind to "you are fat".

I can see now that I was a normal girl, not thin and not chubby--just kind of average build. But even an offhand comment during this sensitive time can set off a girl with a predisposition to disordered eating.

ED Blog post illustrations

From fat ankles to eating disorder in five easy steps

  • I began exercising, ostensibly to slim down those fat ankles, and decided to speed things along by dieting. I received many compliments about my new and improved physique.
  • Surprise: I was hungry all the time. I couldn't keep it up. One day I gave in to my hunger and ate more than I ever thought I could in one sitting. 
  • Frightened by how I felt mentally and physically after what I now know was an eating binge, I went on an even stricter diet to compensate for what I was sure was a stand-alone incident.
  • Surprise, again: that started a cycle that graduated to an unhealthy cycle of starving followed by an inevitable binge. I began to make myself vomit, too, a terrible habit which stayed with me for more than ten years.
  • Gradually, I was able to cease the bingeing and purging, but took it too far, into anorexic territory. My weight plummeted, but I still only saw myself as chubby. 

ED Blog post

And then came CakeSpy

When I started CakeSpy, I fell into the category of "sub clinical" or what many adorably call "almost anorexic". This means that I didn't classify clinically, but I still harbored a lot of the disordered thoughts. 

Even before I started the blog, I baked; there's a joke that "nobody bakes like an anorexic". In my experience, this is true. Anorexics love to see others indulge in what they feel they cannot. But I never lost a love of dessert. Even at my lowest weight, I always reserved a few of the calories I did allot myself for sweets. 

One day, finding myself yearning for a life beyond my refrigerator magnet company job, I had a sit-down with myself that went something like this: "well, in an ideal world what would you want to do?". 

There was no hesitation. In my ideal life, I would do something that involved writing, illustration, and baked goods. 

After further self consultation to figure out the perfect name, CakeSpy was born. Since I didn't know exactly how to get something rolling that would include writing, illustration, and baked goods, I decided to start a blog while I figured it all out.

On the day I started my blog, I weighed about the same as your average 11 year old girl. Little did I know, this blog would actually save my life. 

ED Blog post

Healing, with cake

Someone wiser than me once said "keep your friends close, but your enemies closer". I never thought of my blog in that way, but it really was.

At first in my blogging days, I would get scared frequently. Trays of brownies had the potential to panic me, I felt I had to revolve an entire day's meal plan around indulging in a slice of cake. In the beginning, it was only on a very strong day that I was able to eat and enjoy one of my own baked goods without giving myself a major guilt trip afterward. But I kept on doing it.

The more I worked with food, the less scary it became. It would take time to trust food; in the beginning, I was content to at least fear it less.

Food is both the enemy and the savior with an eating disorder. Often, your dealings with it are furtive, secretive.

For me, it it was cathartic to work with food so openly, intimately, and in such a tactile way: to touch it, smell it, be in its presence. To inhale the aroma of butter creaming with sugar. To see cakes rise in the oven. To roll pie dough. To knead bread. Understanding the process of how things were made gave me an appreciation, and little by little, trust grew. 

Of course, it didn't hurt that I was also receiving a lot of professional therapy, too.

I began to experiment with food beyond simply baking at home. I would challenge myself to take part in experiences baking or eating with other people. Sometimes I would feel panicked, but more often than not I would be rewarded by the experience. I found myself capable of doing things like judging baking contests (even if I took the most minute bites you could possibly imagine) and not only sampling, but allowing myself to enjoy, my own baked goods. I found myself capable of doing it with abandon. If other people could do it, I figured, I could too.  

I have gained weight since I started CakeSpy. Not just because I've eaten more sweets (which I have) but because I've learned that I actually need food, not only to live but so that I can be good to the people I love and do the things I want to do: write, do crazy yoga poses, walk for miles while talking with friends, travel, experience, love, and create. 

Speaking of creating, that is the other way in which CakeSpy has helped me heal. It may sound funny to say this, but one of the ways in which the blog helped heal my eating disorder had nothing to do with the food: it had to do with my sense of purpose and accomplishment. It is something I have built by myself, featuring my art: my writing, my illustrations, my creations. I cannot understate the positive effect it has had on my life to know that my work has had an impact on others.

Yes, an eating disorder has to do with food. But for me, recovery isn't merely about trusting food: it's about trusting yourself, and life. 

 

ED Blog post

Am I cured?

Let me say this: I do believe in full recovery for eating disorders. But for me, recovery remains a moving target. Why so?

Because at one point, when I was bulimic, I would have said "cured" was no longer bingeing and purging. Well, I reached that goal, but then I plummeted to an alarmingly low weight and suffered a slew of related health consequences. So, no, that was not really cured. 

At this point, I have not shown clinical signs of eating disordered behavior in years. I can eat a slice of cake like nobody's business. However, I am hesitant to say without a doubt "I am cured!".

Because I still have weak moments. I can still feel panic when someone shoves a cookie in my face and says "try this!" or berate myself for eating too much. I don't always like eating in front of others. I can observe that in times of crisis (real or perceived), I turn to food obsession as a way to set structure in what seems like a crazy, out of control world. 

So with that in mind, instead of stating absolutes such as "cured" or "diseased", I will designate myself as a "work in progress".

ED Blog post

 

THE MORAL:

CakeSpy has helped me in recovering from disordered eating, as backwards as it may seem. It has helped me pave my own way in the world, to believe in myself and my ablities, and to keep growing in a postive way. If I had to share a big takeaway, it would be this:

Your story does not need to be open and shut, black or white. It doesn't have to follow the same story arc as a movie.

Basically, it boils down to this: you have the power to change your story, and I chose to make mine delicious.

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, or you suspect that eating may have become a problem in your life, I urge you to seek help. Both professional and from your family and friends. Do not make disordered eating your own private island. 

Comments? Questions? I welcome them. Leave a comment here (moderation is enabled, so if it doesn't pop up right away please forgive me), or email me: jessieoleson@gmail.com

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Reader Comments (45)

Thank you so much for sharing this, Jessie. It's brave of you to tell everyone about your past and your present, and I'm glad that CakeSpy has been such a blessing for you. I have struggled with 'disordered eating' (never quite qualifying for any of the conditions, but falling nearest to anorexic) and am, as you say, "a work in progress". I understand the stress you feel when people pressure you to eat a cookie you didn't plan on or whatever, but I admire your conviction that you (and everyone) DESERVE a cookie/brownie/whatever. I pray you will continue to gain freedom from the past struggles! :)
May 19 | Unregistered CommenterCaley
This is such a wonderful (and honest) post. I've struggled with my weight and body image in the past and definitely have found that while it is challenging to live in a world that revolves around dessert, it has also helped my appreciate a love of food and balance in a different way. It also makes me realize how much I was missing in the days that I deprived myself so much. Thank you for sharing your story and inspiring others!
Wow. Thank you SO much for feeling brave enough to share your story with the world! You are a strong person and it makes me appreciate you and your blog that much more. I've almost always been on the opposite side of the spectrum (overweight/overeat), and I can understand how one's relationship with food can become unhealthy. Thanks again for sharing!
May 19 | Unregistered CommenterLauren
Thank you, Jessie. Just thank you. From one eating disorder sufferer to another, I think we both know how deep just a simple "thank you" runs.
May 19 | Unregistered CommenterJill
Thank you so much for sharing your story! Your illustrations are wonderful as well.

As a pastry chef, I get asked "how I stay thin" all the time too. What people don't realize is that I'm also a nutritionist and as much as I believe in creating a balanced diet and lifestyle, I know that "diets" in the traditional sense don't work. Depriving ourselves of pleasure only causes pain so I believe that indulgences in the form of food and/or fun are 100% necessary.

I applaud you for making the changes you needed to create an absolutely delicious life. Your story is such an inspiration. Thanks again for sharing!
You are so incredibly amazing for sharing your story on your blog. Eating disorders are so misunderstood and are a taboo topic in society, but that shouldn't be the case! They are very real and ignoring them isn't going to help anybody. Your story is so powerful and I know that by you speaking out about your experience and sharing your story on such a public platform, you are going to help so many more people than you can imagine! You're a Cake Hero!
May 19 | Unregistered CommenterMaddie Swab
(((HUGS))) to you for opening up. This is the kind of thing that helps people!

I am fascinated by the following my blog has of former or recovering anorexia sufferers. They love that I preach about body acceptance and loving yourself for who you are. My days are made when they reach out to me about how much my blog is helping them. So I encourage you to keep doing these kind of post.

I know that there are food bloggers with serious disorders. More needs to be said about it.
Two things:

1) Thank you.

2) Yes, yes, yes.

So much of your story is familiar to me, and it turns out that working with and writing about food has helped pull me back to life, too. I'm not sure that I will ever consider myself "recovered," but I am healthy and functional now, and there's room in my life for food. It's wonderful to know I'm not alone in this.
May 19 | Unregistered CommenterBeth
I love it when you say that people don't like your response to "how do you stay so thin?" -- you have to want to do the work, not just take a magic pill. Thank you for sharing your story and your process. I'm a firm believer in moderation, rather than denial, and try to practice what I preach. I'm a new CakeSpy reader -- happy to have found you.
Jessie...thank you for sharing. Your story moved me. I too spent (spend) years with an unhealthy, stressful, love-hate relationship with food and my body and am working on healing that...and I agree that DESSERT IS GOOD FOR THE SOUL. And, we are all a work in progress....love you, from Jessie.
May 19 | Unregistered CommenterJessica
Thanks for sharing this. I'm reading it and thinking, hmm maybe I do have an eating disorder. I just always thought maybe I didn't because I've always been fat despite dieting for 30 years. My mind does a lot of that rationalizing/guilting cycles. I appreciate your candor about this!
May 19 | Unregistered Commentersizzle
J, this is beautifully well written as well as beautifully candid. I have to say, these illustrations are among my favorites you have ever done (and I love all of your work!). You are an inspiration as a writer, a blogger, an artist, and a person.
May 19 | Unregistered CommenterBethany
Beautifully written but more than that; your honestly is refreshing and I'm certain will encourage others to do more of the same. We don't all live in perfect houses with perfect families, perfect meals and perfect desserts everyday do we?

I can identify with your story in my own way. I am a food AND cocktail blogger and the once a week cocktail on my food site will soon segue to a new cocktail blog. There is the presumption I'm drinking all the time and I'm lovingly (I think) called the 'Booze Queen' by many. With an irony that I'm very aware of; my drinking habits are not only extremely controlled but the source of that control I'm certain is from growing up with an alcoholic. I love to make and share cocktails but the presumption that I am drinking all day long is a bit far off the true course.

Luckily for me, really miraculously I guess, I do not have a problem with booze but I would be a fool to not always be aware and to only enjoy in moderation. So I identified with much of your story; thank you for sharing.
May 20 | Unregistered CommenterBarb
@bethany your comment made me feel so proud and rewarded. It especially means a lot that you liked the illustrations. I was really proud of how they conveyed my feelings.
May 20 | Registered CommenterCakespy
@barb I can only imagine that misconception as a cocktail blogger! I think it can be a tough balance between celebrating life's wonderful extras and being perceived as a hedonist. Thank you for sharing.
May 20 | Registered CommenterCakespy
@sizzle I appreciate your comment. The line between unhealthy thinking and all out eating disorder can be a fine one which is why I believe the subject resonates with many women, ED or no. Thank you for sharing!
May 20 | Registered CommenterCakespy
I'm a bit lost for words right now, but I still wanted to tell you how moving your story is and how proud I am that you now can share this with your readers. Before I had my daughter I was extremely "healthy" and did lot's of sports, never had chocolate, cake, dessert or fried food. Now I enjoy everything in moderation, including exercise and I have so much more joy in my life!
Thank you so much for putting into words what I'm sure many many out there have experienced.
Hugs from Switzerland,
G.
May 20 | Unregistered CommenterGry
You are one courageous girl to put yourself out there so honestly like an open book! I applaud you! Don't ever stop! I can say this with full confidence, "You are loved"
May 20 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Tripp
I think it's really wonderful that you are sharing your story. It's a story that needs to be shared and heard. Thank you!
May 21 | Unregistered CommenterStacy Adam
Thank you for sharing this.

I'm a little over one year into recovery for a severe case of bulimia that went on for five years. It's now led to struggle with eating enough calories, often only eating around 1000 a day because of the fear of gaining weight. Interestingly enough, cooking and baking is pretty much one of my #1 passions-I just rarely indulge in what I create. I would have been a pastry chef if I didn't have other severe chronic health issues that prevented it.

I identify so much with the voice telling you can't eat for the rest of the day or tomorrow if you have that cookie, brownie, ect. I haven't quite figured out how to completely work past that yet. I also still have moments where I lose control completely and binge. (Thankfully, I HAVE gotten past the purging.)

As you said... it's a "work in progress."
To respond to everyone:

@caley: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences. It's true that even women who don't classify under the clinical diagnoses of eating disorders often struggle, and it's not necessarily "easier". Thank you for your sweet words.

@Lauren at Keep it sweet: I am so saddened to hear that you have struggled with weight and body image. It is not cool that we feel the need to deprive ourselves--ultimately it turns on us, too, and nobody wins. Thank you for sharing your experience.


@Lauren: Thank you so much for your words. I am amazed that you used the word "brave" because often in your eating disordered world one can feel like a shameful coward. That means the world to me.

@Jill You're so, so welcome. You're right: just the simplest acknowledgment or proof that we are "seen" can be so healing. Thank you for sharing.

@Jennifer S Thank you for the comments on the story and illustrations! Both were a different style for me, the writing and art, and I feel so rewarded for taking the risk to share.

While I understand why people ask those questions (it's the culinary equivalent of asking about the weather I guess) it can still continue a terrible cycle. I'm so glad that someone as versed in nutrition as you sees the value in treating yourself! Thank you so much for sharing.

@Maddie: Thank you for your kind words. Yes, eating disorders are misunderstood and definitely not discussed enough. That was exactly my hope: that in sharing my story others would see they are not alone. Thank you so much for making me feel even more secure that I have done the right thing.

@Peabody: Thank you my sweet friend! I am honored to read your sweet comment.

I didn't realize what a huge ED recovery readership you have, but I am also not surprised. People with eating disorders are often obsessed with food, and will look at websites not intending to self torture themselves, but it's a safe distance. I think that baking sites etc can be a positive part of the healing process if the person in question is committed to recovery. And your site is the perfect place to do it because you practice what you preach with love and body acceptance. You are an inspiration.

@Beth: Thank you so much for your kind words. Like I said in the essay, I am equal parts heartened and horrified to hear that so many people have suffered with eating issues. I feel that the silver lining is that by writing this, I feel such a real connection with so many people. Keep on that recovery road--I really do believe that it is possible. Eating disorders are like a muscle--if you don't play into the thoughts and patterns, they will atrophy and wilt.

@Julianne: Thanks for your sweet words! No, there is no magic pill, alas. Although if I could develop one I could readily sell it during those q+a sessions! Let's remain solid in our moderation, not denial, model. <3

@Jessie: I love typing my name and having it directed at someone else! I also loved your comment. A love-hate relationship is a very good way of putting it--but little by little, I think we can chip away at the hate part. And what we find is enjoyment, freedom, and love, both for food and ourselves. What a thing! Thank you for your sweet words.

@Gry: I'm so glad that your life has expanded in so many ways. I think that restricting is something that doesn't seem so bad when you're in it--you feel like you have good reasons--but it ends up robbing you, most cruelly, of simple joys. I'm delighted to hear that your life is including so much more love and joy now. Thank you for sharing your story. I raise a cupcake to you!

@Karen: Thank you so much my sweet friend! It is my goal to live a full and "real" life and I feel like this was a huge step in the right direction. I love feeling the love--thank you so much. You remain a huge inspiration to me.

@Stacy: Thank you so much for your sweet comment. It was a risk for me to share this story, and I still feel tender about it, but I have felt as if playing a game of "trust"--you guys all caught me. Did you ever. Thank you.

@thecakeisalie: Your comment truly affected me, because it rings so true with my story. I forget who, but there is a quote (and I am paraphrasing) that goes something like "the most political move I ever made was taking my head out of the toilet". You've made that move. Continue being brave by daring yourself to be healthy. Don't restrict yourself out of a life of joy. Because as someone in one of my ED recovery groups once said of a near panic attack when asked to join co-workers for drinks, "I realized I would rather just drink a beer and deal with the possibility that it might make me fat than be alone with my bones". (PS - one beer won't make you fat. Nor will one cupcake. I promise.)
May 21 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy
Thank you for your lovely post. Truth in storytelling is so powerful. I am an ovarian cancer survivor and folks are always saying that eating sugar is really bad and causes cancer to recur. I am a baker and I think lovely baked goods nourish the soul. As Julia C. said, "everything in moderation, including butter" right? My motto given my cancer diagnosis....life is short, eat dessert first. Blessings to you and your journey.
May 22 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah
I simply wanted to say thank you for your post. And how clever and inspiring is your advice "you have the power to change your story, and I chose to make mine delicious". This especially resonates with me and the changes I'm making in my life right now... Your blog post helped me see that what I have in mind actually makes sense. THANKS again!
Bless you, Jessie, for this brave share <3 I can relate in many ways =) And yes, a great deal of my healing has to do with being "sweet" to myself <3
Thanks so much for sharing this. It really resonated with me. I was also "sub clinical" for several years and became yes, very thin but also very isolated and unhappy. I look back on those years with such regret--the things I missed out on! I'm better now and share your philosophy that a life without occasional cake is no life at all!
May 22 | Unregistered Commenterandrea

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