Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist or medical doctor. Ideas expressed here are based on my personal research, firsthand accounts from friends and acquaintances, and personal observations. Please seek out a professional if you have questions.
I recently read an article about the connection between partaking in a “clean eating”-type diet and having an eating disorder (most often orthorexia). The claim in the article – and a tendency I’ve actually seen occur in the intentional living community – is that rigid lifestyle habits both encourage and disguise disordered eating. Diets that use the language of health and wellness legitimize obsessive and restrictive tendencies that can result in life threatening self harm.
This is serious, and we – bloggers, writers, and practitioners in spaces that intersect with intentional living – should be sensitive to this and do our best to spot potential extremes before they cause irreparable harm to our sisters and brothers.
Eating disorders are not caused by surface-level issues (i.e., they’re often not about food per se), and they’re also not generally caused by one thing. Rather, a confluence of genetics, lifestyle habits, psychosomatic issues, and trauma lead to developing the harmful habits and compulsions associated with eating disorders. From a psychological perspective, eating disorders often develop in an attempt to regain control.
And this is what makes them so dangerous: in their earliest stages, they can appear to be positive forms of self regulation.
I worry, because I’m starting to see the warning signs typically associated with eating disorders in the minimalist and intentional living community when it comes to wardrobe curation and consumer habits. In fact, if I go down the list of psychological and social risk factors on the National Eating Disorders Association website, I can spot them in a few bloggers and influencers I follow…
Body image dissatisfaction
Personal history of an anxiety disorder
Teasing or bullying
Limited social networks
Of course, I’m not interested in diagnosing particular individuals, and I wouldn’t encourage anyone else to do it either. But I finally sat down to write this post (even though I knew it was a really sensitive topic) because I want people I know and respect to ask themselves if their consumer and lifestyle habits feel nourishing, or if they are struggling beneath the surface of their carefully curated lives.
Endless closet purging and curation – and conversely, “binge” shopping and incessant returns – aren’t likely to result in major physical health problems. But they are potentially a sign of an anxiety disorder that can diminish quality of life and lead to other forms of self harm if left unchecked.
In this community, we are encouraged to think about what we buy and why we buy it, and sometimes that process can become obsessive. We are rewarded for intensive analysis of what we wear and held up as moral exemplars for what we cut out of our lives. In short, we get positive feedback for doing things that look pretty extreme from an outsider’s perspective. In my Ethical Purity post, I speak to this in more detail.
But we need to ask ourselves if our endless quest to eliminate or perfect is in some ways a quest to diminish ourselves – or that nagging feeling that something is off – either mentally, physically, or relationally.
Does this process of self-curation satisfy a need to control a life that feels anything but secure?
In most treatment programs for eating disorders, patients are given a dietary regimen that requires moderation. They are asked to confront – for their own survival – foods that they have previously rejected due to a judgment call about its nutritive value. They are essentially encouraged not to diet, because even a “healthy” diet requires restrictions that can contribute to a relapse.
Ask yourself what it would feel like to stop your clothing diet, to end the restrictions and ease up on the morality claims. Does it feel overwhelming? Does it make you feel out of control?