Topic Tuesday: Superiority

“Superiority, Competition, and Eating Disorders” (By: Jessica Smith)

“That girl next to me hasn’t even been doing this class very long; there’s no way I can stop my workout before she does.”

“Last week I lifted much more weight than this – why I am so weak today? I shouldn’t have taken two days off.  Maybe it was because I did that other fitness class before this one.  But those other girls do it all the time?  Why can’t I?”

“She’s had three kids and still works out regularly; I have zero excuse.”

“I can’t believe they eat like that.  If they ate like I did, they’d be so much better off.”

As embarrassed as I am to admit this, I used to have thoughts like these all the time while I was entrenched in my eating disorder and engaging in compulsive exercise.  Competitive by nature, I was constantly sizing myself up to other women.  If they could push through the pain, then so could I.  If they quit before me…even better.

Healthy competition is a good thing.  It drives us, motivates us to perform better, and enables us to achieve what seems impossible.  On the flip side, unhealthy competition can be detrimental to your health and mental well-being.  You can push yourself to injury, burnout, and emotional distress.  Left unchecked, you may become so fixated on winning that you have nothing left except the dread of the next time you must compete.  There is no more joy, no more fun…only obsession.

Eating disorders can thrive on competition, especially restrictive disorders and those focused on “clean” eating such as orthorexia.  The sufferer is driven to be the smallest, the one who can eat the least, or the one who can eat the most “pure.”  These feelings of superiority are not readily admitted because it can feel quite shameful.  Who wants to disclose their sense of pride from being the only one to turn down birthday cake?  Who readily admits they feel angry when their lunch ritual is interrupted by a phone call from a friend?

These thoughts aren’t easy to admit, but it’s imperative to our healing to become curious about the motivation for our behaviors.  One of our most basic desires is to feel valued.  If our identity becomes wrapped up in what or how much we eat or in how we move our body, then we are not on solid ground.  If those things are taken away from us, then who are we?  I feel it is important to ask ourselves these questions in order live a life that aligns with our true values.

No one can argue that eating food full of variety and participating in joyful movement of your body is good for you.  Unless you are actively recovering from an eating disorder or are struggling with a health condition (hypothalamic amenorrhea in my case), finding ways to move your body regularly and choosing nutrient-dense foods are encouraged.  However, if you are never eating fun foods like doughnuts, ice cream, or chips and salsa even though you want to, then you are chipping away at your mental health.  If you are routinely dreading your runs but do it anyway because you are known as the “runner,” then you are punishing yourself.  Engaging in this manner is robbing you of a full and balanced life.  True freedom can only be found when we stop living by arbitrary rules that keep us locked in a mental prison.  What if I told you that your food and exercise choices are actually the least interesting things about you?

I have found my identity truly lies in my relationship with Jesus.  This relationship cannot be lost, and it is enduring.  I am seen, loved, and accepted for exactly who I am and not for what I do.  I could gain or lose any number of pounds, and I will always be just as valuable.  I could never workout again, and He could not love me any less.  There is so much comfort in that relationship for me.  I don’t have to compete for that affection; it is just given freely and abundantly.

So how do we know if our thoughts are problematic?  I like to ask myself a few questions from time to time to keep in check.

  • How do my food choices affect my self-concept? Do I feel better or worse emotionally depending on what I eat?  If I answer “yes”, I then challenge the false belief that food carries morality.
  • How does my exercise affect my self-concept? Does exercise make me feel more worthy as a human being?  How might my life change if I had an injury preventing me from ever exercising again?  Am I worth existing at that point?  Why or why not?
  • Do I judge others on their food choices? If so…I get very curious about this.  Other people reserve the right to eat as they see fit, regardless of my opinion on what is best for them.  I’d argue that having a high degree of emotional distress about one’s food choices is every bit as damaging as eating what some may deem “unhealthy.”  It is common in our culture to food shame other people, but this shaming presupposes we can know someone’s health status simply by looking at them.  And this presupposition is categorically untrue.
  • Do I feel a sense of moral superiority when I restrain as others oblige? Why do I feel this is true for me?  Where did this notion of food morality come from?  How might this apply to those in food deserts or in third world countries where “clean” options aren’t readily available?
  • And lastly, what can I focus on as a more stable source of self-image than my food choices or exercise habits? Kindness?  Honesty?  Loyalty?  Altruism?  Faith?  The list is endless.

It can feel distressing to explore this as you may feel you are giving up an important part of yourself.  Your food and exercise habits may seem to be the only things you can control in your life, and you may derive great comfort from them.  It may feel incredibly scary to consider not being known as the thinnest, the fastest, or the “healthy” one.  Once you can put aside these false beliefs, a whole new world will be revealed to you.  I encourage you to work with a licensed therapist because this lifestyle is very limiting, and it creates isolation and loneliness.  Life is about shared experiences with friends and loved ones.  Trust me…they already know you are so much more than your food choices and fitness level.  And in time, you will believe it, too.

About the Author

Jessica is a self-professed “hot mess mama” who resides in Old Hickory with a wily black cat, her easy-going husband, and their 5-year-old ball of energy, Tucker.  Having spent many years of her life battling serious eating disorders and a complicated relationship with exercise, she is now passionate about sharing the messages of hope and freedom found in recovery.  Jessica is a graduate of the Belmont University School of Nursing, and she spent many joyful years working in pediatrics and intensive care.  She currently spends her days as a stay-at-home mom managing all the things while trying not to take life too seriously.  Her hobbies include reading, photography, pretending to be a gardener, and avoiding writing in the third person.