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I Have Binge Eating Disorder Like Jazz Jennings — And It's About So Much More Than Weight

Photo:  lev radin / Shutterstock
Jazz Jennings

This weekend, YouTuber and TLC reality show star Jazz Jennings, 20, shared a vulnerable, powerful post to Instagram, detailing her struggle with binge-eating disorder.

Posting a pair of before-and-after images of herself, Jennings wrote, "As many of you have noticed, over the past few years, I have gained a substantial amount of weight. I suffer from binge-eating disorder, a disease in which I’m not only addicted to food, but I eat it in large quantities. My binging, along with an increased appetite I experience from some of the meds I’m on, has caused me to gain almost 100 pounds in a little less than 2 years."

"I’m posting this photo because it’s time for me to address my weight gain and hold myself accountable," she wrote. "I’m ready to change my ways; I’ve been saying I’m ready to turn over a new leaf, but I’m running out of trees now. I’m ready to take the initiative and create positive changes when it comes to my health and body. I have a fabulous team supporting me, both professionals and family/friends, but at the end of the day, I have to be the one committed toward bettering myself."

These words hit me hard, because as someone else who struggles every day with binge-eating disorder, they are words I've said to myself.

And I've learned the long, hard, dangerous way that accountability and weight loss aren't necessarily the answer.

For me, they were a huge part of the problem.

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I remember the first time I purged.

It was homecoming my senior year of high school. I didn't have a date, so I opted to skip the dance and just met my friends — all of whom were coupled up — for dinner. I ate a pretty decent-sized meal, including dessert.

When I got home, my dress was tight. So I just... made it go away.

Without getting into triggering details, the physical act of emptying myself caused me this euphoric rush of relief I would come to know all too well over the years, as well as the disappointment that came with doing it wrong (yes, it's possible; yes, it's unpleasant).

I struggled with bulimia from 17 until... Well, it's still a struggle and I think it probably always will be.

But I never paid much mind to the part that came before, the binging. The two were so intertwined and the purge took precedence in my mind.

But through therapy and a lot of learning, I've seen that the binging aspect is the quieter monster in my mind, but no less wicked.

The binge is the deliberate choice to hurt myself. The purge is the course-correct, the undoing.

Together, they have caused significant damage to my body but also my mind.

And the biggest mistake for me was thinking it was about weight.

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Society's obsession with thinness and diet culture made sure that I began a fixation on my size and the number on the scale at a young age.

I remember being 9 years old counting the number of calories in two slices of frozen pizza. And every single time I've purged, it has been with the idea in my brain that "this will get the bad food out of me, this will make me smaller."

For years I've wished I was smaller. Even at my smallest size, it wasn't enough. I always wanted to be one size smaller, ten pounds lighter.

The fact that I couldn't be that felt like failure. So I added laxatives, and tried to exercise away the calories I'd consumed, even the ones I'd already purged out of my body.

Nothing made me feel like I was doing it right.

Because binge-eating disorder is bigger than food and bodies and numbers. It's about compulsion and control.

"There are very few, if any, people with BED who have developed BED without dieting," Dr. Elyane Daniels, a clinical psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, tells me. "The cycle is: restrict/binge. Binge eating is often secretive, shameful, characterized by a loss of control, and at times a large quantity. The person eats beyond fullness and feels disgusted, depressed, and guilty afterward. Binges are usually followed by a strict plan to diet the next day, Monday, or starting at some other arbitrary time. The diet mentality perpetuates the restrict/binge cycle. Wash, rinse, repeat!"

In the moments I binge, I cannot control myself. I feel myself letting go, but there is no "let."

I need it, whatever it is.

There is a craving, an itch, and if I don't scratch it, I will obsess.

My anxiety will spike and my heart will race. My restless limbs will feel frantic and lost until I eat, but not merely some healthy snack.

It is comfort, it is warmth, it is the forbidden food that Instagram nutritionists tell you to avoid — but I cannot.

So I binge. I binge and I fill the emptiness with food. And I feel better. And then I feel awful. Because the food didn't fix me, and now I need it out of me.

This "hunger" is actually my depression manifesting as a compulsive need for food. Food is my coping mechanism, a thing that comforts me and makes me feel "full" when life leaves me empty. And when I realize what I've done, like a coming to, then comes the other compulsion, the one that compels me to undo what I've just done.

So I get the food out of me. And the cycle continues.

Until, that is, it doesn't. Because there really is hope.

For me, it was the realization that no magical weight or jeans size will ever make me happy is the thing that finally clicked. That if I don't learn to accept, if not appreciate my body now, I won't later, no matter what ever-shifting miracle number arises or doesn't arise.

Because it's not about weight. It's not about how I look. It's about me grasping for some semblance of control when I feel myself losing my grip.

I wish Jazz Jennings all the luck in the world in however her journey away from binge-eating disorder goes. I worry about her attempt to heal while attempting to lose weight.

"There is no way to treat BED while dieting," Dr. Daniels says. "The all-or-none thoughts that characterize BED is what perpetuates diet culture. You can’t use the same behavior that is the problem to be the solution."

That's not to say there is nothing she can do, or any of us.

"BED is highly treatable with CBT [cognitive behavior therapy]," Dr. Daniels says. "The diet mentality must not be a part of the treatment, or it will be doomed to failure. BED will continue, and additional demoralization results."

"Weight stigma, weight discrimination, and weight oppression have been deemed the last acceptable forms of prejudice for good reason," she continues. "People incorrectly equate thinness with virtuosity, status, and beauty. Weight is under far less personal control than diet culture wants you to believe. Weight is determined more by heritability than by lifestyle. Diet culture wants us to believe being in a larger body is due to personal weakness, and the solution is to purchase their products/programs. More than 95% of people who diet are not successful within a year. Many regain the weight they lost, plus more."

I hope Jazz learns everything it took me way longer than her 20 years to learn: that her body is not her enemy, that size is not failure, that the concept of thin isn't worth hurting yourself, and above all else, what you're feeding isn't just your stomach.

Find out what you're feeding, and learn to love that too.

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Courtney Enlow is Editor of Pop Culture and Good News at YourTango. Her work has appeared at Vanity Fair, Glamour, Pajiba, SYFY FANGRRLS, Bustle, Huffington Post, io9, and others. She is the former co-host of the podcasts Trends Like These and Strong Female Characters.