The list is chronological: the oldest rules are the easiest to remember. The rules overlap in their requirements at times; one rule leads to the next and so on.
I never worry about what they are. They’re simply there, built into my bones, ever-present, directing the eating, restricting, binging, purging, and other eating disorder-related behaviours.
This is not a complete list. The production of it was more triggering than I imagined it would be, as is the realization that I still adhere to many of the rules. It’s eye-opening to see how many of them resemble the rules in the monthly, lose-ten-pounds-by-the-weekend diet articles that are forever being published.
We take in more than we think. It’s less benign than we hope.
The rules are inflexible and keep me focused on my eating disorder. They’re designed to keep me trapped. It’s hard to have independent thoughts that do not, in some way, circle back to my ED. That bitch follows me everywhere. She is determined and persistent.
- Everything gets measured.
- I don’t follow this one much anymore in terms of restricting but I sometimes measure to ensure I’m getting enough food. I tend to under-estimate. In the early days of my eating disorder, I measured everything. You get familiar with what quantities look like. Breakfast for years was a third of a cup of bran buds and a third of a cup of milk – until I switched out the milk for water. Even after I altered my behaviour from primarily restricting to primarily purging, I still monitored my non-binge eating intake compulsively.
- Special plates and utensils.
- A one third cup portion looks pathetic on a regular, grownup-sized bowl or plate; however, it looks fine if you use dessert bowls and salad plates. Using smaller utensils such as teaspoons and salad forks was a rule as well. Once I was on my own, the required serving plates changed. I used either a small mixing bowl – for salad or steamed veggies – or an odd, plastic toy plate. You know you value yourself when you make yourself eat from a child’s toy.
- No butter.
- Butter was one of the first foods to go. First, it was added butter, later it was anything that had butter in it. This one inevitably evolved into:
- No added fat.
- When I gave up butter, I still allowed myself a scraping of mayo or a drizzle of salad dressing. Those ‘indulgences’ were the next to go. Why use mayonnaise when mustard has no calories or fat? Why use salad dressing when vinegar, salt, and powdered garlic make a tasty dressing. So very delicious. Or not, but that’s the lie you tell yourself. You’re too fat for added anything and not deserving of tasty anyway.
- On the side.
- My eating disorder is a fan of deconstruction. I have no interest in how the chef wants the dish prepared and presented. Dressing goes on the side. Sauce goes on the side. Any extras are separated from the main. You don’t need any of this; it’s wasted calories. Why would you want sauce on your pasta when dipping the tines of your fork briefly in the adjacent dish before twirling up the noodles provides practically the same experience? On the bright side, I only dealt with sauce on the side for a bit.
- No pasta.
- The end game for the eating disorder is no food at all. You think I’d have made that connection early on, but despite living through periods where the only things “allowed” were iceberg lettuce and steamed carrots, I did not.
- Pasta was eliminated later in the game than some foods, but it had a lot of preconditions attached to consumption before it was finally retired. It had to be plain. It could be fettucine or spirals or macaroni – no stuffed noodles or layered pasta dishes allowed. Pasta could be eaten with a “dressing” made of low-calorie fake butter and salt, and if you ate it, you ate nothing else until the next day. That could be challenging if noodles were your lunchtime meal. There’s a reason why gum is popular with the eating disorder set. It takes the place of food.
- No meat.
- Meat was eliminated early on. It was the first complete food group I rejected. I told my family I was embracing vegetarianism but it was just an excuse to eat low-calorie foods. Meat was simply too caloric to consume. Plus, if you reject meat, you can also reject sauces and stews and dishes that contain it, further reducing consumption.
- Only eat the outside of foods. Only eat the edges.
- I started with bread. I love bread but it got less thrilling without butter – at least until I discovered low-cal fake butter sprinkles. They’re not so great on the body of the bread but they’re kind of tasty on the crust. Eating only the crust meant fewer calories and that was always a good thing.
- Edge-crust eating is furtive. It’s eating without eating, even though you make a note of it in your daily tally. Just a bite to silence hunger pangs is all you need. The stomach can be so pathetically grateful.
- You pick the crunchy bits from the edge of a casserole while getting water from the fridge and wonder how many calories in a noodle. You pinch a tiny corner from an entrée. A crumb of a cookie from the bottom of the bag. It’s eating but not. You’re hungry but you’re “dieting”, so a crumb is as much of an indulgence as you can allow. The body can’t be trusted anyway.
- Nothing fried.
- Fried foods are an absolute no. They’re the road to instant fat. I was definitely not allowed to eat anything that came from a vat. No french fries, no chicken burgers, no fried fish, no nachos – no chips of any kind, no to a hundred very tasty things because one bite would obviously lead to my body doubling in size. And it was already too fat. Which meant I was worthless.
- Even numbers.
- My need for even numbers applies across a variety of situations. Food was not excepted. The number of pieces I cut something into. The number of pieces I eat. The number of units I buy (it’s challenging counting very small things without drawing attention to yourself). The number of reps I perform when exercising. Goal numbers change over time, but my preference for even numbers remains.
- Laxatives must be taken in even numbers. Binge foods must be eaten in even numbers: ten cookies or twelve, but never eleven. Everything that happens is divisible by two. I have no idea where the rule came from but it’s existed as far back as I can remember.
- No dairy.
- Once I gave up meat, the next big calorie cut came from eliminating dairy. No cheese – too fattening. No milk, because you’re giving up cereal. No yogurt unless it’s the zero fat, zero sugar, zero texture, and zero flavour diet version. Eaten with a tiny spoon, of course.
- No liquid calories.
- Alcohol is excluded from the “no liquid calories” rule as long as I get rid of an equal or greater number of food calories in compensation. I usually add extra exercise as well, just in case. No other liquids with calories are acceptable. No soup, no milk, no juice, no smoothies, no shakes. Nothing but water and diet pop. Diet pop is your friend and companion. Who needs food when there’s diet cola?
- Calories matter.
- The content of what I was eating was less important than the calorie count. I gave up meat but I didn’t replace the protein. I just considered it a win in the restriction column. I gave up dairy but didn’t replace the calcium. I gave up complex carbs but didn’t replace the fibre. Eating disorders are a symphony of loss and they are unconcerned with nutrition or long-term health. I often ate my allowed six-hundred calories in the form of two chocolate bars.
- Snacks do not exceed fifty calories. It’s best if you can eliminate snacks altogether.
- No home-made goods.
- You can’t know what’s in them so you can’t accurately calculate the calorie count. Homemade items from other people are verboten always. I’m not sure what I imagine, someone hiding in their kitchen, magically adding calories to their cookies before serving them, I suppose.
- No food after six o’clock.
- Hunger is irrelevant. You don’t eat after dinner. If you do, it’s a binge and you’d best be throwing that stuff up.
- Never take the elevator.
- My eating disorder regularly reminded me that lazy people take the elevator or escalator. If you want to be thin, you walk. Never mind that you’re carrying a new microwave and your apartment is on the thirteenth floor. You’re walking.
These are sixteen of what feels like an infinite number of rules: it makes it easy to realize why I often felt overwhelmed, miserable, and fatigued . There are a lot of demands to meet. Failure to adhere to the rules was severely punished. No justification or time off was allowed. The ostensible goal is perfection. The hidden goal is death. The misery the ED brings on the road to the grave is just a side benefit.
(february 19, 2018, revised December 27, 2020)
photo credits: kethrysdream, Kim Scott.