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Are You Denying An Eating Disorder In Midlife?

eating disorder at midlifeI had a week-long celebration when I turned 50. I have seen pictures during the last event, and perhaps the party shouldn’t have quite gone on so long. But I was determined not to be like my mother.

She didn’t let us speak to her about her 50th birthday.

She showed up to help me move from my college dorm room to an apartment in Memphis, dressed in white pants, a white silk blouse, and cute little Pappagallo shoes. By the end of the day, she still looked immaculate, as only my mom could. We sat in the middle of my floor, licking our fingers from Kentucky Fried Chicken juice (she took off the skin and ate one piece), and laughed together about the rustic dinginess of my new surroundings.

But not a word about growing older.

I still know women like my mom. They absolutely detest and fear getting older, their looks transitioning as they age naturally. They shake incredulous heads at the idea that perhaps they could accept another version of beauty. They are far from midlife bloggers who stand in the bright sun, taking selfies or Periscopes of themselves, hooting about this and that, exuding confidence. They’re smart, attractive, often thin or want-to-be-thin women who have somehow have gotten into their 40’s, and not learned their own worth as a person.

Who are these women? We all know them, probably like them a lot.

She’s the woman you see jogging when it’s 30 degrees outside, or raining hard, whose legs look too thin to even hold her up. She’s the mom who pushes her 10 year-old daughter to go to Weight Watchers, when waiting for a growth spurt would be more rational. She’s the co-worker who never seems to have time to take a break for a snack or lunch, but is constantly busy doing something.

Women with these issues will tend to group together, (if they don’t isolate themselves from others). We all do this, of course. We seek those that are like us, so that we will feel okay about our own choices. Paleo people hang with Paleo people. Oreo lovers find other cookie cravers. Homeschoolers, other homeschoolers. You get the point.

My concern is this. What if underneath the obsessing about wrinkles, weight, or aging itself, is either an eating disorder that has always been around, but denied or untreated? This could be anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating, or some combination of these. Or what we call body dysmorphia, where you don’t or can’t see a certain part of your body in a rational way? You see it as abnormal, ugly, or disgusting.

These groups of women will then support one another in their disorder, without truly meaning to or recognizing it. They will talk about diets and extreme exercise regimens, while they eat what they term to be healthy. And they can become more and more obsessed as their fear of losing control escalates with age.

Families can be stuck without knowing what to do. Depression can take over. Their friends cannot see it, because they don’t see it in themselves.

Eating disorders are not about food. They’re about self-esteem and control. When they’re entrenched into midlife, it’s tough work to dig them up, and many choose not to do it.

Interestingly, my mom also had an eating disorder, which she passed onto me. I was lucky. I overcame the behavior part of it. The thinking part still lingers, and I have to confront it from time to time.

You’re never too old to grow new skills. Never. If you’re one of these women (or a man for that matter), please seek help.

The treatment is not about becoming okay with weighing more. Treatment is about learning that a number on a scale doesn’t define who you are, or how you feel that day.

Treatment is about acknowledging the YOU that has nothing to do with age, or weight, or eye color, or skin color. It’s the you who was hurt long ago, and needs healing.

Treatment is about recognizing that “I feel so fat,” is not a statement about emotion. Fat isn’t a feeling.

What you can gain is true self-confidence and acceptance.

It’s worth it.

If you’re looking to do some reading or research, there are several great books on this topic. Thin, by Lauren Greenfield and Wasted, by Marya Hornbacher are two I recommend. (affiliate links)

The Eating Disorder National Hotline number is 1-855-637-2002.

Margaret Rutherford

Dr. Margaret Rutherford is a clinical psychologist, who has practiced for over twenty years in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Since 2012, her writing has been found on her own website, as she writes about mental health, with a special focus on Perfectly Hidden Depression, midlife and relationship issues. She's the current mental health columnist for Midlife Boulevard, writes an advice column on Vibrant Nation, is a weekly columnist for The Good Men Project, and hosts a regular FB Live video session on depression for The Mighty. Her work and expertise can also be found on The Huffington Post, Sixty and Me, Better After 50, Reader's Digest, Prevention, Psychology Today, and The Cheat Sheet. Dr. Margaret recently has launched a new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford, where you can listen to her direct and down-to-earth advice.

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Gwynne Gertz

Thursday 17th of March 2016

Thanks Margaret. I am trying to be more and more open about the fact that I am a 61 year old eating disordered woman who has had symptoms since age 13. I have committed myself to be honest in particular to any woman who compliments me on my "natural thinness" by telling the more complicated truth. I even reached out to the university's health clinic during ED awareness week to discuss what it's like to be a functioning professor who is also part of this invisible community. I am very saddened that they never responded.

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Thursday 17th of March 2016

I am so impressed Gwynne. Good for you. It's going to take that kind of brutal honesty to get people's attention. That they didn't respond? I don't know but perhaps it's scary to realize just how long it can go on, and the damage it can create. And maybe somebody didn't want a reminder of their own issues. Thanks very much for writing.


Wednesday 16th of March 2016

Me and several of my friends are going through this stage of life in our 40s where we are gaining weight and feel horrible about ourselves yet just continue to gain due to being upset about not being "thin" and looking "fat.". I wanted to lose 5 lbs 2 years ago. I couldn't seem to get it off and got upset about it and ended up gaining almost 30. I think this topic really goes hand in hand with your post about perfectly hidden depression. Since we aren't "perfect" we are not happy and have low self worth.

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Thursday 17th of March 2016

Hi Rebecca. I have rarely (if ever) seen anyone maintain change out of a shameful place. The shame causes you to feel like you're inferior or not valuable, and voila! It sets the stage for the repetition of the very behavior you're trying to change -- hence, in this case, weight gain.

I would agree that people with PHD quite frequently have issues with body image or eating, at least so far in my experience. I'm doing some interviewing now and am learning so much.

Good luck - maybe you can try less shame, and more compassion. Thanks for commenting!


Wednesday 16th of March 2016

Funny how I clicked on this blog just moments after admitting to my husband that food still makes me anxious! We just split a small order of fried chicken fingers (my favorite). Before we dug in, I had that little bout of nervousness, with an elevated heart rate and general feeling of uneasiness. Fear over a little meal - two years ago, I would have shaken my head in disbelief if someone told me they fear eating.

I'm struggling with midlife acceptance issues during perimenopause and, while the rest of my life seemed to be spinning out of control, my exercise and food intake emerged as one place I had control. Consequently, I lost 20 pounds off my already average frame in the past six months. I found myself a bit concerned at the weight loss, and also secretly pleased to have the thinner body. Ever notice how people only mention weight loss in a good way? No one ever says "wow - you look like you may not be eating".

I've been in therapy for the last eight weeks to tackle the loss of self-esteem and control issues, so I can recognize my food avoidance and anxiety now. And I'm using mindful eating techniques, yoga and meditation to help with those critical (internal) voices. I keep searching for other women going through the same issues. Very few friends can relate, or will admit to having issues. Why are we so afraid to talk about things like this?

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Thursday 17th of March 2016

It's interesting you ask that Tammy. I am noticing that this post, although doing well, is not garnering near as many shares or likes as other posts I have offered here on Midlife Boulevard. it could be the writing of course! lol... But my guess is that it's the topic.

Losing weight has become synonymous with being healthy. It's very difficult to find someone who will tell someone of their concern over weight loss. We idolize it. You are asking potent questions, and ones that I couldn't agree with more, need addressing. Thanks for the very thoughtful comment, and congrats on your own insight into yourself and your consequent change of behavior.

Eve Crawford

Wednesday 16th of March 2016

I so get this, I suffered many forms of abuse as a child and had a mother who was so critical of me, my figure and face allowed me to be a model but she always made me feel good about ,Haley but there was always a 'but' , I sought help but never got any and, as I've got older and a Carer to my disabled children , I've put on weight and I binge eat, my eating is governed by my emotions, which are erratic due to my situation. I've put on 5 stone in 10 years and I am so aware of the self esteem issue. I think that acknowledgement is half the battle and I'm addressing it .

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Wednesday 16th of March 2016

Good for you Eve. Acknowledgement and acceptance is half the battle, because you're identifying it for what it is -- not calling it by another name. And acceptance isn't resignation. Quite the opposite. It can lead to looking at problems square in the eye. Thanks very much for commenting.


Wednesday 16th of March 2016

These women are my husband's mother, who I otherwise adore, and his sisters, who are all naturally slim and aim to be even (sometimes painfully) slimmer. I have never been at a family gathering where weight or diets were not a topic; some of them and their daughters have eating disorders. It is painful to be a 5'3" zaftig woman among them, as I am perceived to be the one with the problem. For years I worried I would have a daughter who would suffer among them but fortunately, I had sons.

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Wednesday 16th of March 2016

If you click on the link in the piece, Stephanie, about my own eating disorder, it quotes research that Dove did on how mothers teach their daughters critical thinking about their bodies. I'm sorry you have felt targeted and "the problem." Thanks for writing.

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