Ask A Psychologist: Recovering From An Eating Disorder


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Ask A Psychologist: Recovering From An Eating Disorder | A Practical Wedding

Q: I am a recovered anorexic, and I’m having trouble reconciling how brides are “supposed” to look with how I actually look—to the point where I’ve started dieting. I have lost about fifteen pounds in the last four months, and in my mind, I’d like to lose five to ten more before the wedding. Of course, as a recovered anorexic, I shouldn’t be dieting anymore than a recovered alcoholic should have “just a couple beers,” but I simply can’t get over the thought that I should be thinner for my wedding day. Last night, my fiancé and I discussed the possibility of doing an immediate-family-only, courthouse ceremony with no photographer and canceling the whole wedding sha-bang. (We’d lose some deposits, but it’s not a high number yet… we’d have to make the decision quickly, though. I was planning to send another deposit this week.) Like many, I’ve always dreamed of my wedding day, and a large part of me doesn’t want to cancel it, but another part of me worries that it’s the only way to keep me safe from relapse. What should I do?

—Anon

A: Dear Anon,

Planning a wedding and preparing for marriage are challenging on their own, and mental health concerns don’t make things any easier. This is a really difficult struggle. The good news is that your question shows great awareness and insight, and, importantly, a strong motivation to stay healthy. You have recovered from this disorder before, and there are many resources available to keep you safe from relapse.

To help answer your question, I talked with my colleague, psychologist Rebecca Greif, Psy.D., an expert in eating disorders at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “It’s very common for eating disorder symptoms to reemerge or become more difficult to manage during life transitions or stressful events—and a wedding certainly fits into both of these categories,” notes Dr. Greif. In continuing your recovery from an eating disorder, the most important thing right now is to remain healthy. You’ve recovered before and have the skills to fight this disorder. So, remember that your idea of how a bride is “supposed” to look is the disease talking—and that its voice is made even harder to ignore by the WIC. Now is the time to use the resources that have helped you in your recovery before. These include practicing healthy coping skills, like avoiding and understanding triggers to unhealthy habits, as well as rewarding and increasing healthy eating and wellness behavior. I also strongly recommend consulting with a physician and a therapist with expertise in eating disorders—perhaps someone who’s been helpful to you in the past. You should not be trying to power through this on your own. Social support is key in recovery from mental health disorders. No matter how knowledgeable we are, healthy thinking patterns and logic can go out the window when we’re overwhelmed by emotion. It’s just how the brain works. So, supportive clinicians, family, friends, and a partner who really understand your struggle can help tremendously to stay on a healthy track and move forward.

A healthy way of re-thinking how brides are supposed to look is to focus more on how a bride should feel and be (not often emphasized in WIC literature) on her wedding day. “My advice,” says Dr. Greif, “would be to focus on how to be a healthy bride, rather than being a ‘perfectly thin’ bride. A ‘perfectly thin’ bride only cares about losing weight—regardless of how it impacts her health, emotions, or overall quality of life. A ‘healthy bride’ prioritizes being emotionally and physically healthy, so that she can also have a healthy marriage and enjoy all the other important milestones that life has in store.” In her book, Meg encourages readers to remember, “I will not remember what my wedding looked like; I will remember what it felt like.” You might even remind yourself of this by scrolling through some of APW’s real weddings and focusing on people’s faces and the meaningful celebrations.

Ask A Psychologist: Recovering From An Eating Disorder | A Practical Wedding

In terms of what to do about the logistics of the wedding, discuss with your fiancé what you need as a couple to ensure that you’re healthy. In my April post, I wrote about the helpfulness of using a Decisional Matrix to help work through a dilemma. There are four things to think about: the pros of making the decision (or change), cons of making the decision, pros of making a different decision, cons of making a different decision. How important to you is having a larger wedding? What specific aspects about it have always been part of your dream about your wedding? If it’s that important people will be together to celebrate and witness your union, you’d still have some of them beside you if you were to plan a smaller wedding day. You could also plan a bigger, additional party in the future when you’re feeling stronger. (Extra or extended celebrations can be a great thing.) If the dress, flowers, music, officiant, ambiance, décor, or food are what you dream of, APW has fantastic resources on how to implement these on a smaller scale. Or, maybe you’ll decide together that you do feel ready to move forward with your original plan, and it will be terrific. No matter how you choose to celebrate, you will be married. As Meg writes in her book, “Because the real point of your wedding day is to end up married. Married, with grace.”

For anyone who is struggling with an eating disorder, there are resources to help:

National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA)

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)

DISCLAIMER: THE INFORMATION PROVIDED IN ASK A PSYCHOLOGIST IS INTENDED BY DR. BROFMAN AND APW TO SERVE AS GENERAL ADVICE AND GUIDANCE FOR ALL READERS. IT DOES NOT CONSTITUTE OR SERVE IN PLACE OF CONFIDENTIAL CLINICAL CONSULTATION WITH A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL.

Shara Marrero Brofman, Psy.D.

Shara Marrero Brofman, Psy.D., is a psychologist who values all things practical. She studied Child Development at Tufts University and worked in case management and clinical research before earning her master’s and doctoral degrees in Clinical Psychology from Rutgers University. Dr. Brofman practices in New York City and has special interests in women’s and reproductive mental health. She can be contacted at drsharabrofman at gmail dot com.

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  • Nikki

    I didn’t even know about the whole dieting thing before I got engaged.
    So, I’m supposed to lose a bunch of weight, get contacts, too fancy hair and makeup…
    Basically turn into someone other than the person my boyfriend proposed to?

    No thanks!
    To each her/his own. But I want to be me! Yes, I do need to lose a few pounds (doctor’s orders) but I may not make it before my wedding day, oh well.

    All the best to you letter writer! Take care of yourself, Feel GREAT! and be YOU!

    • EAO

      I expected it from my older sister, dress maker, and some friends, but when my dentist(!) added on by hard selling me on teeth whitening, is when I realized even in the liberal, do-as-best-suits-you, Berkeley, wedding fever is EXTREME.

    • Lawyerette510

      One of the blessings of a short engagement/ wedding planning period: I only had 2 people ask me about loosing weight, and for both of those people I knew it was about them and not me. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a small woman, but when you’re planning a wedding in less than three months, that’s what people ask questions about and not your weight.

      • TeaforTwo

        Yep. We were engaged for five months, and I never even thought about losing weight. (Although I don’t think a longer engagement would have changed that, I just may have been asked about it more.)

        I had one person ask if I was going to lose weight, and my dental hygienist asked if I was going to get my teeth whitened. My response in both cases was an exasperated sigh and an “oh goodness, I’ve got enough to take care of as it is. That seems like scope creep, don’t you think?”

        • Lawyerette510

          “Scope creep” I love it! Scope creep is one of the things I battle most in my professional life– I wish I would’ve been witty enough to use it in the planning process.

  • Sarah

    Love to see this kind of discussion happening around weddings!

  • vegankitchendiaries

    You might even remind yourself of this by scrolling through some of APW’s real weddings and focusing on people’s faces and the meaningful celebrations.

    YES. Reading this wedding (http://apracticalwedding.com/2010/05/wedding-graduates-morgan-david-part-ii/) on APW made me feel so much less stress about wedding dieting with these words alone:

    “I forgot to bleach my teeth, lose weight, shape up my arms, find a substitute for my canceled fitness classes, do a makeup trial, and so on. I looked beautiful.”

    Totally different beast to an ED, but I do get stressed about dieting and the rest. But that quote (I read it MONTHS ago) has stuck with me like nothing else…

    • apwteam
    • emmers

      I also really love this wedding: http://apracticalwedding.com/2014/03/surprise-wedding/. She was having a hard time with her skin, but ended up wearing a short wedding dress, because it made her feel beautiful. Another lovely story about acceptance and love.

      • vegankitchendiaries

        OH MY GOD THEY ADDED A VIDEO IN THE COMMENTS!

    • TeaforTwo

      That is a great line. I think we’ve gotten the whole thing turned around: you don’t need to become beautiful to be a bride; being a bride IS beautiful.

      Your wedding day is, ideally, a day of being SURROUNDED by love. The love you and your partner are committing to publicly, and all of the love that your family and guests are bringing to the day. You are going to radiate joy and reflect all of that love, and that is what’s beautiful. It’s beautiful no matter what you’re wearing or who did your makeup, or who took your photos.

  • anonymous

    I love the idea of focusing on how you’d like to feel rather than how you’d like to look on your wedding day – I think that’s good advice for anyone going into a wedding. In that vein, might it help to give yourself a break from Pinterest and the wedding magazines for a while? Lots of love and good wishes. I’ve had close friends and family struggle with eating disorders, and I wish you courage and strength.

  • Becca

    This is great. Thank you. There’s not nearly enough of a conversation surrounding weddings and eating disorder recovery. I can’t think of another time in someone’s life when “perfection” is stressed so much, and that can be so triggering for someone who’s working to overcome an everyday obsession with perfection.

    I have a really hard time with posts like this, though. I, too, am a recovered anorexic, and I’m now solidly in the plus-size bridal range. It’s both tough and humbling, and it’s really strengthened my commitment to recovery to have to encourage myself to accept my body as it is. It’s staggering to me to think that someone can lose 15 lbs and still consider herself in recovery, but I know that recovery is a long and individualized journey.

    OP, I wish you all the best! You can get over the thought that you should be thinner for your wedding day. You can. Each moment is a choice, right? It’s all about making the next right choice <3

  • aly Windsor

    Excellent advice for women facing just about all life’s big events. I would add that I’ve noticed that any time my old eating disordered habits or thoughts pop up, it’s because my life feels too out of control or chaotic. The cure is always a little bit of letting go and a little bit of restoring a sense of order.

  • Charis

    Weddings can contain so many triggering elements, I recovered from an eating disorder as well and am finding myself struggling with my body image some days, especially being less than 3 weeks out!
    There’s the pictures, the whole ‘my grandchildren will look at these’ thing, the spotlight being on the bride, the social media element, as well as self-imposed and often media and advertisement influenced pressures – it’s a wonder even people with healthy relationships with their bodies get through this thing!
    Then of course there is the control factor and stresses of the wedding, when you have issues like family drama and when things going wrong outside of your control it can be easy to latch onto your diet as a way of getting some control back.
    But what I will say is… if there is any healthy way to do it, then hold the wedding that you dreamed of. If you feel can be safe and you have support, don’t let your worries about your body image hold you back from what you originally planned. And if you feel you can’t, then really own the fact that you did the best thing for your health and happiness, and don’t worry about those deposits. The wedding you have will be different – but it could be the wedding you really needed, and you will probably love it all the same.
    I really don’t know what the answer is for you, but I send you love and hugs, and hope that you and your loved ones can find a way for you to enjoy this time. Take care!

  • macrain

    I’ve lost about 15 pounds for my wedding, and my goal right now is to just stop. I may have the urge to keep going (and like you, Anon, in my head I still have a few more pounds to go), but I’ll do my best to put on the breaks. What I’ve found for me is that it is really hard to focus on loving yourself while you are losing weight. I feel that in some ways, my wedding diet has robbed me of some of my happiness. It has made me hyper focused on this one aspect of the wedding- my physical appearance.
    My therapist encouraged me to think about it this way- my appearance is but one aspect of all the things that are going to make up my wedding day. In the grand scheme of the wedding, it’s one teeny tiny thing. Just as I am not a number on the scale, my wedding is not how I look on my wedding day.
    This is hard stuff. I am sending you big, big hugs Anon. Do the best you can, and be kind to yourself. You are certainly not alone.

  • kris

    I just want to say thank you, APW, for even bringing this subject into light.
    I’m a recovering anorexic/bulimic and it has been a struggle for me during the past year of wedding planning. Up until now I’ve (surprisingly?) not seen any articles online treading into this territory that is very much a real battle for many individuals like myself.

  • ktan

    Thank you for writing this post. I struggled with a severe eating disorder for more than 12 years, the gory details of which I will refrain from including here. While I am healthy and doing well right now, I always fear that I am one stressful situation away from a downward spiral, and so wedding planning can be intimidating.

    I applaud you for voicing your concern for your personal health, Anon, and wish you all the best.

  • AMK

    Hi, anonymous poster — I sympathize with your struggle. I was trying to maintain my sanity and whatnot when I was shopping for dresses about two years ago, but my previous eating issues came up nonetheless. I wasn’t going to lose weight for my wedding–in fact, I was even mildly at peace with how I looked–and then an attendant at David’s Bridal asked me if I was planning on losing weight. No! (That’s what I wanted to say, and more!) But I didn’t, and then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I couldn’t stop comparing myself to other people. I swear, everyone else’s arms looked incredibly toned and tan. Mine, flabby and freckled. And then the elusive collarbones. I debated — were distinct collarbones the mark of health or just an anatomical characteristic out of my control? Every time I looked at someone else’s wedding photos was a time that I was critical of my own body. When I got my bridal portraits back about 4 days before the wedding, I was horrified with how I looked. I was holding this impossible image in my mind of how I wanted to look. I panicked that whole week. I bought Spanx. I look back at the photos now (two years later) and there are a few that disgust me (because I still haven’t gotten over my issues, clearly) but most of them delight me. I like my smile in them. I remember how I felt so loved and so overjoyed. That day wasn’t about how I looked, it was about getting married. But clearly I still have feelings on the subject … a big thanks to APW for talking about this hard stuff.

    • Becca

      This is so tough. I’ve been polite but tough when asked by dress attendants if I’m planning to lose weight for the wedding. I’ve also been straightforward about my struggle with attendants when dress shopping, and I also explicitly ask them not to make comments about my body.

      One time, an attendant said, “This gown really accentuates your tiny waist!,” and I replied, calmly and firmly, “No, this dress does not accentuate my tiny waist. I do not have a tiny waist. I have a normal waist, and it is great. I do not need to have a tiny waist or for a dress to accentuate my tiny waist to be beautiful.” It was really affirming!

      I’m so glad most of your photos delight you! :) One thing at a time.

      • Becca

        I should say that re-normalizing my larger, recovered, healthy body has been really productive for me. However, I didn’t mean to pull the “real women have curves” card, because I do recognize that many women do have tiny waists normally and naturally. Whew!

        • KC

          “Healthy” comes in a pretty broad range of sizes and a very broad range of shapes.

          (and as a relatively-tiny-waist person, I didn’t take exception to the way you phrased it above; tiny waists *aren’t* generally normal, and they’re *not* inherently more beautiful/ugly, and pretending that there is one and only one nice body shape isn’t good for anyone)(but I also appreciate you specifically disclaiming the “real women have curves” thing, since that’s also not a healthy message!)

          • Becca

            All understood. Thanks! I’m really glad the conversation and ideal are shifting away from the implied dominance of one body type. I definitely get that “healthy” is many things for many people, which is great!

  • http://www.confidenceboosttutoring.com.au Kate

    Thank you so much for this. Like so many people below, this really resonates. The author of the question is obviously having a really hard time, but whoever you are, thank you for raising it – you aren’t alone. And it’s someone pretty incredible who can sit down with their partner and put the marriage over the disease. Hugs!

  • Lawyerette510

    More for people who struggle with their feelings when they see pictures of themselves and who have decided to go ahead with the wedding. I have one dear friend who is in recovery from an eating disorder and often finds her most hard to manage feelings result from seeing pictures of her arms from the side and pictures where she has a double chin. She managed this by sharing this with her photographer and talking through with her photographer about the kinds of shots that were upsetting to her. The photographer then made a point to not share any shots from the engagement shoot or the wedding with her in which she had a double chin, and gave her tips and helped with poses for group shots and bride and bride shots from the wedding that didn’t capture her arms from the angle that triggers her disordered thoughts. The result was that she loved both sets of photos and was able to avoid some of her well-known triggers.

    Good luck Anon!

  • Kaylle

    This is a frivolous little piece of advice and it’s probably not “strong” enough to help with an eating disorder, but my way of resisting the urge to lose weight for my wedding was to order my dress six months before the wedding (which I think was normal timing anyway if you are going to order a gown?) in the size I was at that time. After that, I knew that if I lost much weight, I was just going to have to spend a bunch of extra money on alterations to make it smaller, which just seemed like a waste of money.

  • WinterBride2013

    I’m so glad to see this getting coverage here. I remember a post from someone else who was struggling with this, and who talked about the desire to be “less”. That in particular resonated with me. Our wedding was wonderful, and happy and crazy and messy and noisy and perfect, and the love in the room was OVERWHELMING (and actually I don’t really mean that in a wholly positive way). I found it hard to bear in some ways, and both then and in the lead-up to the wedding I had struggled with maintaining a healthy weight for exactly that reason, wanting to be less, less present, less imperfect, less central. I’m ten years in recovery but still lose weight very quickly in stressful situations, and I had to work hard and do a lot of deep breathing to resist the notion of how a bride “should” look. Looking at the photos now, six months later, I look radiant. Not beautiful, necessarily, but so, so happy. The reason you’ll remember how you feel and not how you look is because how you feel is so powerful, it totally obliterated everything else for me; all the imperfections in the venue and the food and the weather and in me were just not part of how I felt, the warmth and the joy and the love. To the letter writer, I would say be as strong as you can as you prepare, but be gentle with yourself. That’s the most important thing. Give yourself a break and focus on feeling how you feel. Good luck!!!