Here in the blogosphere, we talk a lot about body image and eating disorders. About wildly airbrushed models and glamourized anorexia and bulimia and post-baby bods. But one topic we haven't lent much word space to is binge eating. Despite the fact that BED (Binge Eating Disorder) is America's most common eating disorder, affecting more people than anorexia and bulimia combined (1 in 35 women struggle with it, and those are just the ones who are diagnosed), the disease doesn't generate the kind of media coverage it deserves. Because it's messy. It's scary. It's complicated. Anorexia is nearly lionized by our society, representing the ultimate in strength and control. And the result is a thin woman which let's face it, is what grabs headlines these days. BED (and bulimia, to some extent) is pushed aside and ignored, like a suspicious-looking mole that we might pretend isn't really on our shoulder because if it was there, it might be cancer, and cancer is horrible and we just can't deal with such a thing right now.
But just because you ignore something doesn't mean it doesn't exist. That's where Sunny Sea Gold comes in. For you magazine devotees, her name will look familiar because she's the health editor at Glamour magazine. But what you likely don't know is that for years, starting around age 14, when her parents began the kind of fighting that ultimately ended in their divorce, Sunny struggled silently with BED. The kind of struggle that led her to sneak into her family's kitchen late at night, where she'd quickly slather multiple pieces of bread with butter and peanut butter or pile a plate high with chips and cheese for makeshift nachos. One night, she found herself perched on top of her "German shepherd's doghouse in the middle of the night, a can of frozen orange juice concentrate in one hand, a spoon in the other, crying and scooping the syrupy stuff into my mouth until it was almost gone." As she recalls on her new website, HealthyGirl.org, "I thought I was a pig, and a freak, because I couldn't stop this weird, secret, uncontrollable eating. I started wearing big, baggy sweaters or sweatshirts over leggings to hide what I thought was an unacceptably fat body. When I ate seven candy bars in a row one afternoon, I knew there was something desperately wrong. That's when my mom sent me to Mitch, the family counselor both she and my dad had been seeing throughout their divorce. He gave a name to what I had been doing: compulsive overeating-what's now also known as binge eating disorder."
Sunny was kind enough to answer a few questions for Huffington Post readers; check out her answers below, then bookmark her website for your new go-to source for support and information if you have battled or are currently battling BED. If nothing else, I hope her bravery in stepping forward to break the BED silence opens your eyes to the fact that you are not alone in your struggle, and you absolutely can -- and deserve to -- get better.
You've written that you don't believe looking at skinny models caused your eating disorder, as you were sneaking cookies and wondering if you were fat before you even knew what a model was. Now you work for Glamour, a major fashion and beauty magazine. What is it like now, as a real woman working in an environment where models are constantly walking by your office?
"Honestly, I wish every single woman could spend a few days behind the scenes at a magazine like Glamour. Sure, I see lines of models walking in on casting days. And sure, they're beautiful. But I've learned that it's really just a job. Those girls are like any freelancer with a talent, trying to hustle up enough gigs to make ends meet in NYC. In other news, not all of the models who come through our office are super-thin -- I'm sure you've heard that we're including lots more sizes of models in the magazine these days! As someone who helps girls and women who overeat and as an advocate of body love, I'm so excited. But I won't pretend that it wasn't a bit hard when I first walked through the doors of Glamour magazine as a twentysomething girl with binge eating disorder. Surrounded by successful, interesting, smart women, I thought that I was certainly the only one who struggled with food this way. But the "glamorous" women who work here turned out to be just normal, nice girls with real bodies and issues of their own. "
What was it like working for the magazine responsible for introducing model Lizzie Miller to the world?
"Fabulous! I was so proud of Glamour. We were all in love with that photo of Lizzie, so we weren't surprised that the readers loved that image. But we were surprised at just how strongly they reacted. That photo being in an iconic magazine like Glamour really hit a nerve -- and like our editor in chief said, the magazine is responding to what the readers want from us. What they need. Which is to see a wider variety of body types in magazines and all media."
Recent research has shown that binge eating disorder is actually twice as common as anorexia and bulimia combined. Why do you think it still receives so little attention in the media?
"I've got a couple of theories. One is that, let's face it, stuffing your face and gaining weight isn't glamorous. We're accustomed to seeing people who are disciplined and thin as strong and self-controlled. But there's a stigma about over-eaters and those who are overweight, as if they just "don't have enough will power" or are lazy. That is so not the case of course. There is a lot of emerging research which suggests that binge eating has a genetic component. Beyond that, emotional eating is a coping mechanism that some people develop in response to difficulties in life -- just like people pick up alcohol or drugs, obsess over relationships, or overspend. Throwing yourself into food makes you numb for a while, and can actually help some of us get through trauma. Gratefully, I don't need those binge behaviors anymore. They started hurting me more than they helped and I've replaced them with healthy coping tools like Pilates, group support meetings, writing and even a little meditation. And I've dropped 30 pounds in the process. That's why I started HealthyGirl.org, to help other young women get the support they need to start healing their minds and their bodies."
What kinds of emotions used to fuel your binge eating? And how did you feel during/after the binge? Did the eating ever provide relief, or just continued the cycle?
"For me it was mostly anxiety. I'm a driven person, and have high expectations of myself, care a lot about my work and my friends and my family -- I want to do everything right and be a good person. That means pressure. But it wasn't like something tough would happen at work and I'd immediately dive into a bag of miniature Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. The binges would sneak up on me. The little things would build up for a few days or even weeks until BOOM, I found myself eating frosting out of a can. (For real.) Right before a binge, my mind would sort of go blank, and I'd eat quickly and mechanically. I literally felt like an eating machine. After, I was too full and tired to feel much of anything except some heartburn and guilt. And that was the point: I used the food to delay feeling my real emotions. But eventually, the binging stopped working and I'd feel my emotions anyway, plus the queasiness and disappointment. I had to do something about it."
Do you believe people can fully recover from eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, or is it more like alcoholism, where you can abstain from the unhealthy behavior, but it's always, in a sense, ingrained in you?
"I absolutely consider myself recovered from binge eating disorder, which by definition means binging on a large amount of food twice a week. But I'm still, by nature (and genetics I believe), an emotional eater. Sometimes when I'm stressed, tired or anxious, something deep inside me still cries "EAT!" But now I have the tools to be able to abstain from that unhealthy behavior -- and most of the time I use them. I will literally pick up the phone and call a friend or read a few passages in an inspirational book. Or spill my guts to my new husband! (We just got married five months ago.) Once in a great while, I do still slip and misuse food, but it's not destructive anymore. Just two weeks ago, for example, I was nervy about something or other and had a few errant spoonfuls of peanut butter straight from the jar. I didn't beat myself up over it -- but I also didn't throw my hands up in the air and say, "Oh, I slipped up, so I'm going to just go all out and binge now!" A few measly spoons of pb is nothing compared to what I used to consume during a real binge. When I was a hardcore binging teenager I used to dream about the day when I'd be at peace with food and my body. For the most part, I'm there -- and I am so incredibly grateful."
To read more about Sunny and her HealthyGirl.org site, click here.
For a list of Sunny's top picks for the best emotional eating or weight loss books, click here.
Follow Leslie Goldman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LeslieGoldman