My Experience with OSFED: Navigating a Lesser Known Eating Disorder
I never expected to have an eating disorder. It still sounds weird to say that; it’s never been a term that I’ve been able to identify myself with. I usually say that I have eating issues, or an unhealthy relationship with food, or disordered eating. But if I tell someone I have an eating disorder, I feel like I’m making it up.
It’s hard to pinpoint when my relationship with food became unhealthy, but I do know that a lot of my habits are correlated with bad body image, which started in high school. I used to think that wearing my hair down made my face look fat, so I always wore it up in a ponytail. I have a larger chest size, so I used to wear sports bras all the time + do YouTube workouts that claimed to help make myself smaller. Somewhere along the line, around junior/senior year, I turned to trying to control my food, thinking that if I looked a certain way, I’d be happier. I started measuring out my granola for breakfast. I started taking the yolks out of eggs. I googled calories + would panic if I couldn’t properly estimate something + if my calculations showed that my breakfast + lunch added up more than 500 calories, I would feel out of control.
The summer before my first year of college, I had a plan to avoid the “freshman 15”. I’ve seen family members go through it + have heard comments made about people from my high school who gained weight in college + I didn’t want that for myself. I wanted to prove to the world that I was capable of making responsible food choices + that I was somehow “better” than those who gained weight in college. I know this is a horribly fatphobic thought – but my mind was too overridden by fear to care. I had a fantasy of coming home too skinny, to the point where people would comment + tell me to eat more. If I was underweight, then I thought I would have “wiggle room” to eat whatever I wanted without fear. I downloaded a calorie counting app once I hit campus + documented everything that I put in my mouth – even breath mints. I worked out 3-4 times a week + would panic if I couldn’t get enough workouts in. The app stressed me out when I couldn’t find certain items from the dining hall on it, forcing me to google + create an estimate that I always doubted. I would do my best to eyeball the portions that the dining hall served me + wished I still had my measuring cups with me. I substituted popcorn for some meals + if I started feeling hungry for a snack, would drink water + tell myself that I wasn’t really hungry. I have no idea if I lost any weight at this time because I wasn’t weighing myself, but no one seemed concerned.
I ended up having a horrible first year of college due to COVID-19 + a toxic roommate situation. I came home for the summer stressed out + trying to process all the bad feelings I had from the year. My self-esteem was at an all-time low ++ I developed GI issues that left me constantly bloated, which made it even worse. I tried cutting out certain foods, like dairy + gluten, for a week, increasing fiber in my diet + drinking more water but nothing seemed to work. I was so frustrated – I felt like I was doing everything “right” but nothing was working. While I wasn’t using the calorie counting apps that I had, I was still calculating everything I ate [at that point I had a lot of numbers memorized]. Yes, I still ate dessert + yes, my portions of food looked normal. I wasn’t drastically thin. But I would feel guilty on days I ate less healthy + would worry that I was making my GI issues worse. I would exercise more on some days to burn more calories. I would constantly check my body in the mirror, worrying that my bloat would never go away + that everyone else saw it too.
I knew that my relationship with food wasn’t healthy, especially my thoughts about it. But, I didn’t fit into the boxes of the more commonly known eating disorders; anorexia, bulimia, + binge eating disorder. I’m someone who likes to have a name for my problems, so I spent a lot of time on google trying to find out what the heck was going on. I was always frustrated because I never got a clear answer; I had a problem, but not one that the internet seemed to understand. It also doesn’t help that a lot of my eating habits, my calorie counting, + my guilt are a lot of things that society thinks is normal dieting behavior.
I ended up transferring to Emory University for my sophomore year + still had a fear of gaining weight. I started seeing a nutritionist for my GI issues, which of course led to me talking about my food fears + my habits that felt unhealthy, but didn’t seem to fall in the category of an eating disorder. She suggested a few times of the idea of me getting a psychiatrist assessment, but I wasn’t sure. I finally decided to do it after I attempted (unsuccessfully) to make myself vomit after eating a cookie. It was then I was finally given an answer: I have OSFED, which stands for Other Specified Feeding + Eating Disorder.
OSFED is a type of eating disorder where you are involved in disordered eating habits, but don’t fit diagnostic criteria for any other type of eating disorder. You may fit some criteria for other eating disorders, but not all of the criteria, or you may fit different criteria for multiple types of eating disorders. The minute the psychiatrist diagnosed me, I felt an immense amount of relief – I finally had an answer! After so many months of self- doubt, I got that validation that I needed. This isn’t to say that you have to have a diagnosis to have a legitimate problem, but for me personally, having a name to call my problems grounded me + made me feel less alone in my struggles. It’s almost comforting knowing that there are others out there with OSFED + can relate to some extent what I am going through. When I find out about people who have recovered from OSFED, it gives me hope that there will be a day where I can live life without having this fear + guilt over food + my body weighing so often on my mind.
In learning more about OSFED + EDs in general, my eyes have been opened about how complex EDs are. When I was younger, I used to think of most people with EDs as being significantly thin or obese + only having bulimia, anorexia, or binge-eating disorder. I used to think that you could easily tell that someone has an ED based on how they act. Even when I was older + started learning that those ideals weren’t true, I still would hold myself up to those standards + use them to say that my own experience wasn’t valid. But there are many people suffering from eating disorders + there are many different behaviors that people engage in that may not look like the image of EDs that are commonly shown in the media. However, among those different experiences, you can also find common ground with other people who have EDs. I have friends with EDs + we definitely have different experiences with different levels of severity but we also have similarities in how we view food + how we navigate overcoming our EDs. What’s important is that ALL our experiences are valid + we ALL deserve a chance to get help + break free from our EDs.
As a transfer student coming from a bad college experience, I set out looking for a club where I could be a part of a close-knit group of people. One day I was scrolling through Instagram + came across Emory CHAARG’s account. I looked at all these pictures of cool workouts + groups of girls looking like they were having the best time + thought that sounded like a great club for me. However, I was also worried that, being focused on workouts, it would be the type of club that focused on unhealthy diet culture habits that would make my OSFED worse. I decided to DM the account + asked if it would be a good fit for someone with body image issues + an eating disorder. They told me that CHAARG is a super safe space + that they focus more on how they feel after a workout, not what it makes your body look like. I decided to join + it was the best decision I made. The moment I showed up at my first workout, everyone welcomed me + made me feel included. I have a great small group + overall I love trying new workouts + growing close with this awesome group of girls. The person who I messaged with was right — I have yet to hear anyone talk about their bodies or about food in a negative way. In fact, I’ve heard girls praise each other for how strong they are + what they’ve accomplished in their lives that has nothing to do with weight or appearance. Some of our bonding activities have involved making cookies + going to Sweetgreen after workouts + trying the newest Crumbl menu. With CHAARG, food isn’t something to be afraid of, or something that needs to be “worked off”, but something to enjoy. Bodies aren’t picked apart or made fun of, but celebrated in all shapes + sizes. I’ve never felt shamed for any food choice that I’ve made + on the few occasions I mention my struggles with my body image, these girls always let me know that I’m supported for who I am + not what I look like.
My journey with OSFED continues to have its ups + downs. The other week I had Panera for the first time without overthinking or stressing out about calories. A few days ago I felt anxious about having a gyro. Eating disorders, like any mental illness, are never going to have a straight path to recovery. But as long as you have a strong support system, + surround yourself with people who remind you that there’s more to life than calories + beauty standards, you’ll start relearning how to live free from the control of an ED.