Grappling with my eating disorder while abroad

By KATY WILNER | November 21, 2019

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COURTESY OF KATY WILNER

Wilner reflects on how she has managed her eating disorder while studying abroad in France.

In case you haven’t seen Ratatouille, let me tell you how much the French love their food. Unlike in the States, where people juice their breakfast to drink on-the-go, in France, meal time is a serious part of the day. Most working adults take at least an hour to stop working, sit in a restaurant and eat a multi-course lunch.

French food is respected across the globe. The melt-in-your-mouth croissants, buttery escargot, cheesy French onion soup — the list goes on and on. Discovering the City of Love through food is one of the most exciting parts about moving abroad, and it is something that I’ve looked forward to since I decided to study here.

Or, at least I thought it was something I was going to look forward to.

Earlier this year, I spent several months as an inpatient at an eating disorder hospital in Baltimore. It was, truthfully, one of the most difficult times of my life. But after weeks of being under constant observation, being unable to go outside to breathe fresh air and being force-fed thousands of calories a day, I returned to Hopkins with a new appreciation for life.

Since January, I’ve tried to look at those months in a positive light, using what I learned from that experience to guide my meal plan, to practice self-love and to have more mindful behaviors (although, honestly, my biggest motivator is not wanting to go back). 

Despite my newfound positive outlook on my health, Paris has been a challenge to say the least. It sometimes feels like all the foods here are the kind of foods an American diet-book would dub as “no-no foods.” Gluten? Yes. Dairy? Of course. Inappropriate amounts of red wine? If it’s after noon, why not?

Lost in the midst of my eating disorder’s thoughts, I often find myself staring at the French women sitting in cafés gobbling up whole baguettes and wondering how they are so thin, especially because in all my time here I swear I’ve only seen one gym.

Unfortunately, I find myself comparing myself to these women. I tell myself that I can eat whatever I want while I’m here because this is part of how I’m experiencing the city. If my pants feel a little tight, I tell myself that I’ll go for a run later. When I realize that I’ve managed to go an entire day without eating a single green thing, I promise myself that tomorrow will be better and that my first stop will be the grocery store to buy produce.

These conversations I have with myself are exhausting and just end up making me miss my therapist. But, I know myself and I know that this is the way my brain is programmed to think about food. Luckily, I’ve figured out how to cope with some of these internal conflicts. Here are some of my favorite tips:

First, like Remy says in Ratatouille, it’s important to experience your food. By slowing down, the food will taste better, you’ll be able to tell when your body is naturally full, and you’ll have more satisfaction at the end of your meal. You can eat a lot and still not over-eat, but it’s hard to tell where the line is if you don’t give your body enough time to process.

Second, there is no such thing as good foods or bad foods. No, I don’t mean that there isn’t a nutritional difference between a McDonald’s burger and a salad. But just because you eat one or the other on a given day doesn’t mean that you’ve had a good food day or a bad one. As long as you ultimately get all the vitamins and energy you need, go ahead and eat that Royale with Cheese (but I highly recommend that if you’re abroad, opt for something less blatantly American).

Lastly, our bodies are naturally resilient. Unless you overeat every day or miss entire food groups for extended periods of time, your body won’t be noticeably different. This means that it’s totally acceptable to have days where you eat two gelatos or a third serving of brie. 

Your body needs and craves delicious food, so don’t deprive it of that. If you feel hungry, eat. I know that it’s really hard to go against warped beliefs and eat how you don’t want to. And it’s even harder that sometimes you can do everything right and still feel guilty. But in the end, it’s 100 percent for the best.

These tips are for anyone who might need them. Although I won’t charge you by the hour for this information (I’m looking at you Dr. Lee), if you think you might have an eating disorder or disordered eating, reach out to a professional. Even if it’s painful in the moment to seek help, it’s always better to do so sooner rather than later. Also, reaching out for help is fundamentally against the nature of an eating disorder, so if you have a friend you think might need help, just ask and let them know you care.

The Counseling Center can be reached at (410) 516-8278 during normal business hours. In case of an emergency outside of normal hours, a counselor on call can be reached through Security at (410) 516-7777. Campus Ministries may be reached at (410) 516-1880.

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