The complex relationships between eating disorders and money

coaching personal lifestyle women and finance Mar 02, 2022
Relationships between eating disorders and money

Trigger warning – As the title suggests, this may not be an easy read.

This week is Eating Disorder Awareness week, and like many personal issues is an area we don't talk about, and which overlaps with other areas of our lives - including our relationship with money.

My relationships with food and money are things that I only admitted to other people relatively recently, and although I post regularly now about the money stuff, my issues with food have, in the larger part, remained quite private. Relationships between eating disorders and money are, however, closely interlinked and this blog highlights some of my personal experiences.

Like our money journey, mental health issues and eating disorders remain something we don't talk about, bit with this week being Eating Disorder awareness week, I need to do the hope that it encourages someone else to do speak out.

My own disordered eating started at a relatively early age.  I don’t remember when exactly, but certainly before I reached high school. This is when the majority of “professionals” considered an appropriate time for anorexia and other disorders to present themselves – because our teenage years were the time when we started to pay attention to magazines and role models. 

Now, of course, this was at a time when the internet hadn’t been invented, and social media wasn’t a thing.  Neither was reality TV – the Kardashians, the “Real Housewives of wherever”, TOWIE and Made in Chelsea weren’t being thrust upon us.  Yet we were still thought of as only having “issues” because of glossy magazines and Top of the Pops.

We were, however, surrounded by comments and behaviours – made by family, friends of the family, school friends, school enemies, neighbours, and as children we soaked these up and took them on board.

My mum, like many, would regularly go on a diet – 3 days of eating just fruit as a detox was her preferred choice, especially before going on a holiday, or before Christmas….or when returning from holiday etc.  The lady that I would babysit for was often on one of the very low calorie “meal replacement” diets.  My grandmother didn’t eat solid food at all until the last few years of her life, and even then she only ate very tiny portions – how she managed to get to the grand age that she did, existing on a diet of Senior Service cigarettes, Horlicks and Camp coffee, I will never know!

So, all of these things, these behaviours, these habits, and the conversations that passed between people, the comments that were made about good food, bad food, being hungry, not being hungry, fat, thin, too muscly, not fit enough etc, would surround me, and I would absorb them all, filtering them as my young self saw fit, and storing all those things in my subconscious to reappear whenever it was deemed appropriate.

Now, of course, looking at all of this rationally, with fresh adult eyes, I can process all these things differently, but this didn’t happen for me until I was in my 40s.   Until then, I took all of those habits, those behaviours, the images in Just17 and Jackie Magazines of my own role models, the comments about the size of my thighs from “friends” at school, etc, and distorted them in such a way that they appeared perfectly reasonable in terms of forming my own behaviour.

I surrounded myself with like-minded girls in the school dining room – there were a couple of us who would have competitions to see who could find the lowest calorie yoghurt, and then who could eat it the slowest.

I learned to hide my food, to dispose of it when and where I could.  I would naturally follow it up with little lies – oh, no I’m not hungry, I ate earlier.  Or, I had something to eat at a friend’s house after school so don’t need dinner, thanks!

And, of course, I became very manipulative with my food so that I could make it work for me.  I remember being on a well known points system at a diet club…..I was allowed 19 points a day.  Of course, the idea was to have a balanced diet,…..but as long as you didn’t go over the 19 points, you could, pretty much, have anything you wanted, so that you didn’t feel deprived.

So, did I have a balanced diet across 3 meals, with a bit of fruit for a snack mid morning? No, of course not… luck, 4 Mars Bars and a plain green salad also added up to 19 points.

Guess which I went for.  Every.  Single.  Time.  And I could genuinely say on weigh-in day, that I had stuck to my points without going over.  Yes, I lost weight.  But of course I wasn’t healthy, and I couldn’t maintain it.

So, what has this got to do with my usual topic of money, money mindset and finances in general?  Well, the behaviours in my relationship between eating disorders and food generally, are almost identical to my behavioural habits around money!

Over the majority of my adult years, I was bulimic – I would binge and I would purge.  It was an all or nothing approach to food, with extreme levels of exercise thrown in at times for good luck.

The same applies to my approach to money – in particular spending, building up large debt balances, then going ALL-OUT to repay it.  Either one extreme, or another, as I always looked at what other people were doing, what the people around me expected of me (or at least what I thought they did), distorted all those experiences and stored them within me.

In the same way as I took influence from those around me in respect of what I ate or how I thought I should look, I took on board everything that was around me in terms of money – how certain things make you look successful, how having no money is embarrassing, how it is quite easy to fib about how much you have or how much you have spent.

Much the same as I thought that being thin would make me happy, or more successful, I thought that having more money would make me happy, or more successful, but then I also thought that having “things” would make me more happy, or at least appear more successful.

Then I thought that by focusing 100% on clearing the debt would make us, as a couple, happier.  Just as I thought that by losing a few lbs in weight would make us happy.

Of course, I was wrong.

The lies and the manipulation were the same, and it is similar for every type of addiction – how much this cost, how much I had spent on that.  How much we had earned.  Secrets were kept from each other.  Statements were hidden.  Throwaway comments that “everything was fine” were made, when really we each knew that our relationship with money was quite toxic.

When we inevitably separated, after 25 years together, there were many things that I couldn’t control – things that were out of my hands and in the hands of lawyers etc.  But there were two things I could control – what I ate, and what I did with my money.  And again, I went to extremes – eating very little for months, and being so incredibly focused with gathering in as much money as I could by earning from extras such as mystery shopping, carrying out online surveys, and budgeting like a woman possessed, to provide me with the financial stability that I knew I was going to need as I embarked on life as a single parent.  But all the time I was going through my own battles. From the outside people thought I was doing really well – in the months immediately after my separation, I lost 3 dress sizes, and I looked in really good shape.

I was also able to control the money so much that I was able to do things with the children, including taking them on a summer holiday, as well as holding on to the house and paying down all the outstanding debt that we had left as a couple.

So, looking from the outside, my situation was a good one.  From the inside, though, everything was a battle.  Everything was a decision that needed to be made.  Every penny that I gathered in was a real focus.  Every morsel that went into my mouth was forced.

And of course I told everyone that I was ok.  That there was nothing to be concerned about.

In my financial coaching programmes we explore how one area of our life can overlap with another – How the results we get with our finances, for example, can have an impact on our relationship, on our employment and on our friendships, as well as simply having an impact on our bank balance, or the size of our investment portfolio.

These impacts can be positive, in which case addressing one issue can have an amazing knock-on effect, or they can be negative, in which case the potential damage can be horrendous, in all areas of life. Help is out there, but we don’t always feel able to ask for it. 

The topics are still taboo.  We feel ashamed, we feel guilty, we feel failures.  Or we are simply in denial. But, one thing I have learned, is that these battles can be won.  With the support, with the work to change your perception of things that you have picked up over previous years, with the knowledge that you can be absolutely the happiest person ever, regardless of what the scales say or your bank balance shows, because richness is made up of many other elements.

I am lucky in that, following my divorce, I met and married the man who taught me to have a healthy relationship with both food, and money.  He loves my curves, and now so do I – I’ve accepted that there are some curves that just don’t need to be flattened!  The last 10 years or so have seen me develop a much healthier balance, and enabled me to build that platform on which we can embark on the next exciting chapter of our lives.

If this blog has resonated with you in any way,  if your relationships between eating disorders and money are closely aligned and you want to deal with it, or if you or someone you know needs support, talk, reach out – there are people who can help.  BEAT – previously known as the Eating Disorders Association and the Money and Mental Health Policy Insititute, founded by Martin Lewis are two excellent starting points, and both are helping tackle the stigma around these issues.  The other thing we can do is to be aware of our language and our habits around others, especially around youngsters, as they are soaking up everything around them.  Even if we think our conversation is going above their heads, it may well be picked up, distorted and retained by them, and could contribute to developing into something more damaging in the future.  We all have a responsibility.

We need to banish the taboos.

If this resonates, please don't hesitate to get in touch.  If you feel that someone you know could benefit from reading this, or that it will enable you to open the conversation yourself, please share.




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