“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”
― Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
With Halloween just days away, kids and adults alike are busy planning, buying, and making original and creative costumes. Halloween enthusiasts extol the day as the one occasion each year when you get to be someone or something you are not on all the other days of the year – a superhero, perhaps, or your favorite Star Wars character. But for many people, the experience of being someone other than themselves is far more common than an annual event. We’ve all had the experience of concealing parts of ourselves in order to conform to social pressures, expectations, and norms. In fact, having the ability to hide your feelings when appropriate is a mark of social and emotional competence.
But for those who struggle with disordered eating, hiding and masking their “true self” can become a way of life that goes far beyond conformity to social norms and instead involves secrecy embarrassment, and shame. It’s time to illuminate the shadows that are apt to conceal what’s really going on:
Eating In vs. Eating Out
One well-known measure of eating pathology asks respondents to report if they regularly eat in moderation in front of others but splurge in secret. This common experience of dieters and those who “watch their weight” points to a divide between public versus private eating. A 1986 study reported that female dieters who were offered candy and instructed to leave the candy wrappers on the table for the experimenter to discard ate significantly less than those who were able to anonymously discard their wrappers in a communal trash can. This slight alteration of what the authors called “public attention” had a significant impact on eating behavior for these women.
Feeling Out of Control
Binge eating, the experience of eating large amounts of food in a short period of time and feeling unable to control what or how much is eaten, is also often characterized by secrecy and hiding. Two of the diagnostic criteria for binge eating disorder speak to this point; eating alone due to embarrassment about how much one is eating, and feeling disgusted, depressed, or very guilty after eating are defining characteristics of binge episodes. Also common to the experience of binge eating is making a choice to eat alone in order to “give oneself permission” to overeat. This choice might occur as a reward for the hard work of dieting or as a strategy for coping with emotional distress. In the end, binge eating becomes not only a source of guilt and shame but also an open door for deception and denial.
The Mask of Starvation
Starvation, malnourishment, and weight loss impact nearly all body systems and can have a profound impact on personality and social identity. In the Minnesota Semi-Starvation Study, otherwise healthy, well-adjusted men became irritable, isolated, more somber, and more self-absorbed as they lost weight due to the severe caloric restriction prescribed by the study. Individuals with eating disorders that involve self-starvation experience similar changes and often find that as they eat less, they become less engaged in life, less available to other people, and less interested in the world around them. Friends and family members may describe them as being a “shadow of who they once were” or “not themselves anymore.” Over time, the “identity” of the illness may feel more real than the personality that was there prior to weight loss, and this experience can lead to even more confusion about which version is the “real person.”
I’m Fine, How About You?
It’s easy to give advice to others and to “talk the talk,” as they say, while knowing inside that you don’t practice what you preach. This experience, again, creates a disconnect between your self-knowledge and the image you project to the world. A typical example of this double standard is encouraging others to love and accept their body shape or weight while feeling unable to accept your own. Both men and women report that they are frequently critical of some aspect of their body weight or shape. Social media may exacerbate this problem by facilitating comparisons and excessive focus on appearance in those already vulnerable to poor body image. The masks that are worn around body dissatisfaction may be in projecting a confident image while being internally self-critical, complimenting others’ appearance but feeling unable to believe or accept the compliments of others, and criticizing the appearance of others in order to appear – or feel – more confident with your own body.
How to Remove Your Mask
- Open up to a trusted friend, family member, teammate, or healthcare provider. Once the doorway to the truth is open, it’ll get easier to keep opening it even more.
- Keep a journal. Journaling increases self-awareness and can help put words to the experience of disconnection between the internal and external world. Start to notice the times you “put on the mask” and wonder about what might be motivating you to hide.
- Listen to yourself. When you compliment someone else, imagine yourself accepting the compliment as they did, and then go a step further and practice complimenting yourself. It may not come naturally, but keep at it, and it will start to feel more real. Also, when you give advice to someone else, ask yourself what it would take to follow that advice and see if you can start making some little changes. Finally, question your assumptions, especially those that differ from what others tell you.
Masks are great for Halloween, but remember – it’s only one day a year.