The Language of Eating Disorder Recovery

A horse in a sunset

**Content warning: This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences in recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, and symptoms. Please use your discretion when reading and speak with your support system as needed.

Lisa Whalen’s book, Stable Weight: A Memoir of Hunger, Horses, and Hope, will be available from Hopewell Publications on March 2, 2021. Her writing has also appeared in An Introvert in an Extrovert World; The Simpsons’ Beloved Springfield; Introvert, Dear; and Adanna, among other publications. Whalen has a Ph.D. in postsecondary and adult education and an M.A. in creative and critical writing. She teaches composition, creative writing, literature, and journalism at North Hennepin Community College, where she was selected Minnesota College Faculty Association Educator of the Year in 2019. In her spare time, she is an equestrian and volunteer for the Animal Humane Society. Learn more at her website, and follow her on social media @LisaIrishWhalen.  

Whether we know it or not, language shapes our perception. I never thought much about how the language I speak and the way I view the world were connected until I took foreign language classes in high school. My Spanish teacher explained that translating wasn’t just word-for-word substitution. Unlike the equations I learned in algebra, where I could replace X with a number to answer a question like 4x + 2 = ?, I couldn’t always replace an English word with its Spanish equivalent to answer a question like, “How do you say _X  ?”

Learning Spanish was my first introduction to the idea that each language has a unique structure. Studying Spanish taught me that some structural differences between languages are minuscule, like the English rule that adjectives should come before nouns, as in “the blue car,” versus the Spanish rule that nouns should come before adjectives, as in “the car blue.”

Later, when I began teaching college English classes, I saw how other structural differences between languages affect every aspect of communication, such as English verbs having up to 12 tenses to indicate time versus Hmong verbs having a single tense. English requires us to say I eat, I ate, I have eaten, I will eat, I will have eaten, to tell listeners when the action happened because Western culture perceives time as linear and moving toward the future, while Hmong speakers say I eat yesterday, I eat tomorrow, I eat before sunset because traditional Hmong culture perceived time as cyclical and anchored by the present moment.

The least translatable part of a language is idioms. Idioms are quirky sayings passed from generation to generation that don’t always make sense literally but convey an idea that is widely understood. English examples include quitting cold turkey, giving someone a taste of their own medicine, asking whether the glass is half-full or half-empty, and not looking a gift horse in the mouth. These phrases can sound strange or even nonsensical to lifelong English speakers, because over time, the culture that created them has changed.

So, what does this language trivia have to do with eating disorder recovery? A lot, actually—at least for me.

During treatment at The Emily Program, I learned that the language I use shapes how I perceive my body, myself, my environment, and the world. If I say something negative about myself, I begin to believe it whether it’s literally true or not. What I say and how I choose to say it can even alter what I see when I look in the mirror.

Similarly, what the media says can shape how we perceive ourselves and society. What the media says about celebrities’ bodies, workouts, and diets became The Truth to me, the standard I applied to myself and assumed everyone else did, too. It took a long time for me to understand that just because the media says that something is good or bad, that someone is perfect or imperfect, doesn’t make it true. The rise and fall of fad diets, exercise trends, and beauty standards over time proves that they are mostly subjective. Like idioms, they are a product of the culture and era that created them, and throughout history, they will fall in and out of favor, so why arrange my life around them?

Late in my recovery, when I felt like I’d “turned a corner” (another idiom), I started taking horseback riding lessons and discovered a new way that language—this time unspoken language—shapes perception. Learning the physical language that horses use to communicate changed my perception of my body by shifting my focus from how my body looked to what it could do. Riding made being in my body fun again, the way being in my body had been fun when I was a kid who ran around the backyard, climbed the jungle gym, and flipped upside down on the monkey bars just because I could.

Surprisingly, learning to ride horses also satisfied my curiosity about the idiom “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” I knew vaguely what it meant, but I thought it arbitrary and strange until I learned its literal meaning. Now, it’s a touchstone in my recovery—something I repeat when I sense myself sliding backward toward unhealthy thoughts or behaviors.

The idiom only seems strange because of how our culture has changed. From ancient history through the early 1900s, its meaning was obvious because horses were integral to almost every aspect of life: food production (pulling plows in the fields), construction (hauling building materials), transportation, and sport (carrying riders on the racetrack, on the polo field).

Gaining or losing a horse drastically altered a person’s life, so a horse’s value depended on its usefulness—specifically, its health and age. The only way to assess a horse’s age is to measure the length of a groove visible on its upper incisors. Therefore, to look in the mouth of a horse you’d been gifted was the 18th-century equivalent of looking at your smartphone to find the price of your birthday present. Looking a gift horse in the mouth showed a lack of gratitude. It meant you cared only about monetary value, which would change over time, not the kindness and goodwill intended.

The gift-horse idiom reminds me to accept life’s gifts the way they were intended. Whereas the perfectionism that drove my eating disorder led me to see every glass as half-empty, my body as falling short, and the media’s standards as The Truth, the gift-horse idiom shifts my perception to seeing the glass as half-full. Having strong legs is a gift that allows me to ride horses, not a sign that I should obsess about my legs’ length and girth.

Most importantly, the gift-horse idiom reminds me that I can choose the language I use, which means I can choose to view anything life sends my way as a gift rather than a burden.

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