Recovering from an eating disorder is no simple process. Everyone's journey is different, with a multitude of personal and environmental factors at play. With the many stereotypes surrounding eating disorders, recovery can become even more difficult for people who don't fit society's expectations. One group that is particularly affected and underrepresented is the trans community.
Debbie Seacrest, a parent of two and math professor at the University of Montana Western, is passionate about mental health and brings special attention to eating disorders. As a non-binary person, meaning someone who doesn’t identify as male or female, Seacrest sheds a unique light on the complexity of seeking treatment and recovering.
Dr. Debbie Seacrest
Seacrest’s Early Eating Disorder Experience
Seacrest’s eating disorder story starts in their early childhood. They recall struggling with body image even at the tender age of three. It was only at eleven years old, however, that they aroused suspicion from those around them— since they started losing weight.
“But I didn’t see it at all, I thought I was gaining weight”, Seacrest confided, expressing how the illness had twisted their thoughts. “I knew other people thought I had a problem, but I also knew they were wrong.”
Their wake-up call only came a few years later. While working at a math summer camp, they saw a video taken by a camper’s parent. In the clip, Seacrest saw someone of similar height who was significantly thinner than them. They thought longingly about that individual’s body, believing that if they could just lose weight and look like that person, they would be happier. The anonymous counselor in the video turned around, and Seacrest was shocked to see that it was actually them.
Naturally, the eating disorder voice started claiming that they had probably gained weight since the video was taken, but Seacrest could no longer ignore the truth: they were struggling.
“That was when I thought—maybe I do have a problem.”
Later on in college, they started karate which proved to be a pivotal point in their journey. They loved the activity, but didn’t have enough energy to fully commit to it. Seacrest reluctantly began to rethink their situation, recognizing that they needed to fuel their body in order to participate. This marked the beginning of their recovery.
Another positive force in that difficult time was a college friend. Noticing that Seacrest needed help, their friend encouraged them to see the on-campus counselor. Grateful for that intervention, they continue to return the favor to this day by keeping an eye out for their own students and by encouraging others to seek help at the same treatment centre where they get their support.
“I should start charging a finder’s fee”, Seacrest joked, “because I’m constantly trying to get people into recovery.”
Gender Identity and Body Image
In Seacrest's youth, they knew that they felt different and that they never wanted a typical female body shape. At that time, however, they weren’t aware of the wide range of possible gender identities.
“I knew that some people were trans, but I didn’t know about the non-binary aspect”, they remembered.
It wasn’t until their mid-twenties that they started questioning their gender identity. Their sister, thinking about Seacrest’s experience, brought up the idea of being non-binary. Looking further into the suggestion, Seacrest found that it resonated deeply with them and felt relieved to know that there was a whole group of people who felt exactly the same way.
“It was so wonderful to be free of the binary. I think that realizing I didn’t have to be a woman, and fit that role that everyone assumed I was going to fit into was really helpful”, they said. “It helped me realize that some of the reasons why I was unhappy with my body weren’t just due to weight.”
To this day, Seacrest still has trouble with their complex and sometimes conflicting body image thoughts. They struggle with some of their body’s gender-pronouncing features, but have come to realize that only they can have the final word when it comes to their identity.
“Just because other people look at me and see a woman doesn’t mean I am one. It doesn’t mean they’re right”, they affirmed. “This is my body, it’s a non-binary body, because it’s my body and I’m non-binary.”
Eating Disorder Stereotypes
Eating disorder stereotypes typically include being thin and presenting as female, and Seacrest can attest to the difficulty of falling outside those expectations. In addition to body types and gender, they also expressed how age can factor into the equation.
“I’m thirty-five, which is another way that I don’t meet that standard story”, they explained, since eating disorder testimonials are usually centered around teenagers.
In the face of these stereotypes, Seacrest made sure to underline the importance of validating their own experience.
“I find myself prefacing [eating disorder conversations] with, ‘I know I don’t look like it, but I’m struggling with anorexia’ ”, they said. “I don’t want to do that because there is no ‘look’. There is no trans ‘look’. There is no anorexic ‘look’. You can’t tell by looking at someone.”
Ultimately, despite these more challenging circumstances, they’re always working toward self-validation and personal growth.
“If everyone else deserves help and treatment, maybe I do too. If everyone else deserves respect, maybe I do too”, they said.
Recovering As A Trans Person
Eating disorder recovery is a challenging yet rewarding journey that is different for everyone. Seacrest shared some of their added challenges as a trans person navigating this process.
Their treatment team, although they’ve worked with a few other trans clients, is not specialized in that area. With this comes occasional slip ups with pronouns, but Seacrest is nonetheless impressed by their level of care. Other clients have also been supportive and have committed to making the centre more gender inclusive. In a virtual support group meeting, Seacrest explained why they had their pronouns next to their name on Zoom. They were delighted to see the staff and other members add pronouns to their screens as well.
“Everybody needs to share their pronouns”, they emphasized. “You can’t assume.”
They went on to explain the importance of sharing pronouns, specifically expressing that all care providers should ask clients their pronouns as well as giving their own. Normalizing this practice, according to them, will ensure that everyone’s identity is honored and will help trans people feel less isolated.
Despite their positive experience with that centre, some people have not been as understanding. Seacrest hadn’t yet come out as non-binary at the time of their first experience with an eating disorders specialist, but they were dismayed by the therapist’s narrow views.
“It was hard for me to explain to [my therapist] why my struggles were different”, they said, going on to detail that the specialist only saw them as a typical woman and even assumed that they were trying to make themself attractive to boys.
Seacrest affirmed, though, that most therapists are more open-minded, and that one negative experience shouldn’t turn anyone away from seeking help from other professionals.
Gender Inclusivity in Eating Disorder Treatment
While everyone agrees that eating disorders can affect anyone, Seacrest noted that most reported stories are about girls. More and more care providers are realizing the importance of including people of all genders in their language— but there is still work to be done.
“Some of [my centre’s] treatment forms talked about men and women, which is good because they’re including men, but they’re not including everyone”, Seacrest explained. “But I think they’re already changing that.”
They also discussed the relevance of gender-neutral language in treatment settings. They have been encouraging staff to continue to use inclusive terms such as “everyone” in place of “guys” or “ladies”. They emphasized that recovery is difficult enough as it is, so it’s essential that support teams use the right terms and make everyone feel welcome in the recovery community.
Seacrest stressed the significance of connecting with people.
“I think knowing that it’s possible, knowing that you’re not the only one is so important”, they highlighted.
They also mentioned that their support system has been and continues to be instrumental in their recovery. Those people, who include professionals, friends, and family, are a source of both strength and motivation.
“I envision it as a net, I guess. All these different strands come together to support me”, they described. They find inspiration in their children, too, commenting on how “kids eat what they’ll eat, and they don’t overanalyze it.”
What’s Next for Seacrest?
They plan on continuing to advocate for mental health, for eating disorder awareness, and most importantly, for themself.
“I want to continue trying to help others, and that’s something that I can do as a professor”, they said. They also expressed how important it is to them to help their children grow up with a healthy mindset toward eating.
They continued by explaining, “I want to do more for myself instead of just for others. I feel like a lot of recovery has been just for others and I want to recover because it’s the right thing for me.”
With their compassion, vulnerability, empathy, and strength, Debbie Seacrest will continue to inspire others to grow and embrace themselves for who they are.