A new year arrives, but the messaging often remains the same: Change, improve, transform. And make no mistake, much of that messaging cluttering our social media feeds and inboxes is laser focused on our bodies, implying they are flawed and requiring said change. No matter how sturdy your defenses against the onslaught of resolution guilt-tripping may be, it’s hard not to still fall prey to it. And for anyone who suffers from an eating disorder, it’s particularly challenging.
It’s something that Katie Couric appreciates firsthand. In her 2021 memoir Going There, the esteemed journalist shared her own struggles with bulimia, and last year she became an investor and advisor for Equip, a forward-thinking telehealth company aiming to reinvent how we treat eating disorders. This a vital resource considering that nearly 30 million Americans will be affected by an eating disorder in their lifetime, and only 20% of them will ever get treatment for it. (Less than 6% of those treatments actually end up working.) During the forced isolation of the pandemic, the situation became more dire: There was a 70% increase in reported eating disorders, which already have the second-highest mortality rate among mental illnesses. Here, Couric and Erin Parks, a clinical psychologist and cofounder of Equip, speak with Vogue about “new year, new you” messaging; how the wellness industry can be a façade for diet culture; and some tools you can use to cope.
Vogue: So we just rang in the New Year, and I’m busy emptying an inbox full of emails about all the things I need to do to shrink my body. Is this problematic messaging just a hallmark of the New Year now?
Katie Couric: This has been going on since the beginning of time, it seems! Certainly, my entire life. For as long as I can remember, this has been the messaging, and honestly, it’s really hard for me not to fall victim to it psychologically. We go over this stuff in our heads and negotiate with ourselves all the time. How do we conform to this idea that we need to start over, that we need to improve ourselves? And because this turning of a page happens at the beginning of every year, how do we keep from overindulging at the end of the year? It just sets up this really unhealthy relationship with food and our bodies.
And it’s something you still struggle with or feel like you have to negotiate?
Couric: Yes, because I had an eating disorder when I was younger, I definitely still fall into the category of a disordered eater. While I have a much healthier relationship with food than I used to, I have disordered eating, so I still struggle. This constant message of you’ve got to change your diet, you have to lose weight, you have to be smaller puts additional pressure on people who don’t feel good about their bodies or have an unhealthy relationship with food because I think it inevitably sets you up once again for failure. You see these women on Instagram, these celebrities who suddenly look much thinner than they were, and you feel like I should be doing that. It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s hard to fight it.
What has that vicious cycle looked like for you specifically?
Couric: My whole life, or for much of my life until I became more sensible and accepting of my body, I always restricted my food intake to the point where it invited overeating. In the most intense days when I had issues, I would punish myself for having a stick of gum that wasn’t sugarless because I felt like I had been bad. And I think that’s what a lot of people do: They set these unrealistic expectations for themselves in terms of food; they see food as the enemy and eating as something that isn’t good or as being defeated or bad. And then you punish yourself further by saying, “I blew it, I’m a terrible person, so I might as well eat anything I want because tomorrow I’m going to start all over again.” Once I got out of that mindset and could eat more normally and understood that food wasn’t my enemy and it didn’t dictate whether I was a good or bad person, only then was I able to get out of that diet trap that seemed to be waiting for me every day. And I think I’m not alone; that mentality is something that a lot of people practice.
You still qualify yourself as a disordered eater; Erin, can you explain the difference between disordered eating and an eating disorder?
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Couric: It started out well intentioned, and I think a lot of women really don’t spend time taking care of themselves. The idea of taking time for yourself is a positive thing, but when you become so self-focused that it becomes about pleasing other people, you’re not necessarily doing it for yourself; it becomes performative. Doing something for someone else, deep friendships, meaningful conversations, sharing things with people—these external outward things have actually been proven to be the key to happiness, contentment, and feeling good about yourself. So in a weird way, being so self-focused is actually counterintuitive when it comes to living a life that will give you happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment. It’s a matter of degree; you can get so deep into wellness and self-improvement that it becomes sort of selfish. It’s such a mind suck. It’s just so time-consuming and ultimately, I think, unsatisfying. I often think if women, in particular, spent less time obsessing about their weight and appearance, we would’ve solved the world’s biggest problems.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.