I didn’t actually know it was Eating Disorder Awareness Week until I saw posts popping up on my social media feeds. My strong, beautiful, brave friends have been putting their stories out in an attempt to help end some of the stigma surrounding eating disorders and mental health. And it has inspired me to finally share my own.
Despite the fact that almost all of my female friends have struggled with body image or disordered eating in some form or another, I’ve always treated my complicated relationship with food and exercise like a dirty little secret. But before I start talking about myself, let’s backtrack for a second. Almost every female friend I know has struggled with body image and disordered eating. That’s not okay. And it’s so normalized that the significance of that statement has never felt as heavy as it does right now, staring back up at me in ink.
I’ve always felt a lot of shame around my disordered eating. It doesn’t fit with how I want other people to think of me- confident and fit, happily vibrant. Growing up I was always wiry, lean muscles and an impish grin under a tan and floppy blond hair. I remember eighth grade gym class, and wishing that I had curves like my friends instead of looking like such a little boy. When that finally caught up with me, my body felt cumbersome and foreign; and that feeling of living in someone else’s skin never really went away.
When I started college, I found myself in a free fall of uncertainty— but the one aspect of my life I felt like I could control completely was what I ate. I began obsessively counting calories on My Fitness Pal. If I got a lower grade than I wanted or skipped the gym my “punishment” was an even more restricted caloric intake for the day. Food became my reward, and subsequently my comfort. As warm weather rolled back around and I saw the way my pale, wobbly thighs spilled out of my shorts, I got my first taste of real self-loathing. I felt even less at home in my own body than I had in high school, and to make myself feel better– I ate. Not just a few bites here and there as a treat, but multiple meals in one sitting.
The National Eating Disorders Association estimates that 2.5-5.5% of adults struggle with Binge Eating Disorder– three times more than those with anorexia and bulimia combined. It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it, but it’s what I imagine a cigarette craving might feel like. It was a compulsion, even if I wasn’t hungry I’d find myself perched on the kitchen counter tucking into a bag of chips and a pint of ice cream. I ate until I wanted to vomit, and sometimes, so revolted by what I had just done, I would do exactly that.
I fell into the vicious of cycle of restricting, binging, then purging. The more I felt that other aspects of my life were spiraling out of control, the more I turned to my diet to combat the sense of powerlessness. Gradually, I began replacing my compulsion to binge with exercise. Maybe if I could make my body perfect, I would be perfect. Ironically, the more desperately I fought to fulfill this idea of perfection that consumed my every waking moment, the further I felt I was away from it.
A memory that still stands out to me from that year was going for a run after a massive fight with my boyfriend at the time. I felt so utterly worthless that I was crying as I laced up my shoes and stumbled out of the door into a thunderstorm rumbling through. It was dark out and I cried the whole time, with the rain and the tears it was all very melodramatic. I ran until my shin splints felt as though my legs were about to crumble underneath me and I finally felt empty. Half a bag of vegetables became a large meal, and I lost nearly 20 pounds. I didn’t feel any better about myself, and nothing in my life magically improved.
While therapy works for a lot of people, and many of my friends have found it very successful, I tried it once and my experience left me never wanting to go back. I’ve never been a “talk about your problems” kind of girl, and sitting in that faded beige armchair while the woman across from me peered expectantly out from behind her severely square glasses made my skin crawl. I ended things with my boyfriend, and while that did help with a lot of things, believe it or not, it did not magically cure my shattered self-image. Trimming toxic relationships out of your life is important, but you can’t expect them to take all of your personal struggles with them as they go. You can bet I told myself it had though. I ate pizza and ice cream with my friends and told myself everything was great and I was happy and I didn’t care about being perfect. However I did still care, and as my weight began to creep back up, I bit down on the familiar acidic tang of self-loathing with bold proclamations of loving my body and embracing my curves.
This is not a happily-ever-after personal essay where I tell you how I fixed myself. Body image and the desire to be perfect, to always be the best, are still things I struggle with everyday. I still look in the mirror and see everything I want to change before anything else, but this is the happiest I have been in a very long time. I’ve joined a boxing gym, and now my nutrition and workouts are geared towards becoming stronger, fitter, and faster– not reaching my goal weight. I don’t weigh myself anymore, and I don’t use fitness tracking apps; but sometimes I still have to check myself when I start using my diet and workouts to give myself a sense of control. I am still trying to accept that I will never be perfect, and more often than not, never the best either- and that that is okay. I am still learning how to channel my anxiety into physical activity in a way that is healthy. I’m not sure if it is something that will ever be “fixed”, but I also don’t think I need fixing anymore. We are human. And that is okay.
Everyone has their own fights that we will never know anything about. All we can do for one another is be kind, supportive, and honest. Nobody’s life is perfect, as much as we like to tell ourselves otherwise, and I think the more open we can be about that, the better. Perhaps if we’re all a little braver, and are more transparent about the aspects of our lives that are less than picture perfect, someone somewhere will feel less alone in their own little war.
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