There was one day in seventh grade when I whipped out my pocket-sized Red Sox notebook that I had scrupulously filled out the night before with a schedule of what I could eat for lunch for the rest of the week. Only X amount of this, definitely shouldn’t have that, etc. I showed it off to my friends as if it was something to be proud of, with an air of “look guys, I’m being so good.” Unwittingly, I had already started to dabble in restrictive eating at 12 years old.
By senior year of high school, I was probably at my lowest weight. I was incredibly anxious all the time, overall pretty miserable, but I convinced myself (and had been convincing myself) for about a year that my refusal to eat lunch at school (save for maybe some fruit), and the times I lashed out at my parents for even suggesting I go with them to a restaurant, was just me being “healthy.” In a really twisted and seemingly cruel way, I gained satisfaction from knowing that I was eating less than everyone around me. That my eating less meant I probably weighed the least, which was what I determined was most important about me. And it became an obsession that I just couldn’t shake.
I had internalized the tips and tricks presented to me in posts from Instagram influencers promoting “health and wellness” that told me maybe I shouldn’t eat so many carbs, or maybe the reason I hate my stomach is because I let myself eat dessert sometimes. Pretty quickly, those supposed “wellness” suggestions — mixed with the common rhetoric among teenage girls about needing to just “not eat” before a formal so they could wear a bodycon dress or always kvetching about “needing” to go on a diet — became rules so deeply ingrained in my head that I was no longer thinking for myself. My life was dictated by rigid rules and “what if” scenarios. My eating disorder told me that if I went to that dinner with my friends I couldn’t eat there because if I did, I’d get fat, and then I’d be a failure. Out of crippling fear and anxiety, I wouldn’t go. I became isolated, in a perpetual tug-of-war with my anxiety, and just really sad.
I didn’t — nor was I able to — recognize there was a problem until my best friend in high school sat me down after school one day and said to me, with tears in her eyes, that she was worried about me. I believed her, and I felt bad that I was hurting her by hurting myself. But in all honesty, I wouldn’t be able to really understand how she felt until a couple of years later when I finally started to make progress in my recovery.
I’m in my third (!!) year of recovery, and a while ago I never really thought I’d be able to write publicly about my eating disorder. For a while, I was ashamed to admit I was struggling, only wanting to recover for those around me, not necessarily for myself. It took a while, but in my third year now I’ve learned that I’ve only been able to finally make real progress because I’ve rediscovered what it’s like to actually be happy.
When I was most deeply bound to my eating disorder, I was the most withdrawn from life. I also discovered — despite what my anorexia told me — that people won’t suddenly think less of you because you ate lunch. Actually, when I started letting myself (with lots and LOTS of help from my therapist and nutritionist) say yes to those impromptu outings to get ice cream, or to the suggestion of making dinner with my housemates not even knowing what we would make, I saw that those were meaningful moments that my eating disorder wouldn’t let me experience. To allow myself the freedom to just say yes—not agonizing over how to weasel my way out of actually eating ice cream or an excuse to not stay for a meal—has been one of the most valuable parts of my recovery.
Despite all the progress, I am proud to say I have made in the past few years, recovery isn’t always linear, and it is something that I actively choose to continue every day. I’ve had many conversations with my therapist and nutritionist acknowledging that certain situations are just always going to be harder than others, and normally those situations include women my age. As my 12-year-old self began to attach her worth to the way her body looked, I experienced an unfortunate reality for most women. It seems so normal to talk about the way we look, to scrutinize our bodies in levels of detail and cruelty that only we can manage to inflict on ourselves. Meals I’ve had with women often include comments about potential weight gain and nervously looking to one another to see how much we’ve all collectively decided is a good amount of food to eat. I had people praising me when I was probably the unhappiest I’ve ever been, saying they couldn’t believe I was so good at eating healthy and how much they wished they could be skinny like me. The fact that these were meant to be compliments — when in reality they only fueled my eating disorder — exposes the toxic affiliation society constructs where the way we look and how we eat somehow correlates to our value as people.
For me, this kind of environment contributed to what developed into anorexia without me ever batting an eye. So, if you ever catch yourself wondering if you should really order those cookies with your friends or go to Cane’s on a random night at 1 a.m., just do it. Please. In the grand scheme of your life, the one night you go and eat chicken tenders with your friends will be memorable not because something dramatically changed about your body (which it didn’t, I can vouch for that one), but because you got to be with people you love. I know it all sounds cheesy, but it’s just true. Society normalizes disordered eating habits and unhealthy relationships with food so much that it’s extremely hard to believe you’re not doing anything “wrong” by just eating what you want. But what I can tell you is that it’s really not worth missing out on life because you’re trying to calculate how much you can and cannot eat or when you can eat what. Being a living, functioning human requires a lot from us, and the least we can do is take advantage of the people and experiences it has to offer — regardless of how we look or what we eat.
I’m no professional, just a 20 year old recovering from anorexia — so please, if you are worried about your own relationship with food or exercise, or about someone you care about, here are some resources that could be a good starting point:
Counseling and Psychological Services at Northwestern University - Website
National Eating Disorders Association - Helpline
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders - Website
Academy for Eating Disorders - Website
Thumbnail photo "Restaurant De Jong" by willem! is licensed under CC BY 2.0