Girl Talk: Overcoming My Eating Disorder

Writing about eating disorders feels like an exercise in vulnerability, not because I am ashamed to share my story, but due to the extremely emotional nature of the topic for countless women. In an era of Kate Moss, skinny jeans, and “she’s too skinny!” tabloid fodder, eating disorders run rampant like a cultural epidemic, continuing to fester alongside a never-ending preoccupation with body image. Although the majority of the media narrows the scope of the issue to models and celebrities, eating disorders are actually most prevalent amongst us everyday girls. Simultaneously, the reality of EDs extends beyond the teenage anecdotes of starving ourselves to be popular; these serious diseases have lifetime physical and psychological ramifications and are far more multifarious than extreme dieting. Weight is a sensitive subject to say the least, one I am going to handle diplomatically. The objective of sharing my story is not to be controversial, blame Hollywood, or spark debate on how to confront eating disorders, but to reflect on the complexities of a ghost that has haunted me and so many others for over a decade.

There is no getting around the fact that I was a bit of a nerd in high school. Whilst my cohorts were voted “Most Likely to Succeed,” “Best Personality,” or “Most Athletic,” I was voted “Class Writer.” I wasn’t entirely unpopular or unattractive, but I was certainly no Sofia Vergera. A feeling of awkwardness permeates that time; I was constantly fumbling between establishing a sense of self and transforming into an impractical image of who I thought I should be (this was normally a blonde beach bombshell when I was a short Italian brunette). My awkwardness was like the discomfort I feel when I purchase a too-tight dress for a special event and spend the evening scolding myself for not buying the dress I really liked — except the discomfort extended four years. Personality-wise, I was (and still am) a perfectionist and an overachiever who is highly critical and judgemental of herself, and I have my strict parents to blame for those gems. The one and only time I brought home a C on my report card, I was punished. Even when I won a myriad of academic awards and volunteered in the community and with my church, I was still told I could do better.

It is no wonder that when I was 16, I developed an obsession with my weight. I was neither heavy nor skinny, but somewhere in between. I favored school plays to sports and wasn’t as toned or as busty as those beauties on the cheerleading squad. I began to compare myself to my peers in the locker room during PE and noticed that the prettiest girls fancied by my crushes didn’t have thighs that touched like mine and flashed their hip bones with low-rise flares. Understanding now that control is the nucleus of this fixation, I tried in vain to cut calories and skip breakfast, but was thwarted by an Italian mother who constantly supplied me with carbs, sugar, and more carbs. My solution was to throw up after dinner.

Little splatters of vomit that I failed to clean off the walls near the toilet triggered my parents to force me to see a psychologist. I cannot pinpoint a specific turning point when the problem escalated to bingeing and purging, but my struggle with weight had become bigger than me. I spent my junior year of high school depressed and disillusioned by the belief that enough vomiting would convert me into that blonde beach bombshell, one that was also a triumphant size zero. I subscribed to the fantasy that a slender version of me would be the one that girls envied and boys would ask out. Amongst a class of girls (and boys who hid it well) that dabbled with diet pills, overexercised, and fainted in class due to starvation, I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. In fact, I thought I was doing everything right.

A genuine rapport with my psychologist and spending hours on the Internet cycling through pages on bulimia snapped me back to my senses  during senior year. I developed the courage to end the cycle of shame and anxiety that accompanied bingeing and purging and recommitted myself to focusing on mental and physical health. I didn’t lose much weight in my junior year and gained more than ever when I transitioned to my newfound stance on nutrition. Instead of relapsing, I joined a gym. Although my health teacher (who was fully informed of my history) warned that one addiction leads to another, regular runs on the treadmill and the occasional spinning class alleviated the stress born from the next stage in my life – college. Food became satisfying, working out felt therapeutic, and the whole world was at my fingertips.

College was my personal renaissance. I threw my fake blue contacts in the garbage, dyed my hair back to its natural chocolate brown, and surrounded myself with heaps of eclectic and fun people. I felt as though I was at last allowed to be myself. In turn, my maturity grew organically and my confidence unfolded naturally. Like the Christopher Columbus of personal revelations and development, I discovered how delicious it felt to let go of trying to be Britney Spears pre-Kevin Federline and coax the beauty hidden inside to come out and play. I was pleasantly surprised that men found me attractive, even after I finally embraced my high school nerdiness. I had heard through the gossip mill that a charming Brit described me as confident and sexy, and I quickly snapped him up as my first college boyfriend. In retrospect, I know it was naive of me to believe that all of my insecurities and serious problems with weight from high school had been washed away with the tide of my glory days.

After girls in our posse of friends tried one of those fad detox diets in preparation for a university ball (and subsequently didn’t eat for three days), my personal demons made a guest appearance. I asked my man if he thought I should partake. Candidly, he told me I wasn’t fat, but I wasn’t skinny. His comment sticks with me to this day. I’m not 100 percent sure why it was so detrimental, especially since I was aware of being a “normal-sized” girl. Perhaps hearing it from someone I loved startled awake the perfectionist in me who desperately wanted to please her boyfriend with a flawless physique. A track record of satisfying my parents mirrored a new aspiration to impress my boyfriend. I was again transfixed by another body-conscious myth, one that nagged me into thinking he would love me more if I was skinny.

My eating disorder returned to a degree of unparalleled ferociousness I had never experienced before. Ironically, I destroyed my body endlessly with extreme dieting and over-exercise at a time when I felt the most peace with my identity. Perhaps the commitment to becoming an unrealistic prototype of a woman fostered a false sense of self-improvement, as though my hard work would pay off in the long run. A typical day consisted of an intense two-hour workout, walking to classes whenever I could (especially if they were far away), and forcing myself to do star kicks and push-ups until my muscles burned before bedtime. My eating plan was straightforward: no breakfast, endless cups of coffee, a cup of salad for lunch, and another cup of salad and maybe some chicken or soup for dinner. No dressings, sauces, or real sugar. Extra time spent at the gym meant I could indulge in the occasional cottage cheese, wine, and a normal dinner in town with my boyfriend.Nonetheless, a toddler ate more than me.

As hoped, people praised my weight loss and commented on how good I looked. Numerous eating disorder sufferers often comment on how they experienced the same paradoxical reaction; whilst they were essentially killing themselves to achieve an unrealistic ideal, their loved ones encouraged them, praised them, and essentially added fuel to the weight loss fire, unaware of the true horror that occurred behind the scenes.

The attention continued until I melted away into a waif. I was compared to such objects as a sheet of paper, a rail, a stick, and on one occasion, a lollipop. One would think that the alarm bells would have been going off, considering the obvious bingeing and purging hurdle I overcame in high school. But the gravity of the situation didn’t click until I noticed I didn’t have the energy to walk down the block anymore. One afternoon, I went shopping with a girlfriend and discovered I had dropped six pant sizes. Even the tiniest jeans were baggy and I could see constellations of bones in my arms, chest, and back. I am ashamed to say that I was proud to be scary skinny. Finally, every girl would be green with envy over my figure. I wanted them to hate me for it.

Instead of recognizing a fragile skeleton, I felt empowered. It was like I had reached a new plateau of personal accomplishments on the perfection spectrum. My friends were extremely worried to the point that they checked my vitamin bottles for dieting pills and often tried to keep tabs on my meals or stage mini-interventions, while acquaintances would bluntly ask me if I had a problem. The boyfriend that had sparked my self-torture dumped me at the end of my freshman year because I was constantly irritable, moody, and tired from starving myself. Instead of heeding this wake-up call, his absence allowed me to binge and purge again in the privacy of my single dorm room. I was given absolute privacy to become the master of my own downward spiral. It would be an understatement to say that I was a total mess.

When I returned home after my first year at college, my mother knew instantly that my eating disorder had taken complete hold of my life. We argued endlessly about the time I spent at the gym, how I picked bread stuffing out of her chicken specialties, and how she knew I was bingeing and purging but couldn’t prove it. I openly blamed her for melding me into a monster of perfection, and although I knew I alone was responsible for my actions, I didn’t care. I enjoyed persecuting her and watching her squirm like a witch burning at the stake. What an ugly person I had become inside. Again, she forced me to go see a psychologist, who wasted no time in recommending that I immediately join a daily therapy program where I spent five days a week, eight hours a day, with other recovering young adults. Would you believe my response? I stormed out of her office, huffing and puffing, ate every piece of bread, chocolate, pasta, and ice cream in the kitchen when I returned home, and took a decent swig of ipecac to throw it all up. The addict had hit rock bottom, but I was not yet prepared to face it.

My parents reluctantly allowed me to return to college — and it actually ended up being for the best. Similar to my senior year in high school, something inside of me yearned to the turn the page and end this deplorable chapter of my life. Change became inevitable and necessary for my health and state of mind. Feelings of security and confidence had become a memory; I was a glimmer of a girl who had faded from a vibrant spirit to a pathetic shadow. Already a volunteer with the student support services, I worked with counsellors to reconstruct perceptions of my image. By my senior year, after much soul searching, treatment for depression and anxiety, and even more counseling, I formed and headed the first eating disorders support group at my university. I embraced the positivity extracted from a diverse group of women and men who suffered like I did, and allowed myself to heal from what felt like a lifetime of humiliation and hatred.

I would be lying to you at 27 years old if I said the magnitude of my eating disorder hadn’t left deep scars, like craters in my psyche. Images of Heidi Klum and faultless bikini bodies linger in the back of my mind as a constant reminder that my issues with weight, control, and self-esteem are evermore. I wish I could tell you that I am comfortable at any weight, but this is not the reality of the situation. I become stressed when I fluctuate a couple of pounds, especially around the holidays. I worry that my husband — who often tells me he will love me at any weight —  might think I’ve become a fat housewife who doesn’t care about her appearance. That is the latest falsehood that plagues me, but I have learned to recognize its shallowness and discipline it. I am destined to remain a calorie counter and a runner, except nowadays, I must proactively monitor these behaviors and pursue them in moderation. I remain vigilant of emotional eating and feeling helpless in an effort to derail control problems before they arise. I eat a relatively clean diet because I honestly like vegetables; I enjoy rock climbing and hiking because it’s fun, not because it’s a way to lose weight. At the same time, I’m no stranger to ordering fried food or indulging in cake and feeling a bit guilty if I go overboard. I have accepted that this is who I am and who I always will be.

I am deeply saddened by the stories of people who die from eating disorders and I am equally terrified when my 13-year-old niece with no hips claims she is fat at 100 pounds. None of us are immune to the universal pressures of weight and beauty and I would be surprised if someone hasn’t grappled with their self-image in any form. It is a delicate balance between self-improvement and self-destruction, and teetering around the boundaries of these opposites is unique for each individual.

I don’t like to tell people how to live their lives and I don’t want to come across as a know-it-all. The only thing I will say is it is totally acceptable and encouraged to speak to friends, family, or professionals if you have any concerns, eating disorder or not, that are torturing you and blocking you from experiencing joy in your life. Don’t be afraid to write your own story.

“Skylar Gray” is a pseudonym. If you would like to contact the author of this essay, send an email to [email protected] and she will forward it to the author.