Content Warning: discussion of drastic weight loss, disordered eating, and body dysphoria.
Last week was eating disorder awareness week and several strong and courageous people I love shared bits of their eating disorder and recovery stories on their social media accounts. This prompted me to reflect my own journey with my body and health. To be honest, I don’t know if I’ve ever had an eating disorder. I’ve definitely had disordered thinking around food and my body, but it always stopped short of purging, restricting, fasting, or crash dieting. Still, my relationship with my body has been turbulent and complex, and I have a long ways to go towards accepting it as it is. Until now, I’ve more or less avoided writing about my relationship with my body because I worried I wasn’t qualified enough to be part of the conversation since my experience of disordered eating and body image hasn’t been as severe as other people’s. I am acutely aware that as someone who is white, cisgender, and not perceived as overweight, I have a lot of body privilege and am not treated poorly due to my weight or appearance. However, I recently realized that most people I know, especially women, have struggled to accept their bodies and resist the urge to give into disordered eating just like I have, despite never being diagnosed with an eating disorder. So, I’m sharing a bit about my journey with my body in hopes that it reminds others that they are not alone as they continue to resist the voices that tell us we are not good enough as we are.
A couple of months before my 15th birthday, I was on a class camping trip, getting undressed in the bathroom, when I realized that my body fat had all but completely disappeared. I’d been sick a couple times over the winter, but I didn’t think much about it until I got home and weighed myself. I’d lost 25 pounds without realizing it. This one of the first signs that something was off in my body. Over the next four months I struggled consistently with low energy, loss of strength, frequent fevers, constant nausea, and lack of appetite. One month that spring I slept at least 14 hours most days. My doctor thought it was mononucleosis, even though the tests came back negative, but we never really found out.
By March, my friends started making comments. We loved thrifting, but it became less fun when my best friend at the time constantly pointed out that we didn’t wear the same size anymore and called me “stick girl” and “miss skinny.” Other friends later told me they’d thought I was anorexic, but didn’t show any concern at the time. I got compliments from older relatives who asked if I was “watching my figure” while I was desperately trying to muster up an appetite. Almost none of my clothes fit: my jeans didn’t stay up, my t-shirts were baggy, I dropped two bra sizes. Despite the envy and positive remarks coming from others, I was more self-conscious than I’d ever been before. The bones in my back and chest stuck out, my ribs were visible, and every time I ate my stomach distended noticeably. My mom bought all my favorite fattening foods, bacon, whole milk, guacamole and so on, hoping that it would stick to my bones. I gained about ten pounds and it became harder to want to gain weight because even though I was thin I was still bigger than girls in magazine, and no one was really worried about me anymore. For the next couple years my weight fluctuated just above the underweight marker for my height, I got literally every virus I came in contact with, my appetite continued to be unpredictable and acutely affected by illness and stress. I continued to be self-conscious about my acne and lack of curves, but I recovered some of my strength, and grew to enjoy the changes to my body. What American teenage girl hasn’t been conditioned to believe that being able to eat whatever you want and never gain weight is a form of success?
My last drastic downward weight fluctuation happened when I was 19. I lost 8 pounds in two weeks after a break-up. I was used to these changes by then, and knew the drill for gaining back the weight. I wore lots of dresses and tights, partly because they accommodated the fluctuations better than jeans. My friends stopped commenting on my size, my parents stopped worrying, my energy levels seemed more normal, and I thought I’d reached a healthy equilibrium.
A couple weeks before I turned 22, my health took another downturn. Previously mild and inconsistent fatigue and muscle soreness became constant and debilitatingly severe. I spent over a month almost entirely in bed, trying to stay awake long enough to study. I dropped down to part-time enrollment at school, and was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. The muscle aches and nerve pain I experienced made it feel like my bones were sticking out all over. I felt like I must be losing weight again. But I didn’t. In fact, since being diagnosed I’ve returned to my pre-illness weight for the first time since I was 14.
The summer after my diagnosis my pain symptoms were decently managed by medication and so I tried to establish a regular exercise routine, despite my fatigue. This was partly because consistent exercise is believed to help mitigate some of the symptoms of my chronic illnesses, but I was also anxious that if I didn’t pay extra attention to my eating and exercise, I would continue to gain weight. I was afraid that if I was both sick and visibly out of shape people wouldn’t have compassion for my situation, would decide I wasn’t worth knowing or loving, or would be disgusted by me. Furthermore, my lack of health caused me to hyperfixate on the aspects of health that felt in my control. I become obsessed with making sure I ate enough fruits and vegetables every day, I feared junk food, and while I didn’t cut out sugar entirely (because it is one of my small joys in life), I felt guilty everytime I ate it, believing that I was inflicting further suffering on myself because I wasn’t strong enough to eat “perfectly.” When my pain symptoms would flare-up I’d berate myself and search my memory for ways I’d messed up by eating the wrong food. I wanted so badly to be in control of the problem. If I missed a meal or let myself go to sleep a little hungry I’d tell myself that I could stand to lose a couple pounds anyway and feel slightly satisfied knowing I wasn’t eating enough to gain weight. Obviously, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, avoiding junk food, eating minimal sugar, and not eating when you’re not hungry are all healthy habits, but my thinking around those habits has not always been healthy. Despite outwardly making healthy food choices, my internal narratives around my body and eating have probably bordered on orthorexia (obsession with eating only “healthy” foods) for the past couple of years.
I am still struggling to accept my body, but over the past six months I’ve become more aware and intentional about working towards body acceptance. I am learning that I still see my body very differently from other people. I am surprised every time a doctor refers to me as thin or small, because I’ve been so much smaller that this version of my body sometimes feels huge. I still have to resist feeling guilty for treating myself to small amounts of unhealthy food, even when they bring me joy. I still have to remind myself that I have to eat consistently in order to have energy and to avoid pain flare-ups, and that I sleep better if I feel full. I’m trying to re-train my brain to stop fearing weight gain and changes in my body, because I know it will change many more times in the course of my life. I’m trying to learn about the mental health aspect of some of my disordered thinking about my body. Eating disorders, anxiety, and other control-related mental health issues run in my extended family and I have realized that my relationship with my body is tied to my experience of anxiety, and therefore it does not always reflect reality. I am trying to trust my body more and listen to it better. I’ve consistently been the same weight for over two years now, it doesn’t change with exercise and my body bounces back quickly when I lose weight from viruses, so I’m learning to respect that this is the natural size and shape my body wants to be in this stage of my life.
Finally, I am trying to challenge the dominant narrative around body image, dieting, weight loss, and beauty standards when I come across it. Usually this is just an internal process, but when I can recognize that our culture’s obsession with weight loss, fat-shaming, and dieting are not normal or healthy, I can better embrace the parts of myself and other people that don’t fit into the prescribed ideals. One external way I’ve attempted this is by curating my social media so that I’m following people with diverse bodies (including other people with chronic illnesses and disabilities) who don’t promote diets or weight loss regimes and who embrace their bodies and their inherent self worth. This movement for body positivity rejects the idea that our ability to conform to the current standards of beauty is the primary indicator of our health, happiness, and value, and it encourages people not only to embrace their bodies as they are, but also to be cognizant that we are so much more than just our physical appearance. These activists motivate me to love my body regardless of its limitations and its deviations from the ideal body type, their content helps me to internalize a different view of what “normal” bodies look like, and their dedication to body positivity gives me hope that our culture of dieting and dysphoria can change, giving way to a greater capacity for self love and compassion.
Body positive social media accounts to follow:
Megan Jayne Crabbe–@bodyposipanda (instagram, twitter), bodyposipanda.com
Michelle Elman–@scarednotscarred and @bodypositivememes (instagram, twitter), michelleelman.com
Annie Segarra–@annieelainey (instagram, twitter)
(And there are many more great accounts out there if you do a bit of exploring!)
Resources if you or a loved one are struggling with behaviors that could be linked to an eating disorder:
NEDA’s helpline: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support/contact-helpline
Eating Disorder Hope (EDH): https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/