I’m still uncomfortable with the term “eating disorder.”
Not because I’m ashamed to have had one, but because in comparison with stories of women who’ve struggled with serious eating disorders to the point of endangering their long-term health, I’m reluctant to place in that category my decades of difficulty around the simple act of nourishing myself.
But an unhealthy orientation toward our bodies and toward food can strike anyone, in any way, to any degree. I wasn’t willing to admit that I, a perfectionist, high-achieving, seemingly healthy and well-adjusted girl and then woman, couldn’t master one of the most basic functions of human existence.
I don’t know what caused my body-image problems and my tormented relationship with food, but I remember when it started. I was a straight-A student. A “good kid” who never got in trouble. A girl who could eat anything and still have others enviously remark on my tall, string-bean build.
Until the summer of my sophomore year of high school, when I was chosen for an honors camp on a university campus far from home, and I joyfully ate my way through the best summer of my life to that point, and put on my “college freshman 15” a few years early.
I came home and, when the reactions of people around me made me realize the weight I’d gained, I became ashamed. I hid my body… my perfectly normal, able body that suddenly repelled me with its fleshiness and curves and softness… underneath long shapeless skirts, too-large clothes, loose tops. I tried dieting, but my post-pubescent body stubbornly refused to go back to its lean lines.
In science class that year, as we studied metabolism, our teacher mentioned that when bodies are starved of nutrients, they begin to feed on themselves to survive.
And that sounded like a brilliant shortcut of a way to really drop the weight. I’d enlist biology’s help, as long as I had the strength of will to do it. But that was my thing, that was what I did: take on challenges and become the hardest-working, the most accomplished, the best. Not eating, or eating minuscule amounts of “diet” foods, like frozen yogurt and fat-free cookies, made me feel virtuous, accomplished. Stronger than those who caved in to hunger pangs.
But it was a hollow, short-lived virtue, lasting only as long as I could hold out before giving in and gorging myself on enormous amounts of the junk foods I craved… pastries, candy, chips… and then berating my image in the mirror with disgust for being weak and without willpower.
Even so, I dropped the extra weight, but it still wasn’t enough. On days the scale told me something good, I was OK. On the days it didn’t, or when I wasn’t able to resist the “bad foods” I craved, I was a failure. I was only as good as the last thing I had eaten, or not eaten.
In the rest of my life, I was only as good as my last accomplishment, working hard to make the “A,” get the job, be the best, the hardest-working, the most productive. I was caught in a cycle of “not good enough” in which I was constantly trying to prove my worth, even to myself, and regularly failing, only to resolve to try again even harder and start the whole miserable cycle over and over.
Yet my perfectionist mindset wouldn’t let me admit that I had a problem. I wasn’t skeletally thin. I was never hospitalized. I didn’t ritually induce vomiting after every meal (but not for lack of trying). Obviously I wasn’t anorexic or bulimic. I was simply watching what I ate.
It wasn’t until my early 30s that I was able to recognize the fact that, unable to face a single bite of food without judging it and myself, feeling guilty for my binges, and punishing myself with periods of starvation immediately afterward, I was creating a nonstop, lifelong cycle of self-hate that had crept into every other aspect of my life.
Desperate to break out of the pattern, I picked up a self-help book by Overcoming Overeating. If anything, I was a bit underweight. How could I be an overeater?
Yet for the first time I recognized myself in every one of the book’s descriptions: people who virtuously picked at “diet” foods most of the time (and certainly in front of others), then inexorably sneaked off alone at regular intervals to gorge on their “trigger foods,” hating themselves as they did so, and even more afterward. Vowing to “do better” next time. And next time. And next time. Some overeaters were overweight. Some were “normal” weight. Some were “skinny.”
It was this last detail that finally broke my denial down, and for the first time I could admit to what I was: a compulsive overeater.
And for the first time I could examine the causes; why I had such an unhealthy relationship with food and my own body rather than simply trying to starve away the “symptoms.”
And do something about it.
I believe that more women suffer from major body-image issues and various forms of eating disorders than we realize, for the same reason it took me so long to do something about my issues: It’s hard, when you don’t fall into the extremes of a situation like an eating disorder, to recognize it, to admit to it and to let yourself acknowledge that even though you’re not wasting away or radically endangering your health, you still have a problem.
And that it doesn’t make you weak, or stupid or “bad.”
It just makes you human.
Now, when I’ve come to a much healthier place with food, nutrition and my body, and I’m generally comfortable inside my own skin in a marvelous way I don’t take for granted, I still have days when I look in the mirror and cringe at the curving belly and dimpled thighs that are the only thing I can see that day, and hide in an oversized T-shirt or baggy jeans.
I sometimes look at pictures of the girl I was years ago and I want to cry, for a lot of reasons. But mostly because she was beautiful, and she had no idea at the time.
I think about that, and I try to remember that someday I will look at pictures of myself now, at this age, and wish I had known I was beautiful. That I was enough.
So I remind myself of it now, over and over again: I am enough, just as I am. So was that girl in my old pictures who thought she was so inadequate.
So are you.