This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week; this is the first of a handful of pieces I’ll write this week, and it’s the hardest, because it’s mine.
My eating disorder started when I was ten and I woke up every morning to my mother cursing her body in the bathroom. “I’m so fat!“ Her snarl would wake me up. Her anger was a living force, suffocating me as I sat in bed and pinched the flesh on my thighs.
My eating disorder started when I was seven, and I was trying to eat dinner, but I couldn’t. I was putting the food (it was a TV dinner; my mom was a single mom who worked a lot and she did not have the time or money to cook dinner very often) in my mouth and I was crying. I couldn’t stop crying. They weren’t the big gulping sobs of a cantankerous toddler — they were slow, a hot leak that was sourced somewhere under my ribcage. My mother thought it was because I didn’t like the food. I’ve never told her I was crying because I felt guilty for wanting to eat. I have felt guilty for wanting to eat ever since.
My eating disorder started in eighth grade, when a trio of people who sat behind me on the bus started throwing used gum at me, and a pair of boys who were in some of my classes started following me around murmuring “Hippo, hippo, whale, whale,” and when that same pair of boys loosened the screws of a stool during art class so that it fell apart when I sat on it, and when the table of people I sat next to at lunch would walk past where I was sitting and talk in stage whispers about how I shouldn’t eat at all because I was so fat, when my mother’s then-boyfriend’s parents gave her fat camp brochures and suggested she try sending me to one.
My eating disorder started in freshman year of high school, when a boy I was in love with told me I was too fat for anyone to ever want to date. (He had his own problems. They do not excuse his cruelty).
My eating disorder started somewhere, somehow, in between being a chubby toddler and a fat teen. Sometimes it feels like I was born with it, like I came out of the womb feeling guilty and unloveable and like I took up too much space, like I have been trying to fix myself and make myself right forever.
I don’t know where it came from, really. I know what has influenced it, where the cruelty of other people interlocks with the shows I was watching and the magazines my mother subscribed to. It came from nowhere, it came from outside of me, it came from somewhere grubby and small and sharp-toothed in my spine.
It’s here, though. It’s been here as long as I can remember being aware that I had a body, and in my upbringing of sex-shame and body hatred, that feels like always.
Virtually no one noticed. It’s like the more visible I was, the less visible it was that I was hurting myself. It was completely invisible until I started college and my boyfriend dumped me unceremoniously for a thinner girl after three years of making me feel conflicted and disgusted about myself. I went to therapy. I said to my therapist, off-handedly, in the middle of something else, “Sometimes I can’t eat.”
She asked me what I meant, and I remember being surprised. Why did she care? Why did it matter? I was fat, so I shouldn’t eat. Right?
Well, no. It turns out that when food inspires such guilt in you that you can’t touch it, that’s an eating disorder. It turns out that when you eat a meal and then work out to the point of feeling faint in order to punish yourself, that’s an eating disorder. When you restrict yourself to one meal a day? Eating disorder. When you then binge-eat for a week out of self-loathing? Eating disorder. When you stay on a medication your doctor gave you that kept you from retaining food (to put it delicately) and subsequently lose 70 pounds and become chronically dehydrated and borderline malnourished, and regularly faint, but don’t tell anyone in your life that this is happening? Eating disorder. When you can’t look at your body or at yourself in your underwear in your mirror because it gives you a panic attack? Related to an eating disorder.
WHO KNEW, right?
I thought this was completely normal behavior, especially for a fat girl. I thought any efforts I made toward being less fat were good efforts, especially when they hurt me. I still think this on my bad days. No one ever told me differently until I sat in my therapist’s office at 19. In fact, all of the messages I was getting about my body said the opposite: Do everything you can to be less of you. You deserve pain. You do not deserve to be happy.
Of course, I realize that these messages, as real as they have been for me, are total bullshit, and the things that I was doing to myself as punishment for existing were… unnecessary, to say the least. Unfounded. But this is a recent realization. It is a realization hard-won. It’s a fucking triumph. It is glorious. It makes me want to dance around naked in the street, take pictures of myself in my underwear and wallpaper the Internet with them, lounge in bed with a book and nothing else. It makes me want to turn my body into a canvas. It has given me control, and confidence, and love.
It is the most bittersweet victory I have ever had, because it’s never really done with — I can’t walk away from it, trophy in hand, and live sweetly in the aftermath. I am always, and will probably always be, fighting for it somehow.
And that’s okay. The fight matters.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, you don’t have to do it alone. NEDA can help. They have a toll-free hotline as well as a chat service, both confidential and anonymous. Please reach out if you need to — talking about it helps. Seriously.