Editor’s Note: February 22-28 is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. In recognition, each day this week, we’ll be featuring a piece about women’s body image. And please, remember: If you’re struggling with your body image or an eating disorder, you’re not alone, and help is available.
The first time I looked in the mirror and called myself fat, I was twelve. I think about this sometimes, as I walk down the street and pass groups of giggling middle school girls drinking sugary Frappuccinos and gossiping about cute boys from science class. These girls are perfect creatures: beautiful, natural, and brimming with unlimited potential. When I look back on the hours I wasted at their age torturing myself with unrealistic ideas about body image and beauty, my heart hurts.
In my own middle school days, my dreams included marrying Justin Timberlake, getting my braces off ASAP, and becoming a world-famous singer and/or dancer. While the former goals were slightly out of my control, I channeled the last aspiration into a rigorous schedule of weekly dance classes; Monday afternoon jazz hands, tap on Tuesday. To be honest, at times, I wasn’t even sure I liked dance class all that much. But I wanted to be Britney Spears, so I stuck with it.
Ballet was the worst. Each week, stacked along the barre in my black leotard and pink tights, I stood behind a tall redhead with perfect feet. I had never even known there was such a thing as perfect feet, but our teacher made sure we all knew that this girl — Alicia — had them. I did not.
I stared at the back of Alicia’s head during every class and carefully compared the different dimensions of our bodies. My hips were wider than hers, a fact that the opposing mirror cruelly confirmed, and my sturdy thighs seemed monstrous compared to her waif-like limbs. I had been wearing a sports bra since fourth grade, and my budding breasts made me self-conscious and awkward when we took turns leaping across the dance floor. The words came naturally, easily, as if they had been waiting all along for me in the recesses of my brain: She’s skinny. You’re fat.
“You’re ten pounds overweight.” The syllables tumbled out of my boyfriend’s mouth, landing between us with a thump. “And I’m just not as attracted to you anymore.”
I stopped dance classes a couple of years later, but I had opened the door for my inner fat shaming mistress, and she decided to stick around. I battled her throughout high school, embarking on an intricate waltz of calorie restricting, binging, and complete body shaming. I hid the truth about my eating habits from everyone, throwing away my brown bagged lunch in the cafeteria and picking at my dinner at home. Because I never dropped below 100 pounds (a source of deep shame for me at the time), it was easy to pretend I was losing weight naturally from the stress of a challenging workload and college applications.
Whenever I felt unhappy, my body was the first thing I blamed, regardless of how little I weighed. I ignored my hunger cues, my natural love of food, and how miserable I felt. Some serious stomach problems and a trip to the emergency room in high school should have been my wakeup call, but it was far from over.
When I went away to college, the urge to restrict my food intake grew stronger. There were skinny girls everywhere, and I needed to fit in with them. College provided the luxury of a flexible schedule that made it easier to lie about my meals, as well as unlimited access to gyms and fitness classes. I began working out with a personal trainer and logging at least an hour and a half on the elliptical every day, carefully eyeing the number of calories burned.
I was thin, but I was miserable. I was starving myself and was constantly depressed and exhausted. I didn’t know how to make new friends or invest in relationships because all I thought about was how many calories I had consumed or burned that day.
I remember sitting in the library by myself one Saturday night when I looked around and burst into tears. I walked home sobbing on the phone to my mom, trying to express how scared and tired I felt. When I got back to my dorm and sat down on my bed, I heard a voice inside telling me that I had reached my end point. I needed to get help if I ever wanted to be happy.
Second semester sophomore year, things started to change. I started seeing a therapist and nutritionist and cut back to four gym trips per week. I began making new friends who invited me to eat lunch with them, and I pushed myself to focus on the conversation, instead of the food in front of us. It was a slow process, but as I started feeling happier, I grew more and more motivated to eat normally.
That spring, something else happened: I fell in love for the first time. I shared my eating history with my boyfriend and he helped me begin to feel truly comfortable and confident in my body. During our relationship, I ate bagels, pizza, and pasta for the first time in years — and even though it was often terrifying, it felt so good to enjoy the taste of food again.
In May 2012, my college class was gearing up for graduation. We ate and drank liberally, equipped with the shaky, hungry knowledge that these good times would not last forever. The night of our senior formal, my skin was newly tanned from an afternoon at the beach with my friends, and I was wearing a beautiful violet dress my roommate had let me borrow. We were all sun kissed, stupid, a little drunk, and safe. I felt pretty.
Then, suddenly, words came out of nowhere, smacking me in the face. This time, however, they didn’t come from me: “You’re ten pounds overweight.” The syllables tumbled out of my boyfriend’s mouth, landing between us with a thump. “And I’m just not as attracted to you anymore.”
I was blown away and completely devastated. Looking back, I understand now that he was a scared boy looking for an excuse to end a relationship that wasn’t working for either of us anymore. He used my most vulnerable insecurity, knowing I would have no choice but to do his dirty work and break up with him. But in that moment, there was no clarity or awareness.
My inner evil mistress sidled up behind him and laughed. She had been lying dormant for the past two years, but she was back now. I told you, she said. Now will you listen to me?
The next morning, I went out to breakfast with two girlfriends with my inner evil mistress in tow. I stared at the menu blankly before finally ordering scrambled egg whites and cantaloupe. My friends exchanged a look, but said nothing. When our food came, I stared at the sad plate of food in front of me and suddenly felt exhausted by the thought of depriving and starving myself again.
But in that moment, I heard another voice: She was strong, smart, and not at all evil. You know that you are not fat, she said. You are a completely normal weight, but you are also so much more than that — you are a friend, a daughter, a sister, and a good person. You have the power to determine how this affects you.
In the months that followed, my disordered eating recovery took on a new dimension. In addition to continuing to eat and exercise normally, I also made room for a new, more compassionate inner voice that made my recovery less about my physical appearance, and more about my inner well-being. I have obviously had moments of discomfort with my body since that night, but I have also had amazing moments of strength, power, and self-care. Today, I am healthier than ever. I eat foods I love when I’m hungry and exercise because I enjoy it, not to punish my body. More importantly, I try to be kind to myself and make no room for inner body shaming.
In the end, it was being called fat that helped me break the last link of my disordered eating cycle. While I had already made strides with my eating and exercise habits, my inner voice was still sabotaging my self-worth in a very powerful way.
And on the inevitable days where my jeans feel tight or I have a bad body day, I remind myself of that awesome twelve year old in ballet class and throw her an impromptu Britney Spears dance party. No mirrors allowed.
Image: All The Color/Flickr; Sarah Levy