With the holidays quickly approaching, most people are excited for the time to spend with family, eat good food, and open presents. But for women and men either struggling with or recovering from an eating disorder, holiday season can be a difficult part of the year. Because of this I have been wanting to tell my own story recently, in the hopes of helping others who are currently having trouble coping with the holidays. When in school we always hear “be careful of what you say, you never know how it will affect someone else”. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why people don’t stop to think about their actions more – we don’t know how our decisions are affecting others, so we continue to do the things we’ve always done. I’m here today to talk about how other people’s actions – both good and bad – combined with my own pre-existing problems impacted me, in the hopes that this will start a genuine conversation about how we treat other people.
In my freshman year of high school, at 14 years old, I struggled with an eating disorder. The full story of how I got to this point in my life can trace back to middle school or even earlier, but for the sake of keeping things short I’ll keep that out of here (If you ever want to ask about it, feel free to talk to me).
When I was younger I wasn’t very confident in myself, and I had been struggling with maintaining a positive body image. To top off my existing insecurities, going into 9th grade all of my best friends had gone to a different high school, and I had never felt so alone. I had a group of friends that said hi to me in between classes, and let me sit at the lunch table with them, but they never really talked to me, so I would sit in silence, desperately trying to figure out how to fit in. They were really pretty and skinny, and appeared happy to me. They also made fun of other kids constantly– one girl that sat at our table was a little heavier, and they often talked about how overweight she was and would scrutinize every little thing she ate at lunch behind her back. During this time I felt so alone and wanted to be friends with these people SO badly- after all, they had a lot friends and seemed so confident – but no matter how much I seemingly tried nobody really noticed me. I then somehow got the notion into my head that if I was just 5 pounds thinner, I would instantly become more likeable, and I wouldn’t feel lonely anymore. I imagined myself being more outgoing and funny if only I felt more confident in my body. I started paying attention to the amount of calories and the serving suggestions of everything I ate, and started working out.
As I lost the first 5 pounds, I found that my personality didn’t change at all with the weight loss as I had expected. I was still pretty shy, and couldn’t figure out how to relate to the kids at the lunch table. Instead of thinking that maybe these people just weren’t the right fit for me, I heard the comments they kept making about how fat and ugly other people in our school were, and I figured I just needed to lose 5 more pounds, THEN we’d be friends since I’d be pretty. I would look at myself in the mirror and be completely disgusted with everything I saw- my stomach wasn’t flat, my thighs touched, my hair was frizzy, and my nose too big. I worked out a little bit more and ate a little bit less, losing more weight along the way.
After losing 10 pounds, still nothing had changed. I felt so alone every day at school, it took everything I could muster to wait until I got home to cry it all out. I told myself that 10 pounds hadn’t been enough- if I wanted to truly be happy and have any friends, I had to look like a Victoria’s Secret model. After all, everyone loves them, right? (It wasn’t until much later I realized just how unhealthy their lifestyles are http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20544798,00.html ).
My body image absorbed my every thought for months. I started running at least 3 miles every day, skipping breakfast, and eating under 1,000 calories a day (the average caloric intake is supposed to be around 2,000 calories a day). I became skilled at hiding it from my family- spreading out the food on my plate so it looked like more, saying I had a huge lunch so I wasn’t that hungry, and wearing baggy clothes. I felt proud of myself when I became so hungry that I was lightheaded. I remember one time in particular I ate two graham crackers because they were only 70 calories each. I then looked at the box again and noticed it was 70 calories for half a graham cracker, and I panicked so much that I skipped lunch that day.
More and more weight was coming off, and instead of being happier, I was even more depressed and anxious. I couldn’t understand why my lunch table still wouldn’t talk to me or even ask me how my day was going. I must’ve just not lost enough weight yet. Think about the things they were saying behind my back- were they saying things they did about other girls who “looked like whales”, or was I even fatter than that?
This whole process occurred throughout the school year. I went into my freshman year weighing the same that I do currently, about 117 pounds. By late May, I stepped onto the scale at the gym one day to see that my weight was at 95 pounds. My very first thought was “just 5 more pounds, then I’ll be happy”. I hadn’t had my period in over four months, my schoolwork was jeopardized because I spent so much time thinking about how fat I was, and I had been eating about one meal a day for months, but I didn’t see any of that as a problem: instead, it was a sacrifice that needed to be made in order for people to like me.
The next day, my sister and mom told me to come upstairs before dinner, and that they had something they needed to talk to me about. I immediately started panicking- they’d been making comments recently saying I was looking too thin, and each time I would snap at them and say I was fine. I came upstairs to find my sister crying, saying I looked as though I was starving to death and it was terrifying her. My mother told me I needed to get treatment and that over the summer she would help me to gain the weight back. I began sobbing at the thought of being forced to gain weight- how was I ever going to make friends if my family wanted me to be so fat?
My mom started watching me like a hawk, making sure I ate a decent amount of food at every meal and not letting me go to the gym to work out. On top of that, my mom made me start seeing a therapist to help sort out my problems and find the path to recovery, which turned out to be very helpful. Throughout the summer and into the beginning of sophomore year I slowly gained the weight back, along with my sense of reason.
I realized that I should respect myself more than to only be friends with people who like me for my appearance. I made my first friend in high school, a girl named Maddie Johnson in debate and in my US History class who went out of her way to ask me how my day was, and invited me to sit with her at lunch. From there on out my life turned around for the better.
And yet, even five years later, I struggle almost daily with maintaining a good body image. I still feel uncomfortable wearing a swimsuit in public, I have a strong sense of guilt after eating too many oreos, and I’ve avoided working out consistently because I find myself counting calories and becoming obsessive all over again.
The damage that happened to me as a 14-year-old high schooler will be carried with me my entire life, which is why I’m posting this today despite how terrified it makes me. My eating disorder wasn’t just a result of trying to fit in – it was a result of years of insecurities, the anxiety that came along with going to a completely new school, and the desire to be “perfect”. The comments and actions of others simply catalyzed an eating disorder that was already in the making. Yet at the same time, I’m writing this post today even though it makes me feel uncomfortably exposed to remind people about the effects that their words can have on somebody who’s already struggling. What I’ve learned over time is that while having a flat stomach, pretty hair, and thighs that don’t touch are ideal in today’s society, what’s ultimately more important is that you have confidence, a kind heart, and integrity, and that that should be the basis of conversations and good friendships.
I encourage all of you, men and women alike, to find the good traits in both yourself and others, and focus only on those. If someone says a horrible thing about you or someone you know, stick up for yourself in a respectful manner. Surround yourself with people that make you a better and happier person, not just with people that seem popular and pretty. Life feels so much better when you go out of your way to be nice to both yourself and others. And if anybody else reading this is also struggling with an eating disorder, do NOT hesitate to talk to me, a family member, a friend, or somebody else you can trust. I know how scary it can be, but I promise you in the long run reaching out to other people is the best way to start becoming happy and healthy again.
This holiday season, let’s all take some time to think about how other’s decisions have impacted us, and about how our decisions may have impacted others. Once we start becoming more aware of the consequences of our actions, I believe that all of us will think a little bit more about the impact we can have on the world.