It’s hard to say exactly when my dieting tipped over into full-blown disorder, because I’ve been at it for literally as long as I can remember — since I was 8 years old. Growing up fat, my body had always been parsed as a problem. It was a project that needed fixing, one that caused my peers to bully or ignore me and which my doctors scoffed at and sometimes openly mocked. (When I was just 4 years old, one pediatrician chided my parents: “Next time, you’ll have to roll her in.”)
In my early 20s, my then-boyfriend told me I simply wasn’t trying hard enough, that weight loss was merely a matter of calories in, calories out. As anyone who’s struggled with their weight, not to mention a growing contingency of dieticians and doctors, can tell you, it is not, in fact, that simple. I’d tried dozens of diets by then, had already scrawled calorie counts and Weight Watchers “points” and complex carbohydrate algebra in many notebooks. Nevertheless, I redoubled my efforts, deciding I’d lose the weight or die trying.
I came closer to the latter than I thought.
At some point, my “healthy lifestyle” ― or the decade of hard work that had earned me an 80-pound weight loss and the praise of literally everyone around me ― started suffocating me: the avoidance of any social event involving food (read: all of them), the way the mere sound of food-related words like breakfast and snack grated my ears. How constantly angry I was, at the world, at myself, at everyone else; at all these people who could simply eat and move through their lives, their bodies not constantly on the edge of some precipice. The way I held myself so still, half-smiling in all my pictures, terrified of showing even an inch of the long-absent fat I still saw so clearly in the mirror. I was terrified someone would figure out what I’d really been, all along.
The unique desperation of being afraid of a full larder is hard to explain to those who don’t understand it — the consequence of a self-hatred so all-encompassing, it motivates you to forego even your most basic needs. To live in a world where you’re physically afraid of strawberries and of sugar snap peas, where the news feed on your phone exclusively serves up headlines about weight loss.
And then, the inevitable backlash, those out-of-control moments where my starving body would gorge itself on whatever was available — which, in my orthorexic, carbphobic house, wasn’t much. One afternoon last fall, I came home from a hike, frantic. I never packed snacks; I wasn’t allowed to eat until I’d finished, even if it was a 14-mile trek with a 3,500-foot climb. I found myself sitting on the kitchen counter as if in a fugue state, gobbling a whole half pound of raw cashews and spooning coconut cream directly from the can. Feeling like an animal. Realizing how fully the thing was slipping out of my hands.
By the time my essay for Huffpost on weight loss published in January, I’d finally called a therapist. Home for the holidays, I’d sat in my mother’s car some 1,500 miles from the therapist’s office and made an appointment as if it were no big deal. The previous night, I’d snuck into my parents’ back bedroom and nabbed one of the three boxes of chocolates they’d been saving for last-minute Christmas presents. I proceeded to chew up and spit out every last candy in the box, carefully wiping the sugar and fat from my tongue.
Then I went back for the next box. And the last one after that.
“The unique desperation of being afraid of a full larder is hard to explain to those who don’t understand it — the consequence of a self-hatred so all-encompassing, it motivates you to forego even your most basic needs.”
In our first session, my counselor and I sat across from each other while she looked over my paperwork. I’d checked compulsive exercise and binge eating on the symptom list, but had softened the blow in the open-form space asking why I was seeking therapy: “Eating issues. And also just being human.” I tried to convince both myself and my loved ones it was just a new year’s whim, take it or leave it. My new insurance policy covered it, so why not?
I was absolutely desperate.
“So,” she said, meeting my eyes after having nodded at the pages for a few quiet minutes. “Mostly food stuff.”
“Mostly food stuff,” I agreed. I was waiting for her to hand me the magic bullet technique that would stop my binge eating once and for all. Then, I’d finally be able to drop “the last” 10 pounds and stop worrying about it. Ideally, the whole exchange would take all of 30 minutes.
Instead, she smiled patiently at me as I admitted to what I thought were the towering numbers of calories a day I found myself unable to stop eating — which still weren’t enough, given my two-hours-per-day everyday workout habit. I’d expected her face to falter at these numbers, judgmental and concerned, but it did not. Instead, she asked: “What if you thought about your food in terms of whether or not you’re full, rather than calories?”
I smiled at her dumbly, stifling a scoff. I was already in too deep, had already memorized the whole wide food calculus. Even if I deleted my calorie tracker — an utterly ridiculous prospect — I’d still see broccoli, almonds and croissants as Matrix-style rows of scrolling green numbers.
A session or so later, sitting there feeling immensely self-conscious of my still-thin, still-too-big-body, she asked me, “What are you so afraid of? What would it mean, if the worst thing happened, and you did regain all the weight?”
My response was immediate, intuitive, as easy as stating my name.
It would mean I was a failure.
“I took on the intellectual commitment to intuitive eating well before I could face my own fatphobia.”
I took on the intellectual commitment to intuitive eating well before I could face my own fatphobia, listening to body-positive podcasts like She’s All Fat and the Trust Your Body Project while continuing to grind away at the gym. I wanted to have it both ways — to have my cake and refuse to eat it, too. I wanted to quit my disorder without actually making any changes, to pay lip service to size acceptance without actually wearing the body meant for me.
After all, I’d spent the past 10 years burying the bigger girl I’d been, wearing my hard, hard-won body like a badge of honor. Of course I wanted to keep it: I wanted to keep the turning heads, the attention I’d so thirsted for as a teenager that had suddenly arrived in force at 22. As a thin girl, that attention was absolutely everywhere, ubiquitous and intoxicating and perpetually surprising.
I hadn’t been asked to the prom, but I’d made up for that by riding on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle in a foreign country, zipping off to a beachside birthday party where free drinks were pressed again and again into my hand. Or by grinding my “new” body against a never-ending set of all-too-willing men in dance clubs. One pulled my ear to his lips to whisper to me.”You’re absolutely gorgeous. I had to tell you, but I didn’t want your boyfriend to get mad,” he said, shaking said boyfriend’s hand thereafter.
I wanted to keep the doctors’ praise, the feeling of triumph and accomplishment every time I showed up smaller. I wanted to believe that my sluggish heart rate and two-digit blood pressure readings were the results of athleticism, not anorexia.
I was still skipping breakfast to “make up” for what I’d eaten the previous day at dinner, still feeling my hunger like a promise, like a reward. I still threw away all but a token, Instagram-captured swallow of the sourdough round I’d walked through the snow for. But eventually I realized that if I ever wanted to pull myself from the iron cage I’d created — if I ever wanted to have the chance at an actually healthy relationship with food and my body — I had to let go of dieting entirely.
“Eventually I realized that if I ever wanted to pull myself from the iron cage I’d created — if I ever wanted to have the chance at an actually healthy relationship with food and my body — I had to let go of dieting entirely.”
I had to watch my body soften, my hard-won conventional beauty fade in the mirror. I had to look twice into the toilet bowl when my blood came back — the return of the period I’d lacked for three full years. I’d never looked like someone with an eating disorder, so my doctors never asked questions, even when its absence was accompanied by other telltale signs: hypotension, stress fractures, constantly feeling cold.
I had to gain weight. I had to let my body come home.
My body has become bigger, yes. But it’s also become less frantic. We’re learning to trust one another.
The frenetic abandon with which I first ate the foods I’d restricted for so long has since abated. Most days, my meals are still centered on fresh, whole foods: fruit and nuts, roasted veggies, chicken on the bone, cheese. Yes, the occasional blueberry muffin, eaten alongside coffee pale with cream.
Because I know I can eat whatever I want, whenever I want it, food is just not that big of a deal anymore. I can walk past a bakery window or down a Halloween-candy-lined aisle at Target without feeling longing, anger or remorse. I can buy a pound-sized package of those dark chocolate peanut butter cups from Trader Joe’s and — seriously — forget they’re in my cabinet at all.
I can’t pretend I’m fully healed from the fraught body image I’ve struggled with throughout my lifetime. We all deal with diet culture, no matter how clearly we can see through its problematic messaging, no matter the size of the bodies we wear. I know you do, readers — because after I published that last piece, my DMs were flooded with others reaching out to say, me too.
“Because I know I can eat whatever I want, whenever I want it, food is just not that big of a deal anymore.”
I’ve scrolled back through Instagram, seeing photos of myself as a starving girl who always, always thought she was too big. I have had that awful thought: If only you knew what you had.
Diet culture means that part of me still thinks my thinnest body is my “real” body, even though I’ve spent far fewer years thin than I have chubby and even though maintaining that size came at such an astronomical emotional and physical cost. But increasingly, I look back at those old photos and see something different: How terrified that girl was. How desperate. How alone.
If the mere thought of weight gain terrifies you, trust me, I’ve been there. I even said it in the last piece: I liked my disease. A year ago today, reading an article like this one would have struck me through with adrenaline. Gaining weight was abject failure. It was not an option on the table.
But I can tell you that being on the other side is so much better: the lack of fear I feel when a friend asks me out for dinner; the touch of a lover’s hands when they want me exactly as I am; the ability to take a single bowlful out of a pint of ice cream, to not feel the frenzied need to wolf down every last morsel of food on my plate.
I’m not afraid anymore. I’m free. And that’s worth so much more than being thin ever was.
And you out there who see yourself in these words — you don’t have to white-knuckle your way through your life, either. You deserve this, too. You deserve to feed yourself. You deserve to take up space.
I know it’s scary. It’s easily the scariest thing I’ve ever done. But I promise, I promise: along with weight, you gain so much more.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
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