Author’s Note: I understand there is a diverse community of people who have experiences with eating disorders. Therefore I am not writing this piece to garner attention for myself, but rather to help destigmatize discussions about eating disorders and body image. When people around me stepped up and shared their personal disordered eating stories, I felt extremely grateful for their courage; they helped me realize this is no small battle we face and there are people to talk to. This article marks my decision to step from the shadows in which I’ve been hiding for so long.
“WOW. Can I have your [thin] arms?” “Stunning torso.” “Look at those [protruding] collarbones.” “You look so skinny.” “Can I have your body? I need to diet immediately.” Those are actual compliments I heard exchanged between teenagers in the hallways of my suburban public high school.
Though I grew up in a body image-obsessed community, I can count on one hand the amount of times we discussed eating disorders in health class. The few times my teacher did talk about them, she would describe anorexia and bulimia. I never gave disordered eating much thought after those thirty minutes of class, because I assumed I could not relate. I loved food, I always had. I didn’t understand how someone could restrict their eating or make themselves purge. At least I couldn’t imagine myself doing so. Like anyone else, my body needed nourishment and I was more than happy to satisfy my hunger, whether it was real or imaginary. While I recognized that eating disorders were influenced by social and cultural agents, I still saw them as individualized, self-adopted skinny-obsessive habits.
No one told me that a combination of biological, genetic, and personality factors cause eating disorders. I didn’t learn that my family’s history of drug-abuse and addiction made me prone to forming one. I didn’t know that my perfectionistic personality, anxiety disorder, self-blaming predisposition, “goody-two-shoes” tendencies, and hypersensitivity to criticism and rejection were all factors that increased my risk as well.
From a young age, I learned to pass off my now recognizably disordered eating habits as me simply having a sweet tooth. In high school, when I worked out twice a day or only got three hours of sleep (to make time to go on a run), I wrote it off it as a dedication to fitness. Burning off the calories I ate in chocolate earlier that day was just a bonus. I was able to justify my eating patterns with my athletic presentation, but beneath my skin, I felt so embarrassingly weak. I hated myself. I teared my self identity in opposite directions and sooner or later, the seams would start to split. However, to a world in which concealed disordered eating habits weren’t questioned, there was no cause for alarm. No one could see me beginning to spiral because they had not been taught to look. Nothing seemed wrong to anyone, so my secrets were safe then.
I adapted my behavior to make signs of my unhealthy eating patterns go unnoticed. I mastered the skill of silently opening cabinet and refrigerator doors at night so my family wouldn’t know about my secret 2 A.M. kitchen endeavors. I perfected the timing for taking two servings at a party without drawing attention to myself. I learned the art of rearranging the trash bin so no one could see that I finished an entire box of crackers by myself. My outfits consisted of leggings and an oversized sweatshirt, an easy costume to hide beneath. I took note of the least popular vending machine times so no one could see the shame written on my face. Regardless of who I was with, I impulsively apologized anytime I snacked. I memorized the times when I could go to the gym without employees seeing I’d gone twice in one day. My makeshift cover only worked for so long until into my sophomore year at Vassar, I came to the realization with myself that i had Binge Eating Disorder (BED).
I thought handling BED and my self-destructive tendencies would be easier at Vassar compared to my hometown. Though I feel a more general sense of love from the Vassar community than I did back home, the image-obsessed culture is inescapable in every facet of our society. By the latter half of the fall semester I felt the most hopeless I’ve felt in my entire life. I’d bottled up so much shame over the years that it started to seep into every aspect of my life. The fight ensuing between my mind and my body turned especially disturbing when I came to the realization that the enemy I was battling was myself; I could not see an end to my cycle of destruction. I likewise could not see that, like all people with BED, I was using food to fulfill my desire for love — a desire for a love which I believed I was underserved of.
Metcalf direly lacked the resources needed to accommodate the Vassar student body. I tried to join the No “Bodies” Perfect support group in November, but my request was declined and the counselor told me to contact her at the start of the spring semester. Though Metcalf slightly revamped their staff these past few months, that wasn’t in time for my struggle last fall and many students alongside myself fell through the cracks. The only appointment I could have made to justify the sharp drop in my academics due to mental illness was a crisis appointment (these appointments are only intended to momentarily stabilize people, not to offer a plan of action or long-term support). Luckily I was able to obtain support elsewhere and also gained a sense of community through friends who shared similar experiences.
When I listened to strangers’ and friends’ confessions regarding their challenges with eating disorders, I felt pleasantly humbled. Realizing the validity of eating disorders saved me from the hole I had been plummeting into. There wasn’t anything wrong with me as a person, but rather there was something physically wrong with the way my brain’s chemistry functioned. Though I coped with my sadness in different ways than many others, I shared a common sentiment with those who were bulimic and anorexic: self-hatred. It took me becoming a masochist and hating myself for me to realize beauty and confidence aren’t correlated with body weight.
I resent the American societal belief that thin isn’t thin enough, that beauty is directly proportional to the size of one’s waist. It tells people that in order to love and be loved, they are required to change the way they look. It’s unbelievable to me how these beliefs are steeped into today’s societal standards and continue to be perpetuated. However, we need to collectively start changing the way we see each other in relation to our bodies, and more importantly the way we love ourselves.
Living with BED feels like trying to find my way out of an ever-changing maze. I can’t predict what event or comment or memory will trigger the walls to shift and corner me in. At Vassar, there are days when I just want to shout to the world that I have an eating disorder and claim it as my own instead of having to make excuses for becoming distressed by uncontrollable factors. Like when I avoid UpC because a Nilda’s and Milkshake are literally the last things I need when I have a load of work to do, or when people don’t understand why I don’t always want to drunkenly drown myself in Baccio’s pizza at 3 a.m, or when I cancel dinner plans because I already stress-ate enough to last me for the rest of the day. Sometimes I’m on the verge of a breakdown because I slept through my alarm and didn’t have time to workout before class and won’t have any time for the rest of the day. I still to this day have trouble prioritizing academics. Often I need to choose the option of going to bed over studying for a test or finishing an overdue essay, because if I pick the latter it might lead to late night binging. Friends will harmlessly make comments on how organized I keep my room, but I know that the state of my dorm room is one of the few things I can actually control. If I’m staying in on the weekend it might be for self care, but chances are it might also be because I quite frankly don’t have the energy to covertly count calories with every glass of wine I sip. When the incentive for nearly every Vassar event, meeting, and study session seems to be food, I struggle (and often fail) to balance my food-induced anxiety with my ability to ocus on the actual event. On some days, my tipping point can be as seemingly innocent as a friend talking about how they were so busy they forgot to eat all day. I try to be understanding but my jealousy is palpable—I would kill for one day in which food [WHEN I will eat, IF I will eat, WHAT I will eat] isn’t in the forefront of my mind. I re-live these situations regularly and without any sign of them lessening anytime soon. While all addictions are atrocious, with food-related addictions specifically, there is little choice in ignoring it: food is a basic human need for survival. Food will constantly be a part of my life, so I have to learn how to cope with and navigate through my BED.
If eating disorders are rarely discussed in education, BED is a complete afterthought. I wonder if I would have acknowledged my disorder and sought help earlier had my schooling made me more aware of the complexity, commonality, and palpability of varying eating disorders. Knowing that much of the disorder is out of my control and recognizing BED as an actual disease — or rather, my metaphysical enemy — keeps me working toward a time when food doesn’t induce anxiety. Every day I face the disorder inside of me. Sometimes it growls, other times it hibernates; both of us bleed, and often times only one can be victorious. I’m done hiding from the enemy within me, I’m done letting my enemy define me.
For years I’ve put so much fucking energy into trying to manage my eating disorder without accepting my problem for exactly what it is, a problem, or letting others in enough to know about it. I have honed the art of self-sabotage and succeeded in slowly secluding myself from important people in my life by withdrawing into its shadows. I’ve experienced the pain of being trapped in a downward spiral of “eat, hate, repeat.” No, I am not proud of the harm this disease has forced me to inflict upon myself, but eating disorder included, I will still try everyday to love the person that I am.