By Katie Stone.
Don’t drink your calories. Don’t eat past 9 p.m. or you’ll gain weight. Cut out fruit to lower your sugar intake. Avoid carbs. Eat low-fat. High intensity exercise burns calories for the next 24 hours.
It feels like isolated pieces of unsolicited Internet advice have clouded up my headspace. It’s hard to even distinguish between what some online publication taught me and what my brain is actually thinking for itself. This has been the case since I was in high school, a young girl with a very malleable mind and a stunted sense of self-worth.
I used to think of myself as a “chunkier” type of girl. My jean size was the biggest of my friends’. Boys couldn’t help but glance at my busty chest. I was uncomfortable in my body no matter what I was wearing. How could I look like the high schoolers on Disney channel with pin-straight hair and lanky legs? They definitely didn’t have muffin tops, that was for sure. I always felt like people were looking at me, between what I was eating to what I was wearing. I remember one night at dinner, as I was scooping myself a second helping of delicious, buttery tortellini, my mom looked at me with disapproving eyes. “Do you really want another helping?” My cheeks started to heat up with shame, but her comment wasn’t enough to change my behavior. I ate the pasta spitefully, wanting it even more now that it was ‘bad’.
What really shoved me into full-blown diet mode was that year’s check-up. I stepped on the scale, shivering in that terribly patterned fabric gown they force you to wear. “So, it looks like you’re overweight,” my doctor told me when he reviewed my numbers. Overweight?! I was 15 years old at the time and to me, overweight was associated with the obesity epidemic, diabetes, and people in middle America who didn’t leave their couches and could tear through a six-pack of Coca Cola in a single afternoon. No worries, I told myself, this is my wake-up call. From now on, no more second scoops of tortellini. Actually, no tortellini at all.
I went on a Women’s Health deep dive, trying to compile all the diet tips and tricks I could get my hands on. I have always been curious, obsessed with intaking as much information I could. Knowledge was my secret weapon; there were pretty girls, or sporty girls, but I was always the smart girl. I channeled this insatiable appetite for learning to biased magazines with photoshopped women on the covers. An excitement for feeling good and nourishing my body turned into an obsession very quickly. I soon began to use “healthy eating” not as a means of fueling myself properly, but as a way to assert my control over the scary chaos of high school.
The pounds shed rapidly as I restricted myself from entire food groups. This was normal right? Isn’t this what every woman goes through? I truly believed that every woman was destined to a life of dieting and worrying about her self-image—all the women I saw on television, my home, my life, were doing it. People around me started to notice that my body was shrinking. My relatives started to make encouraging comments at family gatherings. I got complimented from girls at school that I “looked so good now.” I was definitely doing the right thing, I told myself. This is what being a cool, pretty girl was like.
You don’t notice the pounds as they’re coming off when it’s happening gradually. You feel your pants loosening up at the hips and the compliments people are giving you about your visible obliques. All we get is positive reinforcement. Until we don’t. Until we’re an issue, or we stop being fun to be around, or we’re that girl.
It’s taken me this long—four whole years—to realize that cool, pretty girls are not what they seem. I now know that everyone has their demons, and nobody is as perfect as they may seem on the outside. When your secret struggle is with eating, you do this dance around the people who love you and care about you in order to maintain your rigidity and security of healthy, morally acceptable foods. And the thing is, it’s not intentional. Your subconscious knows your behaviors are probably questionable and could receive judgment, so you do your best to eat your spoonfuls of peanut butter in your room without the scrutiny from your friends and family. And when your demon is food, you can’t recover in the way that drug addicts and alcoholics can. You can’t just give up food altogether and decide you’re quitting cold turkey. No, you’re not solving an addiction or kicking a bad habit, you’re mending a relationship with an old friend you had a falling out with years ago.
Everyone’s eating disorder, or disordered eating, as some may say, is different. Sometimes you can see it from the outside with clues from bony shoulders and thinning hair. But most times you can’t. Eating disorders are mental—the number one most fatal mental disorder actually. With our relationships to food and our bodies causing so much stress and pressure, it’s miraculous that the diet industry is still promoting weight loss and low-cal snacks at every chance it gets. Our society is literally obsessed with telling women that they should be taking up the least amount of space possible and its tricked us all into thinking that’s correct. If you don’t look like the girl in the lingerie advertisement or the woman who’s selling you plant-based meal alternatives, then you’re probably just wrong and worthless.
It’s not like I saw women or girls in the media and thought, wow I need to look like her in order to be successful and find a husband. I’ve always been independent and smart enough to know that there’s more than what meets the eye. But something inside of me, my perfectionist tendency, wanted to optimize every single little aspect of my life. And the easiest one to tackle was my appearance. I had an epiphany that the way I looked could be completely in my control. The more I tried to look and eat perfectly, though, the more impossible it became. My standards for myself got higher as my sense of self-worth got weaker. I was so stupid to eat that extra handful of cashews. How could I let myself lose control like that again? I knew better, I would tell myself. I was like a dog, training myself to be a good girl by not snacking on anything I deemed “bad”. I was a drill sergeant to myself and it pains me to think about how little kindness I ever showed to my own body and mind.
If I could give myself a hug, I would. What did I ever do to warrant such pressure and unreachable expectations? So many women allow external factors to dictate our internal senses of worth and confidence, a predicament that truly makes no sense. Our most beautiful features are found within us, so why do we look to others for this validation?
It comes down to the narrative that we’re told. We have to stop letting young girls think that their weight is directly related to their health. Calories are a unit of energy, so we should be eating an amount that’s going to satisfy us and fuel us to have a productive and fulfilling day. Food is not something to be scared of. And our bodies are our best friends. We have to give more love to our bodies and show appreciation for all of the amazing things we are capable of doing with it. We’re all being inundated with messages about what we should eat or should look like or should this or that. What we all should do is just come back to ourselves. What do we want to eat? When? Life without rules is so liberating, so why do we choose to confine ourselves with them?
This is all new to me, so my insightful sermons aren’t exactly coming from a professional. In fact, my knowledge of recovery just comes from my dietician and Jameela Jamil’s Instagram stories. Nobody out there really talks about us living in the grey area. The grey area between institutionalization and a normal relationship to food. It’s hard to conceptualize the millions of women (and men) who live with fucked up food constitutions in their brains. The people who can’t eat past 8 p.m. or refuse to eat carbs during the day or count their calories and allow for more indulgences on days with harder workouts. Nobody thinks we need to be taken to the hospital, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need some support and love. The hardest part is, that love and support needs to come from ourselves first.
Eating disorders, disordered eating, whatever you call a less-than-optimal relationship with food and our bodies – it’s so much more common than you think. We don’t need to be stuck in the silence of our own insecurities when there are people around who can relate.
So, let’s talk. You don’t have to feel so alone.
I would feel so moved if you reached out. I would love to hear from you, and support you –– No matter how minor it is. I am here for you.
With love, support, and good health,
National Eating Disorders Association Helpline: (800) 931-2237