I was always “the thin girl.” I was thin as a child, with long, eager limbs, scraggly hair and knees knocking together, and growth spurts so painful my whole body felt like it was growing outside of itself. I was thin when I was bullied mercilessly in elementary school. Thin in high school, flat chested and quirky in a small school of all girls, and interested in all the strange and bookish things my peers were not; boyfriendless and left to scribble my own daydreamed romances in a notebook I kept under my pillow. I was thin in college, despite hardly ever exercising and eating more than my share of mediocre dorm and fast food. I was thin when I fell in love. But I was never as thin as when I thought I wasn’t.
I’d always heard stories about “anorexics” and seen photos of girls so desperately and painfully thin, bones jutting out with sallow, gaunt faces. But what I saw when I looked in the mirror wasn’t a skeleton – so how could I be one of those people? It just wasn’t possible. But it was.
After a series of events leading to what my therapist would later call.inexorable anxiety, I had my first panic attack. It was the result of planning a wedding, buying a house, and adopting a very sick dog all at once. The responsibility of those things, combined with my total lack of preparation, shocked and terrified me. I had a panic attack in the car on the way to my wedding tasting, which I couldn’t even bring myself to participate in. After that, I didn’t eat. I couldn’t eat. The thought of food made me feel sick, and I felt nauseous and tense from the moment I opened my eyes in the morning to the second I fell asleep at night. I was a walking zombie for ten days straight, barely going through the motions at work and at home. I lost close to15 pounds. And that first morning, when I was able to look myself in the mirror — when I saw how that weight had just melted off of me — a dark little part of me was happy.
How had I let myself get so big? I thought, so disgusting? So fat? Looking in that mirror, I liked the thinner me. But there was so much more to go. And if I had lost this weight simply by doing nothing, then I needed to make more changes. I needed to make more adjustments. I cut my calories to less than 600 a day. I upped my time at the gym to more than two hours a day, almost every day. I skipped breakfast and lunch, and took over the role of preparing all my husbands and my dinners so that I could control my portion size and keep my calorie intake as low as possible — 600 was my magic number. I was convinced that if I went above that, I would gain.
My body no longer belonged to me. It was my disorder’s. Signed and paid for with my own self-hatred; countless hours at the gym on almost zero food; a scrap of paper I kept in my calendar to proudly mark the number of calories I’d burned, far greater than what I’d consumed. My anorexia had had her brittle hands on me for years, and I didn’t want to admit it. She was with me when I tried on wedding dresses, forcing me to choose the one I felt least fat in. She would whisper in my ear every time I bought groceries. She would drag my eyes downward as I watched strangers walk past, comparing their thighs to mine.
Until, three years later — standing in the middle of my kitchen with the spatula in my hand, the words “let me help you make dinner” floating in the air above my head like a balloon — the idea of not being able to control the amount of oil and butter and sauce and meat sent me into panic, and I completely shut down. I sat silently for hours, feeling the waves of panic rushing over me, my arms and legs crossed and wrapped around me with muscles so tight my entire body ached the next morning. My husband looked at me with sad, frightened eyes, but couldn’t form the right words. All I could force myself to say was, “I think something’s wrong with me.” Over, and over again.
That night I logged onto my computer in the dark, bleary eyed from tears, and googled things like “Eating Disorder How to Tell.” “Anorexia Symptoms.” and “Recovery.” Somehow in my searching I found LETSRECOVER — a tumblr account and recovery handbook someone who was going through the same thing I was started. It was like magic — all my worries and questions spelled out and answered in a way that made sense to me. I printed out pages at work and kept them in my wallet. I found the creator on instagram, made my own recovery account, and followed her. And a few days later, I made an appointment with a therapist.
During our appointments, she asked me things like, “why do you feel that way?” which, to me, seemed impossible to answer. I didn’t know why. I couldn’t express it. She would ask me, “but what’s wrong with being fat?” and inside my mind I would be screaming EVERYTHING but I couldn’t say why. I couldn’t explain where my self-esteem issues came from. I couldn’t explain why I felt worthless in my own body. I couldn’t explain why, in a body that was actively shutting itself down, I felt so huge. We met every week or so for a few months, and while our appointments helped open me up to actively talking about my recovery, I still felt lost.
Because the thing was, my anorexia didn’t just appear out of nowhere. She wasn’t just a switch flicked blindly in the middle of the night. She was a product of every single advert, every little comment, every nuance and whisper and photoshopped magazine cover. She was carefully tended to by flash diets and juice cleanses and guilt-free foods and bikini bodies and thinspo and fitspo; society’s answer to womankind’s insecurity. She had rooted herself deep within me, far before I knew she was there.
Everything around me told me that fat was ugly. That imperfect was unacceptable. That health was restriction. I didn’t even realize I was hating my body until it was too late.
So I started a purge of my social media. All the “thinspo” and “fitspo” accounts I followed: gone. I unfollowed people whose bodies or “healthy living” triggered me. I stopped buying “Health” magazines. I started paying more attention to the body positive community; I followed plus-size models, natural modeling agencies, feminist pages, and women who embraced bodies of all shapes and colors. I immersed myself in inclusivity. And the more I began to speak that language, the easier it was for me accept myself. The act of changing my surroundings helped me more than all those therapy sessions combined.
But it can be incredibly hard to change your surroundings when it’s all you’ve ever known. As women, we’ve been taught to be dissatisfied with ourselves, and feeling beautiful is almost a rebellious act. But why does it need to be that way? We need to stop comparing, and start complimenting. Instead of ‘I wish I looked like…’ it should be ‘I love my …’ or ‘I’m glad I’m …’ One of my most profound moments in therapy was when my therapist told me to think about how I would talk to myself as a child. Would I be mean to her? Would I starve her to fit into a dress? Would I tell her she’s not good enough, or that her body was wrong? No. I would tell her she’s beautiful just the way she is. I would tell her I love the way she draws, and sings, and that she tells great jokes. This is what we need to do for ourselves. Because we are enough, just the way we are. We just need to be able to see it.
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All photos courtesy of Gina S.
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