Starting Young: The Birth of My Eating Disorder
In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I'm going to share a different personal experience every day to show how my own eating disorder developed, progressed, and was eventually defeated. It's important to me on many levels and for different reasons, but the main one is that plus-sized people are typically stereotyped as having a binge eating disorder, and restrictive eating disorders are mistakenly thought by many to be something only thin people can have. The misconceptions about size and eating habits is not only harmful emotionally, but physically as well.
From my earliest memories, possibly all the way back to age three or four, I had a keen awareness of my size. Having a thin sister less than two years older than me, I knew even before starting kindergarten that we not only looked different, but were treated differently. And I am not referring just to other kids around our age. Even teenaged cousins and adults (within and outside the family) made sure I knew that there was something wrong with me, and I needed to fix it.
Since my sister and I typically had the same thing for nearly every meal, I found myself comparing how much I ate to how much she ate. I tried to mimic her eating patterns, completely disconnecting from my own body's internal signals of hunger and satiety. Every television show and movie I'd ever seen told me I must do this, because obviously I could not trust myself or my body since it was my fault I was like this. Fat people were not even present in the majority of media I consumed, but when they were, they were only allowed to exist as the butt of jokes or as someone to pity and "help" (usually both - a particular episode of Punky Brewster haunted me for years). This is what I had learned before knowing how to tie my shoes.
From my first day in kindergarten, I was labeled as, "the fat kid." It seemed like the worst possible thing to me. I was excluded from activities, friendship, and dignity. I crawled inside an imaginary world where I daydreamed of bones protruding from my body, of never eating more than a few bites a day, and of people treating me like I was worth something. It allowed me to envision a world in which people told me it was ok to eat.
Even television movies about women with anorexia somehow seemed to romanticize it. They were shown to be disciplined and painfully beautiful. Interestingly, I can still recall a scene from one when a teenaged girl was studying her body in the mirror after losing more weight. Her mother walked in and was stunned to see how her ribs protruded. But I didn't get it. I couldn't see how this would be shocking because I saw bodies like that all the time in music videos, films, shows. I was confused. How could this be worrisome when that's how we're supposed to be?
I wondered how I could lose enough weight to make my ribs protrude. But the more I tried to eat exactly like my sister, the more precious and frightening food became. I feared it, and thought of it constantly. It became something I needed to analyze and plan carefully, but not to enjoy.
I had realized that when I got a happy meal, the chicken nuggets were my favorite part. I decided I should test myself to see if I could be disciplined enough to eat only the french fries, and then just one or two nuggets. Something told me (perhaps a not-so-subtle message from the media and everyone around me) I did not deserve my favorite part of a meal. I felt like I really didn't deserve food at all until my bones were showing. This became part of every single meal, regardless of what it was. I'd eat the bit I didn't really care for as much, but would feel so unsatisfied, I often ate most of my favorite part as well. Then I'd feel guilty.
Mind you, these were not massive meals with second helpings, but whatever was given to me at school, from a restaurant, or at home. My sister often finished her meals, but she was skinny. I thought, well, she's allowed to finish her food because she doesn't have to lose weight. She deserves to enjoy every bite. I don't; not until I'm skinny, too.
This belief that I didn't deserve to enjoy food - or even to have any - was one that followed me into my twenties. Unfortunately, it would get worse before it got better. This week, I'm going to write about my experiences with dieting, fasting, diet pills, and detox teas. But Friday's post will be about how I turned it around and learned how to enjoy life, my body, and food. I hope you'll join me this week for all of it!
To get involved, or for more information or help, please check out the links below from the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA):
NEDA’s Confidential Screening Tool: nationaleatingdisorders.org/screening
Body Acceptance Challenge: nationaleatingdisorders.org/bodychallenge
NEDA Helpline & Click to Chat: nedawareness.org/get-help/helpline