If memory serves (it doesn’t always, but let’s assume it does for argument’s sake), I have been preoccupied with food for my entire young life.
When I was very young it took its form in full-out rebellion, including extreme refusal to abide by any of my mother’s rules around what and when I could eat. I would sneak into the kitchen and steal fried chicken cutlets right off of their paper towel beds, the grease collecting on the then-see-through white cotton. I would scamper into the long-abandoned fancy dining room, shoving the cutlet into my mouth and scarfing it down, my heart hammering heavily in my ears, terrified and excited at the idea of being caught crumb-handed. The chicken would burn my tongue and the roof of my mouth, particles of breadcrumbs falling every which way and sticking to my chapped lips, and I would tell myself no one will notice if one more is missing. Repeated trips from the kitchen to the stale dining room eventually turned “one more” into a noticeable dent, and any appetite I had for dinner would be completely ruined. Shame would quickly fill the void left by absent adrenaline and secrecy, and my brain would fog into numbness.
This was middle school. This was my pattern.
Being told I was too fat by the doctors. Told not to eat this, that, and the other by my mother. Told I was a failure by myself.
The disordered eating patterns, depression, anxiety, and body image issues that colored my adolescence did not develop into a full-blown eating disorder, however, until late into my high school career.
This is when I lost my fire; my fight; my inner warrior; myself.
I was no longer inhaling dinner in the shadows of my house, but my obsession with food had grown. I had figured out how to make it my bitch (or so I thought). I had figured out how to calculate and measure and manipulate. I became the girl who lost all the weight; the girl who packed the healthiest lunches; the girl who was once known for being oh-so-smart was now oh-so-pretty. I went to a tiny high school, and people noticed when I dropped a significant amount of weight. They treated me differently. They paid attention to me in ways they never had before. They knew me as the girl who conquered being fat; the girl who had “filled out” in just the right ways; just the right figure.
I wish they had known how their praise and commentary kept me going.
I wish they had known how I religiously weighed myself every single morning, taking every single scrap of clothing off (even my clunky watch) to be sure the weigh-in was as low as it could possibly be. I wish they had known that I spent every waking hour pouring over recipes and food porn, visually drinking in the taboo to which I was only allowed if my calorie count allotted for it. I wish they had known that I measured my success for the day by whether or not I went to sleep with my stomach screaming at me, gurgling and growling with lack of nutrients to carry me through the night. I wish they had known that every weekend I calculated my new BMI and measured my new waist-to-hip ratio and calculated just exactly how many calories I would have to slash from my diet to lose a certain number of pounds by a certain date. I wish they had known that I always hated math, that I was never good at it, but that I excelled in the math that was my body chemistry; I was a pro, with numbers and figures memorized, adding up, multiplying, and dividing them with such speed that my high school math teacher would have been proud.
I wish they had known that, eventually, the girl with perfectly portioned meals and enviable weight loss couldn’t take it any more. That my preoccupation with food had only grown, grown so large that it overtook me like a heavy gust of wind on a chilly fall day, knocking me down and carrying me away. I wish they had know that I couldn’t take it any more; that the girl with the perfect self-control had lost it all in nightly binges, her stomach revolting and her brain going into survival mode. I wish they had known that the life-blood of the latter half of my high school existence was plagued not by my schoolwork that I was so diligently known for, but by the mirror. Body-checking every day. Rationalizing food choices every day. Until I just couldn’t any more.
I wish they had known that I had given up, while still clinging to it all for dear life. Still clinging to my magic numbers, while everything else unraveled beneath my ever-aching fingertips.
I wish they had known that giving up was not, in fact, a failure. That giving up is what saved me.
I wish they had known that I needed to hear that.
I wish I had known I was a warrior.
By the end of high school I was engaging in full-out binges throughout the day, taking sanctuary in the quiet hours of my house when no one was home. There was a week during the summer before my freshman year of college that I was left entirely alone. I spent those seven days on the couch, trips to the pantry and the fridge my only reprieve from mindless television, the food passing my lips but never tasting like much of anything. I kept myself in a constant state of numb, the amount of food I had ingested making me so full that it hurt to breathe, and filling my body with a heaviness; a weight. I sunk into that couch and stayed there, my mind reeling only with thoughts of what I could eat next that maybe would taste the way I wanted it to; what I could eat next that maybe would lighten the bricks that I had stacked upon my own chest.
There isn’t any food in the world that can cure that heaviness.
Going away to college gave me a breath of new life. I was going to be someone else, a fun girl, not the smart girl. The pretty girl. The skinny girl. The fun girl.
That, of course, meant that while my summer bingeing had reached an all-time high, it was time to “buckle down” and lose the weight I had gained. For the first year I yo-yoed with my own mind, intent on weight loss, but only succeeding in restricting and bingeing, restricting and bingeing, over and over until finally I just gave up again and relished in eating eating eating. This was the end of my freshman year.
I tried to find my new savior in healthy the summer before my sophomore year of college. Healthy food, healthy lifestyle, healthy healthy healthy. I became a gluten-free vegan, and my fixation went from calories to food choice. I prayed at the altar of clean eating and voraciously consumed books and documentaries to my heart’s content, convinced that I had finally found the answer. So much so that my new decided career path developed, that of a writer for a healthy food magazine. I channeled my fixation into every aspect of my life, pouring over recipes and food articles, writing for the Health and Food sections of the school publication, obsessed with cookbooks for vegan swaps and gluten-be-gone solutions.
And all the while I just kept bingeing.
All the while I still hated what I saw in the mirror.
All the while I still refused to wear shorts and still felt uncomfortable walking around in my own body.
All the while, all I felt was shame and failure.
All the while, I tightened my hold on my restrictions and my fear foods, wrapped myself in rules and declarations of health, bound myself so tightly that my ribs began to cave under the pressure, even as my bingeing inflated me like a balloon.
I became the health nut. I became the crazy, healthy girl.
I wish they had known that the tighter I squeezed, the more I wrapped, and the harder I held on, the more the disorder consumed me. That my entire life trajectory had been dictated and manipulated by my disorder.
I wish they had known that I didn’t know who I was without it.
Letting go of the shame and the rules and the ideas about what it means to be beautiful is the only way I found myself in recovery. Finding who I am, at the core of it all, is something I have only been able to do because I stopped letting my eating disorder dictate who I am and how I lead my life.
I wish people knew that I only found my fire again when I doused the demons within. That I only found myself again when I let go of the things that used to define me. That my passion for social justice and my thirst for knowledge were squashed under the weight of calorie calculations and self-hatred.
I wish people knew that it’s still a struggle, every day. That sometimes I slip. That sometimes I retreat into old coping mechanisms. That recovery is not a linear process.
I wish people knew that it isn’t just my eating disorder. That it’s the depression and anxiety and so many other things rolled up into one.
I wish people knew that it isn’t about the food. That it is an outlet; a way to glue yourself back together when everything is tearing you apart.
I wish people knew that just because I wasn’t emaciated, just because you couldn’t see the physical manifestation of my eating disorder, didn’t mean that I didn’t need help.
I wish society did not perpetuate the idea that healthy equates to skinny and that fat equates to death and the idea that the worst thing you can be in this world is fat.
I wish society did not tell us that only cisgendered, white women are impacted by this. That we were told that eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes.
I wish people told us that misogyny shapes these disorders. That diet culture is a tool of the patriarchy, and that feminism is our greatest resource for recovery.
I wish so many things.
But most of all, I wish people would see. I wish people would look. I wish people would listen. I wish people would be patient. I wish people would be compassionate and kind. I wish people would take this seriously. I wish people would take us seriously. I wish people respected our struggle.
I wish people would see us as warriors, and not fragile victims; that our fight with ourselves is just as valiant as full on combat; that we went to war with our bodies and our minds, and have come out the other side. I wish, instead of someone telling me that I needed to lose weight or look a certain way so many years ago, that someone had told me to be a warrior; that someone had told me that I am a warrior.
We are warriors.
Now listen to us roar.