9:37am: I’m dipping a chocolate chip cookie straight from the freezer into my coffee. This will tide me over until the banana bread is done.
A few years ago I would never have conceived of baking a loaf of banana bread for just myself or eating cookies without running 6 miles first. Throughout my early 20s I counted every single calorie I consumed. This rigid system of punishment and reward allowed me to disassociate from my body and push it to the limits of exercise and food restriction.
My body first became an obstacle to overcome the summer following my sophomore year of college while I was back home for the summer. I’d exercised more and lost some weight that previous semester without any real intention behind it. It was framed as a huge achievement when I came home and suddenly “complements” about my shrinking figure started pouring in from friends, family and strangers alike.
“You’re so skinny I hate you”
“That hard work is paying off I can almost fit my hand around your thigh”
“You look amazing”
Had I paid closer attention, or not been dizzy for an entire year straight, I might have better understood the harm layered underneath these comments. That’s a lie. Even if I could, I didn’t want to. Instead I strained these messages into a murky broth of praise (low sodium, fat free) and slurped it up, feeling sustained by my newly achieved sense of self worth.
That summer I worked as a nanny and spent 11 hours a day driving three young boys all over the city of Chicago to their various summer camps and sports practices. Each location conveniently offered me workout amenities and limited food options that were easy to pass on as I felt a sheer thrill from turning down “bad” foods. Resisting temptations like cheese fries at the pool snack shop, candy bars from vending machines, or an ice cream cone after practice left me with a buzzing sensation - a feeling I now more accurately identify as low blood sugar. I still remember one brutally hot day driving home on the Dan Ryan Expressway with an extra McFlurry melting, untouched in the cupholder next to me the entire ride. “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” This is a thing I honestly truthfully seriously thought to myself. It physically hurts to type that statement now and I’ve concluded Kate Moss had never tasted anything besides a cough drop when she made that infamous statement. But at the time, I gleaned a sense of moral value and superiority from my own discipline.
I’d arrive home to my parents’ house after a long day of chasing kids and avoiding food just to head right back out the door for my nightly 5K run. Finally, I would wobble to the table for dinner with and “reward” myself with my first real meal of the day. I had recently become a vegetarian — an act of further control — and would carefully fill my plate with just enough veggies and low-fat carbs to keep my body functioning while continuing to shrink it. I recall with horror one such evening where I screamed at my dad for putting too much olive oil on the asparagus he was about to grill.
Not surprisingly, I was extremely anemic that summer. I was constantly chewing ice, my lips turned blue if the temperature dropped below 71 degrees. I stopped menstruating completely and my hair started falling out by the handful a few months later.
We did not have a working scale in our house but at a routine doctor’s visit the nurse wrote in my chart that I was 114 pounds. I remember thinking I could probably round it out to an even 110 if I stopped picking at the boys’ discarded lunch scraps during the day. The doctor informed me at this same visit that my hemoglobin count was 8 grams. She then noted that my clothes were practically falling off before briefly mentioning the importance of a nutritious diet and leaving the room. I remember wondering if she was allowed to call my parents and tell them I was underweight. Part of me hoped she would.
Only one other person made a non-complimentary comment about my weight loss that summer. I was rushing the boys along after their swim practice when a teammate’s mom cornered me on the pool deck and asked point blank if I was anorexic. I somehow managed to laugh and deflect but it rattled me. I still remember each of these instances vividly, the cold sterile doctor’s office and the bright sunny pool deck, and the pit in my stomach. Underneath the pride and discipline, I knew what I was doing was causing me harm and hearing concern from someone else made a deep cut in my carefully constructed facade of a “healthy new me”.
Nothing came from those instances as far as any admission of a real problem or any major steps to seeking help. My ultimate recovery was a slow non-linear process that has taken several years. I finally started seeing a therapist a little over a year ago, and still it took months before I put all my cards on the table and shared my history of “weird” eating habits. A week later there was a new diagnosis code on my bill so I googled it. I sat staring in disbelief: anorexia nervosa. I remember a jolt of shock first, no not me — this is a mistake, followed by a flood of relief to be able to have been given a name for what I had been experiencing. I was not simply broken, vain, evil, ignorant as I had suspected. I was sick.
My own shame prevented me from naming and understanding my eating disorder even though I obsessively sought out books, interviews, and articles by people who had experienced eating disorders. I found so much comfort in the similarities in our stories, as well as the differences. So many of their illnesses were rooted in instances of severe trauma. I had no history of abuse, no sexual trauma, not even any major loss in my life. In my mind I had no justifiable reason to be anorexic, therefore couldn’t be.
Even at my lowest weight I did not resemble the images of anorexic people I used to see on 60 Minutes with feeding tubes, gaunt cheeks, bones protruding from the backs of hospital gowns. I was never that bad.
Our culture has established such harmful and inaccurate visual standards to measure and categorize bodies. We’ve been taught to see a fat person and see a body that is unhealthy, at risk, in need of transforming, certainly not capable of having an eating disorder — which of course could not be further from the truth. Thin bodies certainly are more widely accepted and still there are plenty of false assumptions made. There is a fine line between a thin body that is promoted as the epitome of health and a thin body that signals to the outside world that something is dangerously wrong. I was about ten pounds shy of crossing it.
I ache thinking about the experiences, relationships, and opportunities I ruined or missed out on over the years because I believed exposed hip bones were a prerequisite for experiencing joy. I want to slap and shake that younger version of myself until she snaps out of it. I want to stand next to her in the bathroom post-shower as she looks in the mirror for new problem areas. I want to pull her down to the cold tile floor and restrain her in a tight hold until she stops struggling and sees what a difficult and unnecessary way this is for a human to live.
Through a combination of therapy, coaching, time, and exhaustion, I’ve been making strides towards solid ground with my relationship to food. I’ve spent a lot of time unpacking my eating disorder and at the root there exists a feeling of worthlessness and a desire for control and acceptance. I think in college the world beyond my sheltered upbringing was proving to be an incredibly cruel and unjust place for so many for no reason. I was faced with the fact that the white, thin body I lived in granted me privileges that I did nothing to earn and I was filled with guilt. Hunger became a punishment and a penance. Starvation was source of validation and an all-consuming distraction I could manage privately and constantly.
I still feel shame around my low self-esteem and my place in a world that vilifies, oppresses and kills bodies that look different than mine because they look different than mine. I’m ashamed to write for the first time ever about my eating disorder during a pandemic. But hiding it doesn’t make any of this less true. I’m trying to understand it, how we can hold so much concern and compassion for others and simultaneously be so cruel and absorbed with our own bodies.
It’s a warm fuzzy notion to speak of this as if it’s all in the past, but I still struggle more than I’d like anyone to ever know, truthfully. There are days where I feel like I’m sliding back into old ways of restricting and bargaining and then comes the embarrassment: I know better and, still, I don’t. It can feel like evidence that I’m not “better”.
Quarantined alone in a studio apartment, I’m faced with my issues around food often. I used to think my body could not be trusted to make decisions about what and when to eat. Not simply out of a fear of gaining weight, but failure to maintain control in the moment. The idea that eating can be intuitive and that your body can be nourished and healthy at any size is difficult to absorb when low self-esteem and an entire dieting industry are constantly screaming otherwise. Most days I enjoy the act of cooking for myself and I make things that sound good, like banana bread at 9am.
Other days, the frightening voice that has remained mostly quiet the past year or so chimes in without warning. When it shows up it follows me around with a brutal, nonsensical, and deafening loop.
are you really going to eat that, oh are we doing pasta again, why can’t you just be satisfied, way too much oil, dessert or wine not both bitch, stop that’s enough, three cookies three miles, you don’t deserve, you’ve already had, you shouldn’t, you can’t you can’t you can’t you can’t.
This shelter-in-place period has me often feeling like a bruise on a shinbone waiting to find the edge of a coffee table. People are more isolated physically and emotionally than they’ve ever been. I certainly am. I feel so much tenderness towards people currently living with eating disorders during this pandemic. Then I think about people who are struggling to put food on the table for their families and I feel anger and self-loathing. When I was in the worst phase of my eating disorder, the shame, guilt, and self loathing felt unbearable at times. What keeps me typing now even in spite of my own loud criticism is thinking about what I would have given back then to get my anemic hands on someone else’s honest thoughts about their experience. It is my attempt to release this thing I’ve been keeping in isolation.
There are a few thoughts I try repeating to myself when my urges to restrict grip tightly. If nothing else, it has proven to be a more gentle approach in lieu of regularly scheduled programming of bargaining and punishment.
I exist in a living, breathing body.
There is no guarantee I will have any other body than this one so I give myself permission to treat it kindly.
This body needs nourishment to survive, and it will work very hard to do just that with whatever kinds of food I am able to provide it.
Whether I gain weight or lose weight, this holds no moral value and contributes nothing to my worth. I am worthy of the space I take up because I exist.
Honestly, some days those thoughts just don’t resonate and just try and trust I am part of a bigger picture. This pandemic, this threat of illness, is a frightening reminder that I value my life and the lives of others over everything else right now. This continues to simplify a lot of things for me. If I became sick I would not worry about my arm flab. My body, no matter its size or weight or what I feel it’s worth, will continue showing up for me.
It’s hard to write about all of this and not cringe in anticipation of judgement. I fear it will come as a total surprise to many people who know me. I fear also it won’t surprise them, that this hasn’t been the well-kept secret I thought. I am afraid this will be seen as an effort to gain sympathy, paint myself a victim, or shrug responsibility for the ways my behavior has harmed people in my life and prevented me from showing up in ways I know I could have. This is an attempt to do the opposite. I recognize if I continue to wait until I feel like a better person before I have permission to start showing up and using my body, my voice, and my privilege to support other people and myself I will sit and wait forever.
Occasionally I catch myself promising that once this is all over I can join a gym and diet and eventually return to the same body as before.
What’s silly about that is this: it will be the same body. The same body I’ve always been in and will always be in. And if all goes well, then the ways in which I inhabit and treat this body will never return to the way it was before.
Right now I’ve to go get this banana bread while it still has that raw gooey part in the middle that I love.