Bad Advice On How To Shrink

The pressure to represent my country positively affected my eating disorder negatively

Ciela Gonzalez
Jan 24 · 6 min read
Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash
  1. Have your French teacher tell you about eating disorders. With enough prompting, she will pull up Google Images and show you people that look barely alive. “Skin-sheathed skeletons,” she will call them. You will learn that society has a very established opinion of the two best-known eating disorders, anorexia, and bulimia. We feel we know everything — or, at any rate, enough — about someone once we know they manage one of these. Anorexia is a young girls’ disease, and it afflicts those who are shallow and obsessed with their looks. Amongst those more informed, there is a single additional layer of complexity: those with anorexia (but not bulimia) are often perfectionists, and the calorie-counting, macro-tracking and weight-logging serve as something to carefully manage when people feel like their lives are spinning out of their hands. Anorexia is about control.
  2. Between the winter of 2013 and the spring of 2014, lose over 30 pounds.
    Make it your second (serious) relapse into the eating disorder that you have managed, with varying degrees of success, for the past four years. If you were never truly overweight to begin with, by the end of freshman year of high school you might as well be made of gas. Your jawline will be painfully prominent, every bone showing under a layer of lanugo and taut grey skin. Your hair will fall out and you’ll learn to survive on about 500 calories a day. After getting shooting pains in your left arm, chest and neck when you sprint up a flight of stairs, a doctor will explain that the walls of your aorta have grown precariously thin. You will be threatened with a feeding tube and a stint in a clinic should you fail to gain any weight within the next two weeks. When your mom asks you that day whether you think you look good, with her voice climbing dangerously high, you will answer that you do not. She will tell you that you scare people on the street, that you look like you’ve already died, and you will know that these statements are true. While you do suffer from body dysmorphia — as you will find out years later, when you find yourself unable to recognize yourself in a decade’s worth of pictures — it will never be bad enough that a fat person taunts you from behind the mirror. You will know exactly what you are doing to your body, and you will be prepared — or so you will think — to deal with the fallout of your actions.
  3. Upon a first psychological exam, tick some of the boxes for a textbook anorexic: a teenager, (arguably) a girl, a well-known overachiever. Do not bring up the darker undercurrent in the lead-up to your eating disorder, despite it being prominent and, on second thought, obvious. Do not bring up that Mexico is recognized as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women. Do not bring up that you grew up in a nation governed by a Narcogobierno, with your dad nearly driving through a shootout and escaping by the skin on his teeth when you were twelve. Do not bring up the violent deaths scattered throughout your formative years at intervals just long enough that every time they take you by surprise. Do not bring up that a month before your relapse turned from anxiety and negative thoughts to uncontrolled behaviors, a dead man was hauled out of a pick-up truck and thrown at his family’s feet in front of your eyes. It will be easy not to bring it up, because at the time you will not know any other way. You will not know that five years later the daily femicide rate in Mexico will climb to ten, and thousands of furious, terrified women will march out on the streets to demand the right to live without fear. No one else will bring it up either, because no one else knows any better.
  4. Get better. Not well, but better. With only periodical interventions needed to keep you above a dangerously low weight and after moving to a different country, you will almost forget that which you have never put into words.
  5. Gain weight. Actually gain weight, all the weight you lost, and bring all the emotions rushing back. This time, notice them. Notice how you’ve stopped wearing proper bras and instead opt for sport bras whenever you leave the house. Notice the array of sweatshirts that have taken up residence in your closet, and how you’ve worn nothing but long sleeves for months: your girlfriend will comment on how before you had sex, she had never seen so much as your shins. Notice how even though you have come to respect your body, how despite your indifference to what it looks like and the fondness that you have developed for your stretch marks, tattoos and imperfections, you feel the constant need to apologize for it. Refuse to try and lose weight for fear of a relapse, but notice that you’ve begun slouching and reflexively crossing your arms in front of your chest, and it has nothing to do with your breasts getting heavier. Notice how the extra space you take up makes you feel nauseatingly, dangerously visible. Notice how you every time you travel back home you lose ten pounds within the first three weeks. Notice that although you love seeing your parents and your friends, your hometown has become haunted.
    Now that you’ve noticed it — the anxiety around imagined stares and the sweat on your palms when your legs show, the bile that sloshes loudly around your stomach at the thought of being seen — name it. Go on, it’s not hard, you can pack it all up in a single word.
    It’s fear.
  6. For months after this epiphany, convince yourself that you have no business admitting the root of your illness to anyone else. Spend weeks nearly bringing it up in therapy and then chickening out at the last second. Tell yourself that you didn’t have it that bad, that you had loving parents and a house in a relatively safe neighborhood. That although people stared and whistled, no one ever touched you — or never touched you that badly, at any rate. Mexico already has a bad rep and you — you a Mexican that has already half betrayed her country because of where you chose to study and the color of your skin, you an immigrant with all the privileges of an American and a background that doesn’t match the narrative on either side, you a Whitexican, you a media-gringa, you too foreign for here and too foreign for home, you with the untraceable accent and the parents educated in France, you letting people call you a name that isn’t yours because teaching them to roll their r’s is too much effort, you speaking Spanish with slang that hasn’t been hip since 2015, you writing all of this in English — you have no business giving it more bad press. Just as we have a single story of anorexia, the U.S. has a single story of Mexico, and while you know it to be false — you know Mexico to be a place of unbelievable beauty, compassionate people, an overwhelmingly happy childhood and endless treasured memories — others do not. The role that Mexico played in the development of your disease, with its failed government, unchecked violence and brutal sexism, is too similar to the role that it plays on the collective consciousness of the United States. Impairing proper recovery and letting people have incorrect assumptions about you based on your mental illness will, for a time, seem preferable to admitting that for years you shrunk yourself to look like a child because a grown woman’s body felt too dangerous to inhabit, because you risk confirming a simplified, xenophobic stereotype of your country.
  7. Eventually, grow tired. Write a speech on your phone and read it out loud to your therapist. Explain your fear, and the fears around your fear. She will nod, and she will ask about your childhood and about your country. She will apologize for never taking into consideration the cultural context that you have grown up in, or the pressure to positively represent a country that many of us have undeniably left in search of a better life. She will change the approach with which she treats you, and you will start wearing T-shirts and normal bras again, even if in times of stress you revert back to hiding tactics.
  8. Schedule a Christmas trip for home, this time armed with the knowledge of what your hometown did to you despite your love and pride for it. Whether or not this newfound awareness has served you, only time will tell.

Invisible Illness

We don't talk enough about mental health.

Ciela Gonzalez

Written by

Mexican. Daughter, student, sister, human. I write about Eating Disorders, mental health, culture shock, and other human afflictions.

Invisible Illness

We don't talk enough about mental health.

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