In many previous blog posts, I have alluded to it. I have used it as an example of the dangers of perfectionism, as evidence of my own prideful nature, and as a point of reference to show how I’ve grown.
The “monster,” as my journal refers to it.
The eating disorder.
It’s something I can only really recognize in foresight and hindsight.
I remember Googling “symptoms of eating disorder” or “am I anorexic” as a frightened sixteen-year-old. However, while I was frightened by my sudden aversion to the healthy-sized portions of a growing teenager and by the falling number on my bathroom scale, I was also fascinated.
There is (or, at least, was) a romance to an eating disorder. It’s wrong that this is the case and I hate to think that I was not only drawn in by it, but desired it. Being thin became part of my self-adopted identity. Being able to function on an unrealistically low amount of food became a point of pride. Being able to wrap my hands more than completely around my thigh was a source of security.
The media’s portrayal of the female ideal was possibly a factor, but I can’t solely blame magazine covers or fashion models. It was my perception. It was what I chose to exalt that I then chose to embody. And it was not just magazines. In fact, I could care less about magazines. It was about my image, sure, but it was also about my whole person; I was not necessarily trying to be the same measurements as Taylor Swift, but I was trying to have the control that celebrities and models seemed to represent. Sure, I wanted to be thin, but on a deeper level, I wanted to be in control.
This struggle was made worse by what I chose to focus on not just in media, but in my own area of passion: literature.
Scarlett O’Hara’s “seventeen-inch waist, the smallest in three counties” became an obsession, regardless of whether organ-damaging corsets were the true cause of her tiny size.
Erik, Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, was another odd ideal. If the genius artist only needed one meal a day, why should I need more?
Worst of all was a book called Wintergirls. It is literally about characters battling anorexia and I secretly consumed chunks of it every once in a while in the school library. First, I read it with intrigue, then disgust. I vowed I’d never let my eating get as bad as those characters. And I suppose I didn’t. But oh, how close I came, I fear that my mindset was no better than theirs.
I could go on incriminating book characters, actors, and even ordinary people from my day-to-day life who happened to be naturally thin, but ultimately it was not a matter of their sizes or eating habits, but my own skewed perspective. This I can recognize in hindsight. At the beginning of the slippery slope, I knew something was off, but the intrigue and distractions lead me further down the hole.
Not only was I curious to see if I too had the makings of a petite Southern Belle or angsty artist, but I was able to hide this temptation toward disordered eating behind distractions. Literature and music, my two loves, became curtains to obscure what was taking center stage in my attention. If I was hungry, I would take a meagre portion to my room and read as I nibbled slowly, hoping to escape far enough into a story to forget that I was still hungry. Or, worse maybe, I would not allow myself food until I’d finished my allotted practice time. By then, I’d be past knowing how hungry I was and would be contented with another tiny meal.
But I knew I had a problem. I just went about fixing it in all the wrong ways.
Instead of realizing worth apart from my external appearance, I would search “healthy-sized celebrities” and continue to compare myself as if adding “healthy” to the Pinterest search made it rational and helpful. I would bring extra snacks to school to reassure my parents…which I would force my friends to share with me. I would take quizzes to self-diagnose myself with the disorder as if by accepting that I had one it would take care of itself or, worse, be a valid part of my identity.
I was always hungry and always balanced on the edge between total control and loss of control. In fact, I found that in trying to have complete control in my life, I lost control. I was never a rebellious teenager in the traditional sense, but I lashed out at my family. I would make a point of ordering “healthy” foods when we went out to eat as if that made me better than those eating burgers. I would retreat to my room or the park where I liked to walk more and more frequently.
I started to recover only with time and I know that I will never stop battling the “monster.” I do not aim to offer a step-by-step recovery manual, nor to I really know if I have any advice worth sharing. But what really started me thinking toward recovery – seriously considering and beginning to act – was talking to people who had either 1) been through a similar struggle and/or 2) worked with those who had.
I was lucky. My parents, so concerned for my well-being and tired of fighting the monster that I had allowed to take over, nearly sent me to a rehabilitation center. That was my wakeup call and I agreed to go to a nutritionist instead. To this day, I remember her as one of the kindest and most helpful people I have ever had the joy to meet. She explained how common this problem is and prescribed a healthy, nourishing diet to help me slowly gain weight. I was scared. By this time, I had zip-lined over the rainforest, held a tarantula, given speeches in front of large crowds, performed in competitions, etc. But this– the mere thought of gaining ten pounds –was a challenge I didn’t know if I could face. And I didn’t, not really.
My parents did. And the nutritionist did. And, though there were many nights where I suffered setbacks (for instance, once I sobbed over being “forced” to eat a scoop of ice cream), slowly I gained weight.
And then lost it.
But, though I had only gained half of what I needed to be at the bare minimum weight, I was happier. Simply eating a normal amount and eating with people was starting to work a physical change, which was a step toward a general change for the better. Have you ever been hangry? You can’t make decisions and happiness seems an annoyance when you’re hangry.
Imagine begin hangry for two years. Now, imagine it’s your own fault that you’re hangry, adding self-disgust to the irritation. But, do you know how good a bite of food makes you feel after too long without it? Instant relaxation.
As I returned to a normal eating habit, I did not gain the weight back all at once, but I felt a peace. I could think more clearly. For someone who loves nothing more than deep thought, I hate to think of the time I wasted in a cloudy state.
And, as I grew more comfortable with myself (honestly, I just needed time and nourishment, like any living thing), I started spending more time with friends. I stopped retreating, started going out for ice cream randomly with my best friend, as all high schoolers should. I stopped comparing my body to others and instead focused on developing friendships with them. This isn’t to say I didn’t have friends before, but those relationships became so much more wonderful when I got out of my own head and realized that the beauty of others does not detract from my own, but that we are more beautiful when we come to appreciate each other without comparison.
The freshman fifteen in college really did the trick, I think. In a land where donuts are inescapable, I was terrified I would gain weight. But, when I inevitably did, I found that instead of being depressed and ugly, I was happy. As a music major and honors scholar, my schedule was and is ridiculous and I have a million commitments every day. And, you know what? Without even meaning to, I prioritized those commitments over my image.
For a year or so, I definitely still curled my hair and I still believe firmly that a swipe of lipstick can make all the difference. However, going away to college and pursuing new studies and relationships and jobs, I realized in reality what rationally I knew all along: There are far more important things than my pant size and than how little I can eat.
I also started running which, in itself, could have been a disaster. It could have turned into exercise bulimia. I could have tried to run off anything I ate. But I was not running alone, just as my family and friends had not let me travel the path of recovery alone. Right away, I told my running friend about my struggle with eating and body image and he to this day asks me how I am doing. When we set out for a run, he would (and sometimes still does) ask me how I had eaten that day and if I was doing alright.
Running brought me a new support system in this friend. It also alleviated the anxiety that had lead me to seek control over eating. Also, it helped me learn to be more focused on taking care of my actual body than my body image. It is so much better to have muscular legs from regular exercise than to have a thigh gap from avoiding food. I used to hate these strong legs, but now I am thankful every time I lace my running shoes that they are built to endure the race I am bound to run.
In hindsight, I can say that I have overcome a lot of this issue and the mindset behind it, but I cannot say that I have overcome it fully. I will battle this monster daily, though now it is tamed and nearly forgotten. I might be healthy and have the hearty appetite of a 21-year-old, but I am still a perfectionist.
I am still tempted to pride.
I still desire control and hold myself to standards I know I can never achieve.
But, looking back, I am realizing that in this struggle, I have been purged (no pun intended, I swear). I have been brought low in seeking to make something higher of myself and, in hindsight, I can see how far I have come, but also that it was not of my own efforts.
By grace alone was I saved from sin and death and by grace alone I am being continually restored in the Image of my Lord. Only now can I look back and see that while I was striving to make myself into an image I had deemed desirable, I was in fact being unmade. I was being stripped of my pride and brought to a point of devastation so that I could be remade in an image, not of myself, but of the One who had saved me so many years before and continues to shape me day by day.
In the depths of an eating disorder, God brought forth order. He reordered me, bringing me from my self-made chaos into the calm assurance of His promise. I yet stumble and am tempted, but I know that no image I might mistakenly pursue can compare to the one which, through His death and resurrection, He has and is recreating in me.