Today’s post is a little off the beaten path of the recipes and running tips I usually focus on. It’s about National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. When I was younger, some adults gave me the impression that eating disorders were a ‘privileged’ issue, something only the ‘lucky’ few might face, because they were not actually starving in a third world country or right here in the United States. Others understood that eating disorders affect many people, but limited the definition of a ‘real’ eating disorder to anorexia and bulimia. Those notions needs to change, and the National Eating Disorders Association works to spread the message that all kinds of people, no matter their gender, race, or socioeconomic background, develop eating disorders that can manifest in very different ways, and that it is essential to respond compassionately to ensure a return to health and happiness for all.
This issue is especially important to me because I struggled on and off with an eating disorder for nearly a decade – almost half my life to date. I no longer seek to hide this part of my past, but I also don’t allow it to define me, which is why I haven’t written about it. Now, in recognition of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I feel that it’s time to share my own story. It’s long and winding, so feel free to stop here and wait to read the next post, but please do visit NEDA to learn more.
I’ve probably worn this shirt to run a hundred times since purchasing it last winter. It’s comfortable, moisture-wicking, and I got it on super-sale. But yesterday I noticed something on the inner hem for the first time. While I love motivational quotes in general, and happen to enjoy most of the ones printed on Lululemon totes and clothes, I think this particular choice of words was in poor taste. It seems innocuous, but the fact is that I do not run for skinny jeans, and not just because you’ll rarely find me in jeans. I run for health and fitness, mental and physical, and because I truly love to, not to achieve a certain body type.
I’ll keep wearing the shirt, of course, because it would be a waste not to, and because I love the color. But I will always remember the first time I stood in front of a mirror and felt bad about myself because I was ‘fat’ – when I was 8 years old. Third grade. I was barely 4 feet tall and well under 50 pounds. I was constantly mistaken for a kindergartner, and wore clothes sized to fit one. But I had grown just a bit, and so my favorite skirt was difficult to button. I’d heard the older girls at school and camp and ballet talking about fitting in to a certain size. I no longer fit into my old size. I knew I wasn’t fat in the typical sense of the word, but I also wasn’t the absolute thinnest girl. I look at photos of myself at that age, and I was small and slim, and I don’t know how I could have thought otherwise. But I was already looking at myself in the way of body dysmorphia, for whatever reason, because of a skirt the same lovely shade of cornflower blue as the running top I wore for yesterday’s workout.
I struggled with the typical insecurities of most middle school girls, but didn’t complain about my looks to others while secretly hoping to be shouted down; instead, I let the feelings of not being quite pretty or thin or vivacious enough take over from the inside. It was as if a tiny monster lived inside my head, a voice constantly ready to tell me that I just wasn’t ‘good enough’, whatever that meant. I was lucky to have a close group of friends at ballet, which also meant I was isolated from the middle school social scene. A lot of people tend to look at ballet, and gymnastics, and figure skating, and a host of other activities as ’causes’ of eating disorders. But I would never blame ballet for the way I felt. I would look around the studio and feel the pressure to look perfect as I pirouetted across the floor, and of course I saw eating-disordered behaviors up close. Yet it’s just as easy to witness in a school cafeteria or camp bunk as in a ballet studio. Middle school was when I first went on a diet, when I began memorizing the number of calories in every possible food and counting them religiously. Can I say with certainty that ballet didn’t influence me any more than the media, or schoolmates, or the inborn tendency to chase perfection? Of course not. But it wasn’t until I left ballet that I let that little voice overpower my powers of reason, and my habits became truly unhealthy.
By high school, I had become totally fixated on calories. In leaving ballet, I lost a little of my identity. I had always defined myself as a dancer, and at 14 I felt (as most teenagers do) that I didn’t fit in anymore. Food was within my control. And it was surprisingly easy to ‘fix’ my eating. None of the adults in my life were aware that I was skipping meals or eating erratically. My parents had no idea. My nanny cooked dinner most nights, but none of them were around for the entire day prior, so I could get away with using my lunch money to buy a diet soda and gum without detection. I cut my calories drastically for days or weeks on end. I would usually ‘fail’ and eat normally afterwards, hating myself all the while. But even 5-pound swings were critical to me. I was a prisoner to the scale. While my friends noticed, it’s tough for teenage girls to help one another when they’re unsure themselves of what to do, and I learned to lie to them as easily as to myself, saying I was just trying a new routine. The theme of the NEDA awareness week is “I Had No Idea” and that’s because it’s incredibly common, not just for friends and family not to know, but for an individual not to understand. I didn’t consider myself to be someone with an eating disorder. I wasn’t ‘good enough’ at starving to be anorexic, and I wasn’t bulimic. My obsessive calorie counting and advance planning to ensure I could stay within my limit, so exhaustive that I recorded every morsel that passed my lips for a combined total of at least five years? In my mind, I was just ‘health conscious’.
Everything changed in college. The first term, eating unfamiliar British food, drinking more, and wanting to appear to eat like everyone else as best I could, I gained ten pounds in two months. My allergies were limiting of course, but I’m not allergic to potatoes, or butter, or chocolate, which are all wonderful foods in appropriate quantities but not the way I was consuming them. For the first time in my life, I truly was chubby for my height. I couldn’t fit into half my clothes, and it was noticeable enough for my parents to comment on when I came home for Christmas break. I resolved to lose the weight ‘healthfully’ when I went back to school in January. But falling back into restriction was so easy. I lost those ten pounds by spring break. And then I kept going. There were other things in my life causing me anxiety at the time, and food was still so much easier to ‘fix’ that I ended up losing ten more. I wasn’t medically underweight, but I was unhealthy in other ways. The gnawing in my stomach wasn’t hunger, it was fear of food, a fear that haunted me and preyed on my deepest insecurities.
Some people complimented me on how skinny I looked, failing to notice that my under-eye circles from lack of sleep were more prominent, I was paler, and my cheekbones didn’t jut out like a model’s – they were strange signs that something wasn’t quite right. Sure enough signs that others did notice, especially my closest friends at school. Neither of my parents recognized my eating disorder for what it was, but they did see the anxiety, and sent me to talk to someone. It was then that I spoke for the first time about what I had put myself through for years, someone who was actually in a position to listen and offer help. That experience, along with the help of my friends at Oxford, put me permanently on a better path. I will always be grateful for the admirable way in which they handled my ‘situation’. They waited for me to come to them, and when I did, they were shoulders to cry on, helping hands to ensure I didn’t fall into unhealthy habits, and generally just amazing presences in my life.
Saying out loud that I had an eating disorder was a turning point. If I didn’t have anything ‘wrong with me’ then there was nothing to do or fix. But something was wrong, and I have worked every day since to make it right, to be prepared to conquer anxiety about the present, worries about the future, and the feeling that I just couldn’t find my place in the world instead of fixing those by ‘fixing’ my food. It’s been more than a year since I truly struggled. Of course, there are days when I’m frustrated with how I look or feel. But I can safely say that nobody and nothing will ever again convince me that I’m not ‘good enough’. I’ve learned to embrace the things that make me myself, and realize that because we are all unique, we are all a little weird and different in some ways to pretty much everyone else on the planet, and more than being okay, that’s actually a good thing.
Like I said, my closest friends have helped me every step of the way, and I owe so much to them. And though it may seem counterintuitive, running and cooking also got me here. When I started running, I began to think more about food as fuel, without which I couldn’t do something I loved. I began to focus more on health than a number on the scale. And I got interested in learning to make my own fuel, because so much for runners is all gluten-y and generally unappealing, and I fell in love with being able to make meals not just for me, but to share with friends and family. I realized that, far from the fears I had in high school about not being able to give myself a label or live up to external expectations, I am happier and my life so much fuller when I make time for everything that brings me joy – whether it’s running or cooking, spending time with friends or curling up alone with a good book, volunteering or traveling – all the things that made me call myself Renaissance Runner Girl.
I can’t erase the past. I can’t take back the time I spent learning the number of calories in every conceivable thing I might eat, and I can’t un-know it. I read articles in the news about how most Americans have no idea what’s in their food, and while I understand that ignorance is certainly not bliss in this situation, I do wonder what it would be like not to know. But that’s not possible. So instead, I do what I can do. I know, but I accept it, and try not to let it influence my choices. I eat when I’m hungry and eat what I’m hungry for. This results in my eating snacks and mini-meals all day long, but that’s what works for me, and I don’t really care if it’s not how most people eat (I’m sorry if my crunching on apples with peanut butter in class at 11am is annoying, it isn’t going to stop). I experiment with new recipes and taste the fruits of my labor. Over the past couple of years, I’ve exercised more and eaten more than ever before, and I feel great. Other than generally having a wonderful time at the Walt Disney World Half Marathon, I was proud of myself for being able to enjoy all the gluten-free goodness and just eat, truly distancing myself from calorie acknowledgment for an entire week. Now, I’m getting ready to host my first dinner party, cooking for others and sharing the joy in food with family and friends I was denied for so long. I just hope that others who trod the same path can find a new way forward as well, and I’m enormously appreciative that NEDA exists and is working to spread the word.
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