Eating disorders and “normality”
I got hung up on a Tumblr post earlier. I thought of responding there, but knew this was going to turn long so opted to post here and link from there. I’ll go ahead and paste all of it in here, since I know a lot of people don’t like to click through.
What you think you know
about my ED is false. I’ve really never opened up about my eating disorder except to my therapist, my best friends Jamie and Emily, and tumblr. But now I want to tell the full story.. every detail. It’s so important that I say all of this is because history cannot repeat itself. If it did, I would definitely die (not figuratively).
So, the beginning. I always thought of myself as different throughout my life. I started puberty in fourth grade, wearing a training bra and such. I was actually once teased for wearing one, so I was really sensitive about it. By fifth grade I was wearing a bra (size 32A, but still a bra) and I got a little acne. In sixth grade I was shaving my legs and by that time I became a 34B, which is crazy for a sixth grader. Most of my classmates hadn’t even started wearing training bras yet, so I felt like a freak. Oh, and to top it all off, I was nearly a head taller than every girl in my grade. I was very sensitive about my self image and felt like an outcast… a freak.
So in seventh grade I started saying the normal things teenagers did, going out with friends after school, texting a crush, and going out to eat. Though every time I did I would always say how fat I would look afterward and how my thighs were huge. It was preposterous, but somehow I felt so much fatter and larger than all of my friends. Damn you, puberty.
By eighth grade I was 124 pounds and some of my friends were still little sticks, a size 0, under 100 pounds, and had no boobs. And for some reason, I thought they were gorgeous. I had never been so small and delicate. Mind you, I was never fat or chubby or even overweight… I was just more developed. I wore a size 5 jeans, a medium shirt, and a 36B bra. I felt huge compared to other girls in my grade. I would constantly compare myself to them and tell myself how I could look like them if I started eating healthier. So that’s what I did. I cut out greasy fatty foods and stopped eating desert and focused more on fruits and vegetables. Seems normal, right? Yeah no. I became obsessed with it. I would weigh myself 3-5 times a day and do crunches constantly. I would record everything I ate in my iPod app “Lose It!” and look up all calorie information. I would go to the YMCA every night for an hour and a half and do the elliptical nonstop and wouldn’t even break for water. I was determined to be thin and perfect like other girls in my grade. My weight was going down – and it was going down fast. I was so satisfied and I couldn’t wait to be thin.
By November I was about 115 pounds. Teachers came to me everyday and stressed their concerns about my weight loss. They would tell me to see the nurse and to eat a little more. I thought of these concerns ascompliments. It’s absolutely disgusting the way my mind worked. My friends all told me I was getting really thin, and my parents started to watch me eat. I would pretend to eat, but really stuff tons of food into my pockets when people weren’t looking. I stopped eating lunch altogether. I was crazy. I was deranged. I had anorexia.
This is what I looked like throughout my skinniest weight… Ninety three pounds.
These pictures disgust me now. I look dead, washed out, exhausted, and incredibly thin. And, the scary thing is, I was all of those things. I was like the living dead.. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t feel, I couldn’t live because I was so obsessed with my eating disorder. I felt sick all the time. I was dizzy. I constantly needed sleep even though I slept nearly 10 hours every night. I lost my period for over a year. I was dying, and I couldn’t even see it.
Recovery wasn’t easy. I was in such denial about my disorder that I thought therapy and doctor’s appointments were useless and pointless. It finally made me realize I had a problem when my mom told me “Erika. If you don’t stop this, we’ll be burying you by your father’s birthday.” I didn’t want to die. That was never the goal. I never thought I would be so fragile and breakable. I was 93 fucking pounds. If I had reached 88 I would have died. My body cannot be such a low weight.
Now I wish I could tell you I recovered in a week and was back to eating normally and gained all my weight back and I lived happily ever after. That is simply not the case, and also impossible. I was still obsessed with counting calories and measuring foods, and I could not stop recording everything I ate. I even recorded my calories at my summer camp… 6 months later. Camp is supposed to be the time where I can let go and be free but I could not let it up. It was consuming and still obsessive. Over time though I learned that eating a brownie would not make me gain thirty pounds and not recording calories wouldn’t drive me insane. It took nearly nine months of realization that my life did not have to be dominated by an eating disorder until I finally made a major turn around.
Now I’m much happier, much healthier, and much more alive. I gained all the weight back, and my body is at a normal weight and I love it. Sometimes I have days where I think I’m fat but I never ever say “I feel fat” or “If I eat that I’ll feel so fat.” I can’t think those thoughts anymore — I cannot be pushed over the edge again. I love my life, and I’m a completely changed person.
The point I’m making is that life gets better, you will be stronger, and never ever let an eating disorder consume your life. It will destroy you, and sometimes can even kill you. It takes over your life and is so hard to break out of. All of you reading this, I want you to know that everything will get better if you take the road to recovery and make a change. I believe in you. You’re absolutely beautiful.
See? Much happier and much healthier 🙂
Just needed this on my blog, kay.
I thought I’d write some about my own experience with disordered eating. Before I go further, I should probably also throw in:
Content warnings for mention of self-injury and the obvious eating disorder discussion
This girl’s account really struck me hard because the physical realities starting out were so different between us–with decades’ separation in time, too–but we followed such similar societal scripts.
And yet this stuff still gets written off as a personal display of craziness, when we take the messages about how to properly “maintain” our bodies in order to be worthy individuals to a bit of an extreme.
I have written some about my complicated relationship with my body before, but have not gone into any detail about my history of disordered eating. It’s still painful, but too important beyond the individual level not to talk about.
First off, I am naturally built like a refrigerator, by a lot of people’s standards. Many people (yes, including women) of my ethnic group are robustly built, with big shoulders, barrel chests and no butts. My ribcage is at least 45″. Besides having a large frame, I build muscle mass easily when I’m healthy. As I have mentioned more than once here before–in the context of BMI’s ridiculousness–I am currently verging on unhealthily thin, and have lost a lot of muscle mass from a combination of diabetes and a (recently recognized) vitamin D deficiency. My BMI is still 27 or 28; I mostly stay away from scales now, so can’t be exact. With the usual muscle mass, I come across looking like a short linebacker, which is rarely considered a good look for someone who is read as a woman. (OTOH, in high school they did put my male younger cousin playing defensive line at about 5’6″, which is shorter than I am. I don’t think he gets to hear a lot about how freakishly fat he is, either.)
I got my build directly from my mom. When she was emaciated from cancer, the lowest weight she ever reached while she was still able to walk and step onto a scale was 140 lbs. (At about 5’10”; I’m a couple of inches shorter, very possibly from starving myself while I was still growing.) The hospice had to frantically call around to find a volunteer to stay with her while we ran errands, needing somebody who was physically able to pick her up out of the floor if need be. Amusingly, the person they found turned out to be one of her burly cousins.
That was a bit of a wakeup call for me, even after many years of coming to terms with never being willowy. We are not small people, nor are we ever going to be.
Nor is it in any way reasonable to expect us to somehow physically diminish ourselves.
Since at least half my family is built the same way–and we’re not unusual among people of the same ethnic background–I didn’t think much about it until after I started into a school system with not so many people from the same background, where we were openly looked down on. Already at 6 or 7, I was both taller and heavier-built than most of the other kids. Suddenly I started getting to hear how fat and ugly I was, every day.
Now I know that not only was I neither fat nor butt-ugly, these socially acceptable appearance-based slurs were made to stand in for any number of ways I was different–both personally and culturally. But, at the time, I didn’t know any better than to accept that I was a fat hideous weirdo. So many different people were saying it.
(I am not suggesting that it’s somehow more acceptable to taunt people who really are fat, but to illustrate just how popular an insult it is–and how bad people can be at distinguishing who it reasonably applies to. Because it’s so unreasonable and hateful from the bottom up.)
Just to make things that much better, it was around the same time that my recently divorced biodad started verbally abusing me about my size, too. (Hint: if you don’t want big children, don’t have sex with, much less marry, people who are bigger than you are. And don’t be an abusive ass–who is understandably afraid of getting whupped by anyone physically larger–in any case.) Yes, the divorce and the school transfer were connected, and the divorce happened because of Biodad’s deteriorating behavior; but, at the time, I just felt like I’d suddenly turned into a hugely fat monster who was wrong in just about every way possible.
The first time I tried to starve myself so that people would leave me the hell alone was when I was 7 or 8. Thank goodness that did not last long, but a couple of adults did notice and were concerned. (And at least one family member gently questioned me about it–and wanted to kill Biodad, having grown up with abuse himself and having some idea where that might be heading. At last check he was still alive, BTW, though I haven’t wanted to find out if he’s as nasty-acting. ;))
But, the real disordered eating behavior didn’t kick in until late puberty. Like most kids will for good developmental reasons, I had chunked up a little, which got me even more mercilessly harassed about my size. Plus, with a little different developmental trajectory from most of the other kids (also common in my family), I hit near-adult height by 12 and was wearing a 40D. Since then, I’ve grown about half an inch and a shoe size, and my skeleton has filled out more (yay, several more inches through the ribcage! 😐 ), but otherwise, I’m pretty much the same size now.
The sexual harassment and “fat”-shaming are still hard for me to believe. And it wasn’t just coming from the other kids, though that was pretty damned intolerable; there are a disturbing number of adults who will act severely creepy dealing with a “precociously” developing girl. Not just the skeezy older men who start up the chest-staring and the street (and other) harassment, but also from women with poor boundaries and a serious lack of respect who will honest-to-goodness poke or squeeze at your new boobs and make loud comments, suggest “better” bras, etc. Bodily autonomy for kids, what’s that? 😦 For anyone who’s new here, I’m also autistic, and really don’t do well with unexpected/unsolicited touch. And all this was complicated by just not feeling like a girl in the first place. But obviously I was, since I was growing those breasts which attracted all that unwelcome attention, or something like that.
By that age, I really felt like some kind of outsized freak, and it seemed like every other word I heard was something about my gobby outsized unfeminine freakishness. So, I pretty much stopped eating at 11 or 12.
Unlike the original poster, as I’m reading what she’s saying, I wasn’t thinking explicitly of “fixing” being “overdeveloped”, per se. I just wanted to stand out less by being smaller in general. Which, yeah, did not work past a certain point given the way I was large, which led to more frustration and disordered eating behavior.
Unlike people with anorexia, I could not sustain the self-starvation, so I ended up resorting to purging. By the time I was 13 or 14, I was regularly binging and purging, while restricting my food intake and compusively exercising to “make up for it”.
From what I understand, BTW, that combination approach is not an unusual pattern. Later on in high school–through a happy accident of what therapists our insurance covered–for a while I saw Marlene Boskind-White, who quite literally wrote the book on bulimarexia. A lot of what she wrote and talked about made sense.
The lowest weight I ever got to through starving myself was about 140 lbs., myself, and people close to me were concerned and telling me I looked sick. Even my narcissistic grandmother, who had been harping on everyone’s weight (while insisting we take third helpings of rich food, or we didn’t love her *headdesk*), took the opportunity to tell me I was way too thin and needed to eat more.
But, yeah, the same 140 lbs. in a different context really did hit me hard, with how screwed-up my thinking must have been then. My mom with cancer, and me starving myself and still feeling grotesque.
And, to many people, that does sound like a very high weight. I am still painfully aware of this. At that point in my life, my goal weight was 110, which sounded “normal”. Now I suspect I wouldn’t be able to walk.
BTW, I can’t help but think that this is another reason eating disorders go unrecognized and are considered less of a problem among non-White people. Not only do we tend not to be the same size and shape as what is presented as the norm–in a variety of ways, depending on our own backgrounds–these sizes and shapes are frequently considered “wrong”. It looks a lot iffier to an unfortunate number of people when a middle- or upper middle-class White kid who is already coming closer to the ideal presented starts abusing their body. The rest of us are, on some level, expected to do something to come closer to the ideal, so it’s not seen as so much of a problem. Somebody who’s just big will still be seen as big and in this climate “wrong”, no matter how much they starve themselves–especially when professionals are used to using certain body weights as guidelines for when it becomes a Real Problem. (“Hey, you weigh 150 now? Good job with the weight loss, but would you like to see a dietician for help with that?” Never mind that your ribs are sticking out like a neglected dog’s.) Add that to a lot of mental health issues like this often being seen more as, let’s face it, a comfortably-off white girl issue both inside and outside our own communities, and sometimes people can get into some pretty bad shapes before anybody recognizes they’re having a problem.
When my mom had to stop working due to getting hurt at work and other disability when I as 14 or 15, I no longer had the opportunity to binge and purge almost every afternoon after school, as I had been doing for a couple of years. This caused a lot of distress and sneaking out to use, say, fast food restrooms. This is also the same timeframe when I started cutting myself to try to deal with some of the overload and emotional pain.
Even though this narrative may seem a bit jumbled already, I should probably throw in that short of frequent puking (which I covered up, partly because I was also vomiting involuntarily from anxiety) and the concern when I didn’t cover up very well that I was eating maybe 500 calories a day, my disordered eating was not obvious to my family. Because my mom had her own history of trying to magically shrink herself through starving, urged on by my grandmother who at one point put herself in the hospital with her kidneys trying to shut down through starving. (ETA: And she will still say “That was the best I’ve ever looked in my life, but I felt terrible!” /ETA) Her mother, in turn was a 6’3″ emaciated bulimarexic with what looked like a heavier bone structure than I’ve got. Whose own problems were bad enough that she even tried sewing up the cups of my grandmother’s bras to try to keep those unsightly fat deposits from developing in the first place and causing her trouble later. That didn’t work, besides causing pain, not surprisingly. 😐 It reminds me too much of the “virgin waxing” now. Her similarly robustly built younger sister has osteoporosis now, from regularly drinking a bottle of wine instead of eating a meal to stay overtly bony-looking. (There is naturally skinny, which is similarly OK if you’re made that way. And then there’s the “I drink wine instead of eating” look.) I didn’t know that osteoporosis could be much of a problem with the kind of big, dense bones we’ve got, but apparently so after 50+ years of abusing your body.
This is not a new pattern, of women trying to magically shrink themselves, but if anything there is more social pressure now with all the emphasis on BMI and the bullshit War on Obesity.
But, back to the story.
When I was 13, it had become obvious enough that I was depressed and having some kind of problems, that I wound up in the psych system. At 14, I was put on Prozac, which was fairly new on the market and unapproved for use with kids then–and the endocrine madness began.
Going in, I weighed probably 160. After about a year of sky-high cortisol and prolactin levels from the meds, I weighed 240 and had lost muscle mass from all the cortisol–so, more of that weight was obviously fat. I went from being a decently-proportioned carrot shape to a weird-shaped apple with toothpicks for arms and legs, chubby cheeks, and a buffalo hump. (Classic reaction to corticosteroids.) I also got hideous stretch marks–not just on my torso, but on my shoulders and upper arms too like a weightlifter–from the rapid weight gain and the Cushing’s causing thinning of the skin, which honestly made me want to kill myself at the time. Our society’s also got a lot to answer for with the oh-so-hilarious disgust approach to stretch marks.
I was absolutely terrified at the idea of anyone seeing me naked for many years. And I think all that appearance-based insecurity helped me end up involved with some amazing jerks.
And, yes, I was bulimarexic going in. This only made me further restrict my food intake and step up the compusive exercise. For a while, I was somehow living off 200-300 calories a day, and exercised until I fell over and could not stand back up for a while more than once. And the weight from the metabolic disruption kept piling on (the same metabolic disruption that gave me the type 2 diabetes in my 20s).
This is one of the major reasons I get so upset at the “oh, you just need to exercise more and watch what you eat” response to weight gain from psych meds. It does not work that way, at all, and that is not only ignorant and contemptuous but dangerous advice.
And it was the official line from medical professionals, BTW, who never connected the two things anyway. An endocrinologist I ended up seeing–for the endocrine problems which are well-known for causing massive weight gain–offered to refer me to a dietician. (I only saw him twice, as big a general “don’t worry your little head” paternalistic fuck as he was.) In the next endo’s office, two of the nurses saw fit to berate me for being so unhealthily fat–again, when I was there over endocrine problems which make you fat.
A pretty good summary of the medical incompetence in one anecdote: After I was diagnosed with a pituitary prolactinoma at 16, my mother totally freaked out, projected her fear and distress onto me, decided I was suicidal, and tricked me into the adolescent psych unit of a large teaching hospital claiming I was being admitted for extensive medical testing. Yeah, I got to see a creepy-ass endocrinologist who spent most of the time staring at my DDD-from-the-hormones boobs, telling me not to let boys play with them because it would make the galactorrhea worse (I kid you not–even better for WTFness, I identified as lesbian at the time), and going on about my future fertility. (And, on a psych unit against my will, I could not just leave the room and refuse to see him again. And he knew it. But, I’m sure he couldn’t help it with all those crazy little sluts with their boobs being all booblike at him. 😦 ) He also prescribed bromocriptine to bring down the prolactin levels, which staff dispensed in a little paper cup and carefully watched me take every morning along with the Prozac which was causing the whole damned problem in the first place.
A lot of connections never get made, IME, with people not looking at the larger patterns.
So, yeah, there were a number of bad years there–with lots of different medications because all of it made me feel worse, the weight that would not go away no matter what I did, suicidal depression, spates of bulimarexic behavior, self-injury, and more. (To go with the unrecognized autism and learning disabilities. :-|) It is honestly a miracle I am still alive; I truly did not expect to see 25, much less 35 and beyond.
Somewhere in the middle of that, my eating disorder did come out in counseling, and I got some specific help dealing with that. Marlene Boskind-White was probably the best–and most respectul–therapist I’ve ever seen. Still, the disordered behavior would still pop up whenever I was stressed enough, and my mind got caught up in the kind of compulsive loops I’ve mentioned before to try to deal with things. Some of it was really coming from the body hatred, sometimes the body hatred was a “safe” thing to channel other worries into.
I wasn’t binging and purging much once I crashed out of college–again, difficult due to circumstances–but I kept hating my grotesque body and trying to starve it into submission. While staying well over 200 lbs. in a corticosteroid distribution pattern, until I stopped taking the inappropriate meds 5 or 6 years ago.
After I moved away from home and stopped getting treated like I was crazy, not surprisingly, I started feeling less crazy. Which left me progressively more able to look at and deal with what was making me crazy to begin with. (And not feel in danger of forced treatment if I stopped taking the meds, which helped immensely.)
Part of this has involved doing a lot of mindfulness and other work on my relationship with my body. I am still not totally over hating it and considering it wrong, but the improvement there is remarkable. At this point, I have days in a row that I don’t even think about how awful my body is–and I’ve gotten better at recognizing and not starting into the OCD-style loops in the first place. Also to recognize when I’m getting triggered in a way that, in past, would send me into weeks of starvation mode. Hackneyed as it may be by now, there’s no on-off switch; learning to regard yourself more realistically is an ongoing process.
Sometimes I feel bad that it was easier to start seriously into this self-acceptance process once I’d started losing the screwed-up metabolism weight–without doing anything special at all, BTW. But, I guess it was better than never starting to wake up at all. And the attitudes I’d taken as a given seem progressively more ludicrous. As is the idea that to a lot of people, it is actual physical mass and the space a person takes up in the world that is offensive, so that you don’t have to have a high level of body fat to be “*gasp* FAT”. With a base BMI like mine, I have continued to run into lousy medical attitudes in particular. And it was only in my late 20s that I calmed down enough about it in my own mind to be able to see that these expectations sometimes being racist as hell might actually apply to me too. (Watching my mom jump all over my former GP here in the UK for being a horrible racist prick dealing with her got that particular ball rolling. Yeah, he was with me too.) The amount of “But You Don’t Look Indian!” gaslighting did not help with that, no.
But, my own thinking on the subject was so fucked-up previously that I was honest-to-goodness seeing a place where my rib cage curves outward on my back as a lump of FAT, the pectoral muscle head at my armpit which will look kind of bulgy over the top of a bra (especially if you’ve got plenty of muscle!) as FAT, the looser skin you’ll get some places after losing a bunch of weight as evidence of FAT, and so in. It is both frightening and almost embarrassing to think about. These things became more obviously not fat when I could tell rationally that I had very little body fat at all.
Still, it seems ironic that I only got into the ideas of fat acceptance and health at every size once I was no longer actually fat. I mean, I had read and enjoyed some of Marilynn Wann’s stuff earlier, but had a really hard time getting it through my head that maybe I had no reason to be ashamed of myself. When it became super-obvious that I had been taking a lot of grief (and giving myself more) over something that was not even under my control in any way, I had to rethink a lot of things.
These days I still have to examine whether I’m really forgetting to eat because I have lousy executive function and get caught up in other things and/or overwhelmed by all the steps involved in getting some food in me, or whether I’m not-quite-consciously trying to starve myself. Or a bit of both, maybe. With my blood sugar running high, I have to eat a lot of high-energy stuff to avoid losing more weight–at this point, muscle mass–and this made me freak out more than a little bit at first. (I did a post about diabulimia a while back.) I am still not entirely comfortable with the amount I need to eat, and occasionally still get “waah, I’ll be as big as a house!” loops trying to start up. But, that is improving, and I’ve been resisting the lingering urge to run with it and purposely lose weight that way, because I know that’s unhealthy as hell.
And, if you’ve been reading here a while, you may have picked up on the theme of “unfeminine grotesque hugeness”, which can also get interesting when thrown in on top of being agender. I’ve been trying to work through some of that shit, too. Along with how much of my lingering body disharmony is ED-related and how much may be gender-related.
But, anyway, I was attracted by that person’s mention of wanting to be more like other kids. My take on it was slightly different, but that was a huge motivator to me when I was younger. There were just so many ways in which I wasn’t like the kids I was forced to spend all day with, but very much like “fat” was something they could zoom in on to insult–it was both made into a huge obvious issue and seemed like one of the few things I could control that made me different. Maybe I didn’t need to get treated like shit if I tried hard enough to change myself. I wasn’t even thinking of being popular, just getting left alone.
The thing is, of course now I realize that I can’t change my basic physical size or shape, either. I was born with this body, this neurological setup, this gender, maybe this sexuality, etc. There’s no “curing” any of these things, these characteristics of who you are as a person. And it is unconscionable to suggest otherwise–much less that it’s necessary in the first place, so that the person is vaguely socially acceptable!
I know I keep saying this, but it bears repeating: the best anybody can do is try to accept who they are, and try to develop more fully as the person they are.
ETA: I didn’t think to mention explicitly when I wrote this yesterday, but some readers may not be very familiar with eating disorders. (At least, I hope so. :() While I may have started into the messed-up eating patterns with certain motivations, pretty soon it took on a life of its own. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my relatives who have developed similarly disordered eating are also the ones with full-blown OCD, or OCD tendencies like me. (The men in similar positions just tend to take it in different directions. Though, my uncle has gone off on some rather alarming “I’m fat, and I’m going to die FAT!” jags; not too surprising, growing up burly with someone who has an eating disorder she still doesn’t consider a problem.) Of course, I held onto the initial motivating factors, if nothing else as something I could offer myself as justification for my crazy behavior. But the weight obsession did quickly turn into obsession for the sake of obsession.
The ED rituals helped relieve worry and stress about all kinds of things in my life, much like the cutting did. While creating plenty more at the same time. Really nasty cycle there.
Another point there: I also think I focused on that partly as a socially acceptable perseveration. I mean, things are pretty fucked-up when it looks a lot more normal for young girls to obsess about the size and shape of their bodies–and take a compulsive interest in food and exercise to try to change this–than, say, trainspotting which is not hurting anybody.