I’ve been wanting to write this letter for a long time, to explain how an eating disorder (ED) managed to weave itself through all my life stages, without me realizing it. That’s one of the most disturbing things about eating disorders — you think what you’re feeling is “normal,” that everybody feels the same way, but that’s the lie that ED tells you. Oh, how I wish I’d known this when growing up! It might have saved much heartache.
I wasted much time worrying about things that didn’t matter while the eating disorder distracted me from the things that did.
To my childhood self
In the 1950s and 1960s when I was little, I was unaware of the size of my body or how it looked. My body was primarily used for playing, growing and exploring the world around me. I’d tighten the clanky roller skates that clamped onto my shoes with a roller skate key and fly down the sidewalk, with the wind in my face. Hearing the steel wheels rhythmically bumping over the cracks in the sidewalk made it even more exciting. There were plenty of skinned knees, but that didn’t matter. My sister and I made perfume out of clover that dotted the lawn, rode our bikes and played dress-up to our heart’s content. This was a special, carefree time, with no thought as to how I looked or what others thought. I miss that little girl.
To my preteen self
Puberty started early for me. It developed in fifth grade before I knew what was happening. This was a time when menstruation was barely discussed, and any talk was in hushed, ashamed tones. Feeling as though my body was different, I felt very much alone. I felt betrayed by the body that had been my friend for the past 10 years. I didn’t trust it anymore and began to worry about how others, especially my peers, perceived me. School uniforms made us all look similar, but I still felt like an outsider.
At the same time, I discovered teen magazines that portrayed the idealized images of how girls and women were “supposed” to look. A skinny fashion model named Twiggy was all the rage, as were mini-skirts and go-go boots.
My appearance became more important to me and by eighth grade, I began the nightly ritual of setting my hair on pointy brush rollers and wearing mascara and frosted lip gloss in order to fit in and look pretty.
I wish I had known that trying to emulate what I saw in magazines was a waste of valuable time and that chasing perfection was a dangerous quest. Trying to change myself to feel more acceptable to others was the ultimate betrayal to the person I already was and could become. I gave my power to others in order to please them. The silently growing ED, within me, was delighted.
To my teenage self
The abuse of my body and spirit began in earnest in high school, when diet culture and ED latched on. Abuse may seem extreme, but this is the only way to describe the harm inflicted on myself. Getting measured for my high school uniform was a turning point. The numbers on the tape measure, especially for my hips, triggered shame and embarrassment. That traumatic moment was embedded in my mind forever. I felt too big, that I took up too much space. Uniforms were expensive and the hope was that one uniform would suffice from ninth through 12th grade, so parents ordered larger sizes. Expecting adolescents to stay the same size and weight during those formative years was unrealistic and potentially dangerous.
I began to shrink my body and tried all sorts of fad diets—like the cabbage soup diet, the pineapple diet, and grapefruit diet. I made my first foray into a popular weight loss program because a babysitting client gave me the food plan. I managed to lose weight which, in hindsight, was the worst thing that could’ve happened. The prize was getting thinner, and I would do almost anything to achieve it. I never lost so much weight that anyone worried. Nobody suspected a thing. For years.
When I eventually felt queasy at the very thought of eating, ED rejoiced! A best friend, also obsessed with body image, fueled ED even more. Neither of us realized that we were both much more than how our bodies looked, the number on the scale, or the size of our jeans.
A friendship built on such a superficial foundation was bound to crumble, and sadly, it did. That friendship set the tone of distrust that I would feel in many relationships, especially with girls. I began the dangerous habit of comparing myself to others and always coming up short. If it wasn’t my body or weight, it was my grades or popularity. I never felt good enough. ED was telling me that the only thing I was good at was losing weight.
During college, I became deeply entrenched in diet culture. My heart breaks when I think of what I might have accomplished if not preoccupied with external validation. I obtained a degree in Child Psychology but stopped there instead of entering graduate school. By that point, ED was calling the shots and telling me that I wasn’t smart enough, I wasn’t worth it. I wish I had believed that I was worth that and so much more. My mind, littered with diet rules, calorie counts, and constant hunger pangs distracted me from my full potential. ED wanted me all to itself and it won.
To my young adult self and beyond
After graduating from college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life besides getting married and having children. I pursued a dream of being a writer for a short time, but never truly believed in myself. ED had taught me that instant or short-term gratification was all that mattered, and the writing dream was abandoned. While in my first apartment, I claimed that the refrigerator was mostly empty due to lack of money. The truth was that ED restricted my food intake. Meals comprised of iceberg lettuce and diet salad dressing, were adequate. After all, I was a fully grown adult; I didn’t need to eat that much. The goal to maintain or lose weight, persisted for years.
The only times I fed myself properly, was when pregnant. To nourish my babies, I gave myself permission to eat, not for myself, but for them. Doctors and pregnancy books warned expectant mothers not to gain too much weight because it would be hard to lose it afterwards, which was music to ED.
Pregnancy laced with guilt
During my first pregnancy, I gained enough weight in spite of those warnings, but guilt plagued me with every pound. When that pregnancy resulted in a stillbirth, I was consumed with guilt and shame. I felt that my body had failed me and my baby boy; it wasn’t to be trusted.
I had done nothing wrong, but ED returned, distracting me from pain and grief by encouraging me to again restrict food intake. After all, there was no baby to care for anymore, just me. I wish I had known then that maintaining self care was vital.
If I had taken better care of myself, the infertility that followed may have been avoided. Definitely, I would have been healthier, physically and mentally. The next two pregnancies resulted in two healthy babies, but again, I felt driven to quickly lose the baby weight.
Despite ED’s influence, I loved every minute of motherhood. During those years when I was more focused on my children than my weight, ED was on hiatus, nudging only now and then that being thin was the only way to be considered worthy and attractive. I did my best to shield my daughters from my focus on weight, not wanting them to become preoccupied with that way of thinking. Diet culture, however, was everywhere; it was impossible to escape the messages that society and the media sent.
To my middle-aged self
In my mid-forties, I noticed some extra weight settling around my middle, which made me panic. Around the same time, I injured my foot and couldn’t exercise for weeks, which also caused panic.
ED swooped in to provide a sense of control. Before that, I hadn’t been dieting per se, but took over-the-counter appetite suppressants and diuretics, skipped meals, wore control top pantyhose and shape wear, all the while worrying about gaining weight.
I rejoined the weight loss program and was welcomed with open arms. I wasn’t “overweight,” but only near the top of the range on their weight chart. (“Overweight” is a word that makes me cringe because it is so judgmental. Over what weight? Who gets to decide that?) I strictly followed the program and reached my goal weight in weeks, but I kept losing. And losing.
Eventually, I was many pounds below my goal and felt on top of the world. The program leader encouraged me to eat more as my weight went down, but I couldn’t. The ED, which I didn’t know was there, was in charge. Even though intellectually I knew I was losing too much weight, ED kept telling me I could never be too thin.
Soon, that low weight became my new normal; I weighed less than I had since I was a pre-teen. My doctors weren’t concerned, so I assumed I was fine. However, I never stopped worrying—what if I relax and my weight spirals out of control? Will anybody love me? Will I love myself? I had finally conquered the body that had betrayed me for decades. I couldn’t let my guard down for a minute. I had to remain in control. That phase lasted for nearly 20 years.
To myself today
Dieting was not worth it for a multitude of reasons. Other people, my daughters included, were inspired by my success and either joined or followed that same weight loss program. At the time, I felt proud for motivating others to be what I truly believed was healthy. I didn’t know then that weight loss plans, aka diets, don’t work. Most people who lose weight by restricting their food intake, gain back the lost weight, plus some.*
Their bodies prepare for the next self-imposed famine, by restoring weight; their bodies are trying to take care of them. Looking back, I deeply regret how smug and superior I felt for being in the minority that succeeded in maintaining weight loss. Little did I know, it was because I had an eating disorder.
The guilt and shame felt for unintentionally misleading others is not worth that lower number on the scale. I thought I was setting a good example when what I was doing was potentially harmful. At the very least, it possibly contributed to negative feelings about food and their bodies and for that, I’ll be forever sorry.
I want readers to know that whatever stage you’re at, you can recover, and the effort is worth it. You don’t have to endure years of self-doubt and torment about your weight or how you look. You’re not self-centered or vain because these thoughts consume you—that’s the eating disorder.
Eating disorders revel in dominating our thoughts and therefore, our lives. It doesn’t have to be that way.
I wish I had known when younger what I know now. My wish for you, is that you see the truth and believe in yourself enough to start, or remain on, the journey to recovery. It is possible and your life will be so much freer and fuller once you begin. Believe in yourself. Recovery is the chance to find that little child waiting inside of you.
* Tylka, T. L., Annunziato, R. A., Burgard, D., Daníelsdóttir, S., Shuman, E., Davis, C., & Calogero, R. M. (2014). The weight-inclusive versus weight-normative approach to health: Evaluating the evidence for prioritizing well-being over weight loss. Journal of obesity, 2014.