Are you eating? Did you throw up?
These were the texts my father sent me last spring when my parents came to help me pack for the summer. We had had dinner at Marathon, a staple spot in my family’s visits to Philadelphia, where I ordered a salad. Afterwards, back at the hotel, I spent an extended period of time in the bathroom, vainly taking mirror selfies. But my father had other ideas of what I was doing: He thought I was purging. Within minutes of first seeing me that weekend, he inquired about my weight and couldn’t stop staring at the thinness of my body. What was his daughter doing that made her look so wasted away? What had happened in the two months since Spring Break that led to such a weight loss?
I hadn’t meant to lose a significant amount of weight; I’d been running miles daily and eating a predominantly gluten–free, dairy–free, and vegetarian diet. So, I had been eating and I had been taking care of myself. I replied to his messages with a “Yes” and then a “No” (not complete lies) though I wasn’t about to admit that sometimes I would eat Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food only to throw it up. Sometimes I would run until all the consumed calories had been expended. Sometimes I cared more about the number on the scale than my grades in my classes.
I couldn’t admit that sometimes disappearing completely was the most appealing goal for me—I wasn’t going to stop until I was thin.
In the safety of my own apartment, I slowly walk towards the mirror. None of my roommates are home, presenting me with an opportunity to gaze at my figure without interruption. I lift the hem of my shirt away from my stomach and analyze the effects of stuffing my face with Cheez–Its (a recent guilty pleasure) as if the calories have already altered the shape of my stomach. I frown; there is pudge where I wish there wasn’t. On top of the Cheez–Its, failure settles in my stomach.
This encounter is not reserved for my apartment mirror: whenever I walk past a reflective surface — the windows of Wawa, the puddles on Locust, the parked cars on Walnut — I can’t help but to look at the thickness of my thighs, the tightness of my butt, and the width of my waist, canvassing my body for any signs that in a day I have gained weight. It’s a vain fear, weight gain, as though a few pounds would completely change my reputation. But still, it's an intruding one. The summer before my sophomore year of college, my gynecologist had informed me that on the birth control shot, most women gain 10–15 pounds and that that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for me. The possibility of a weight gain terrified me; I chose another option. In a recent appointment, the SHS nutritionist said that my BMI was within the healthy range. My first reaction was that she was lying. How could I, someone with a stomach that hung over the top of her jeans, be healthy? How could I not need to lose weight?
For the past six years, I have struggled with the calorie counter in my head and the scale in my bathroom. I compare the shape of my hips to my friends’, squirm when someone touches my torso, and avoid wearing tight dresses. There are times where, before going out, the only sustenance I have had is a couple of strawberries and maybe a few grapes. I probably spend more time thinking about calories than I do about my schoolwork. One of the clearest memories from my freshman year of high school was crying in a McDonald’s on a family vacation because I would have to consume chicken nuggets. I can laugh about the foolishness of it all now, but in that moment, I dreaded the possibility of adding poundage.
I wish this was the moment that I realized there was something wrong, but it seemed to be only the beginning. My parents didn’t really question my efforts; they knew my goal was weight loss and, in some ways, I think they were appreciative that my meals consisted of more substance than just cheese pizza and that I began exercising. They didn’t know about the crying in the pantry over Christmas cookies or about the religious use of calorie–counter apps and fat percentage calculators or about the countless checks of my naked figure in my bathroom mirror—all signs that I was heading down a rabbit hole. I was of normal weight, so there was nothing to worry about.
Fast–forward to last spring, my mind racing at my father’s unexpected texts. An outsider would think that this would be it: I had been caught and I would decide to recover, return to healthier measures of weight loss or give it up altogether. But it wasn’t. Looking back, that summer is when it all got worse. I continued running, pushing myself further on the treadmill than I had before; I don’t remember eating enough calories to make up for those miles. A majority of the blogs I followed on Tumblr were “pro–ana” (blogs that endorse skinny, almost skeletal models) and I spent afternoons scrolling through them. I read books about anorexia and compulsive exercising, the stories of other women conquering their own struggles pushing me further into my own. I was so proud of my smaller frame that I ignored the signs that I hadn’t just stumbled into the rabbit hole, but had completely plummeted headfirst.
I think that many of these issues stem from my perfectionism and my absolute need for control. Like most Penn students, in high school I sought after a spot at top universities, which meant getting high grades in my APs and completing ACT prep classes. As I strove for perfection in my academic life, it started to bleed into other aspects of my life; seeking perfection in other things became an extracurricular on my Common App. The one thing that I could easily control was the food that went into my mouth and the image that looked back at me in the mirror. If I could control the food I was eating, I could control the outcome of my college applications.
Additionally, during my second semester of freshman year, the same semester in which my father questioned my thinness, I was diagnosed with depression, a condition that I think contributed to my negative body image. When my mood dips low, I’ve found that I eat less, trading in time in the kitchen for time in my bed. I would hurt myself to control my emotions, and while high school health classes don’t teach you this, restricting one’s food intake is an act of self–harm.
There are times when a slice of Allegro pizza doesn’t make me cringe; these moments are surprising, but they happen. When they do, there is fleeting happiness as the cheese touches my tongue and slides down my throat. I don’t feel a sense of guilt for consuming greasy calories. I don’t feel the fear that my weight will immediately rise. I don’t feel the urge to rid my body of it as quickly as possible. It settles in my stomach and everything’s okay. I am okay.
It is in these moments that I recognize the importance of balance, a concept that is often forgotten here at Penn (though I accept the irony in the idea of balance and my preoccupation with the scale). When I go out to eat with friends, I try to remember that a single “bad” food won’t negate my progress, nor will a “good” food magically make me fit. It’s difficult sometimes. These lists have been ingrained into my brain for so long. I have to remind myself that the smiles on my friends’ faces as we chow down on Copa’s Spanish fries and Sweetgreen’s Harvest Bowls—that the happiness and joy and love between us—are greater than the number of calories.
I wrote this piece because I’ve been thinking a lot about my history with my body and, for the first time, I can admit that there is a problem with my relationship with it, that disappearing completely is a dangerous goal. I haven’t been officially diagnosed with an eating disorder, nor have I received psychiatric treatment. I have, though, begun taking the first steps towards recovery by acknowledging when my thoughts are unsafe, scheduling appointments with a nutritionist, and adopting healthier habits. One of the most important lessons in my journey is learning that balancing my obsessions and my happiness will take time.
I don’t know if I will ever completely overcome my eating issues or if my weight will matter less than my GPA or if I’ll ever stop thinking that the mirror determines my worth. That’s the thing, though—I’m not sure what the future holds for my body and me. All I know is that a box of Cheez–Its sounds pretty good right about now.
Project HEAL is the leading non-profit in the US dedicated to supporting and advocating for people suffering from eating disorders. We provide grant funding for people with eating disorders who cannot afford treatment, promote healthy body image and self-esteem, and serve as a testament that full recovery from an eating disorder is possible. Connect with us at email@example.com.
CAPS 24-hour on-call clinician: 215-898-7021
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline: 800-931-2237
Crisis text line: text “NEDA” to 741741
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