The most interesting thing about me is my eating disorder. Underwhelming, right? You probably thought that sentence was going to end with something about how I’ve travelled to all fifty states or have never broken a bone, or even something pertaining to my inexplicable flexibility. I wish. No, the most interesting thing about me is a preoccupation with the food I eat, a cycle of damaging habits, and a fear of gaining weight. The most interesting thing about me is something I wish I didn’t have.
Sitting in my room, box of Cheez-Its in hand, I’m reflecting on the past year, from ending my sophomore year to turning 21to writing my first Street piece. It was a year ago this week that I shared one of the most, if not the most, personal stories about myself: my 6–year struggle with my eating disorder. I never expected to share that part of myself with anyone, let alone the entire Street audience. For years, I had kept my restrictions and compulsions under wraps, hiding behind oversized t–shirts and dinners with friends. I would lock myself in my room to scribble down calorie counts after running miles upon miles. Sobbing, I could never control the negative thoughts spiraling in my head.
I don’t know what it was that compelled me to write it. Was it my membership in Penn’s chapter of Project HEAL? A desire to write something outside of my journal for once? Or was it a voice in my head longing to be free? It could have been my eating disorder’s craving to be the center of attention. Perhaps, all of the above. Nonetheless, to say writing and sharing that piece was life–altering would be an understatement.
In the days following its publication, sorority sisters, with whom I had previously exchanged only a few words, reached out to me. A friend from high school I had lost touch with remarked that she hadn’t realized my high school eating habits were a sign of a greater, more dangerous problem despite having eaten lunch with me every day for a year. She asked if she could share it with her friends, posting “sad to say I know some people who could benefit from reading this, myself included.” A Penn student’s mom applauded my courage and bravery. The likes and love reacts from friends poured in. To this day, it’s my most liked post.
I’m not here to brag, though. I’m here because my story hasn’t ended. My recovery hasn’t been neatly wrapped up with a bow, all said and done now that I put myself out there. In fact, my story continues to be filled with chapters of highs and lows, with the happily–ever–after far in the distance.
I’ve reached the chapter that I refer to as “recovery and discovery” (a cheesy name, but most treatment plans have one). Recovery because I’m seeking out treatment options, attending bimonthly appointments with the SHS nutritionist, and actively confronting negative thoughts and tendencies. Discovery because I discovered the benefits of being open with those around me, and that vulnerability feels good. This journey, unlike the previous, has been a source of empowerment and pride. I’ve realized my eating disorder is a manifestation of control; this chapter is about me regaining it. Writing “Wanting to Disappear Completely” last year drafted this chapter.
Nevertheless, being vulnerable with everyone obviously meant being vulnerable with people I least wanted to be vulnerable with. The night before its publication, I had casually mentioned I was writing a piece to the guy I had been seeing for a month. When he asked what it was about, I hesitated with my reply, scared that if he knew of my secret, knew of my imperfection, he’d want nothing to do with me.
When I went home the following week for break, my mom asked me about it, saying she always had an inkling. My parents hadn’t known about my disorder before the piece’s publication, and I still didn’t want them to know about it. I shushed her when she brought it up, running up the stairs, and saying I’d be back down when the pizza arrived. It’s a conversation we have yet to have.
But the biggest change of all was that I had to come to terms with now being known as “the girl with the eating disorder.”
I don’t know how to feel about that identity. I know there shouldn’t be anything wrong with suffering from a mental disorder, especially one that affects a good portion of my peers. I am open to discussing how society prompts negative body image (a risk factor for eating disorders) and the steps we can take to discount the stigmas surrounding all mental illnesses. Despite this, my own mind hasn’t come to these realizations. My perfectionist mindset translates “the girl with the eating disorder” to “the girl with the flaw.” The cognitive dissonance is strong.
More so, my identity as “the girl with the eating disorder” clashes with my other identities. As a body positivist, I constantly speak of the necessity of practicing self–love and self–care. But, I don’t necessarily practice what I preach, often using negative language to describe myself when looking in the mirror. As a black woman, I don’t fit the eating disorder stereotype, which is typically of a white woman. I’m not underweight, and I often ponder if people dismiss my eating disorder because it’s not at a grave state of sickly thin. When I eat “normally,” I can’t help but to think that I’m fine, that I’m not really suffering, that everything is all in my head. I feel like I’m faking my disorder. I only just started to refer to my disorder as an "eating disorder" rather than saying “I have an issue with food and my weight.”
On the opposite end, when I know my self–destructive habits have reared their ugly heads, I feel uncomfortable speaking out against eating disorders. I educate others on how to recognize signs and symptoms, but at the first opportunity, I feel so comfortable welcoming them back. “Numbers don’t mean anything,” I say. Meanwhile, I’ve been adding up the calories of my meal in my head. I decry the mass media’s praise of skinny figures, but I still stand in front of mirrors, pinching my stomach and eyeballing where my clothes hug a bit tighter. I tell my friends that their cravings for pizza and french fries are natural as I sip on another diet soda in hopes that the pestering hunger fades. How can I do all of this and tell others that they are beautiful in their own bodies? How can I do all of this and say I’m recovering?
I don’t know what’s worse: feeling like I’m faking my disorder or faking my recovery. It seems like I can never win, forever trapped in a debilitating state. However, I’ve been learning that my falls don’t negate my progress, nor do they diminish my authority on such a serious and personal topic. I have a firsthand account of how this kind of disorder can impact someone’s life, and my experiences need to be shared, if only to validate the feelings of other sufferers.
Yes, I may be “the girl with the eating disorder,” but I’m realizing that doesn’t mean it has to make up my entire identity. I am a woman of color who feels strongly about body positivity. I am a sorority girl with a knack for thrift shopping and a passion for criminal justice. I am a fun–loving, unashamedly embarrassing girl who likes to hang out with her cat. I am more than my eating disorder, even if sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. This piece and the original one are evidence of my growth, from a girl who didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel to a girl who wants to illuminate the complexities, the triumphs, and the difficulties of mental illnesses.
So I’d like to revise my first statement: The most interesting thing about me is that I have the strength to talk about my eating disorder. I hope that’s whelming enough for you.
Kelly Porter is junior from St. Charles, Ill. studying Criminology.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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