Content warning:
The following text describes eating disorders and can be disturbing and/or triggering for some readers. Please find resources listed at the bottom of the article.

I scrolled through Instagram while my dad read the news; then, my mother walked into the room. Her long blonde hair was freshly blown out, falling stick straight against her blouse. Her smile was taped to her face like a flimsy poster in a college dorm room, always one drunk nudge away from flying off the wall. 

“Did I do something?” I asked, chewing on my nail. 

“You didn’t do anything,” my dad said, “and get your hands out of your mouth.” 

“We’re worried about your health,” my mother said, glancing at my father for approval. “You’re going into ninth grade. It’s time to start taking care of yourself and watching what you eat.” 

“It’s one thing to eat dessert on vacation, but you can’t eat bread all day for the rest of your life and expect to stay slim,” said my father. 

“You’re gaining weight,” said my mom, “You need to start eating healthy.” 

I wanted to laugh—our whole family is skinny; I’m not fat—but the salty taste of tears in my mouth told me otherwise. It was as though I had been plucked right out of my body and transferred into an entirely different one. I felt like a stranger in my own skin.

Once those three words, “You’re gaining weight,” slithered out of my mother’s mouth, they crawled into my head, picked a spot, and never left. 

Watching me pull out a bag of nuts in the middle of math class was entertainment for my classmates all throughout my later years of high school. For me it was torture. My teacher would regularly bring in desserts, but I would always find a way to avoid the extra carbs. “I’m full,” I’d say. “I have a gluten allergy.” The excuses were endless. I’d pretend to go to the bathroom just to place myself as far away from food as possible. 

I remember telling my best friend Lize how much I loved nuts. “They’re so good, like, so healthy and so tasty—way better than donuts.” She seemed impressed. “I don’t even really like candy,” I added. That was a lie. I spent far too much time thinking about rainbow–colored sour strips and the fruity sensation they left on my tongue, while always imagining the rolls that would form on my stomach if I indulged.

A month into my first real relationship, my confidence in our love was enough that I was ready to take the next step. “You have such a perfect body,” he said afterward. We were lying next to each other, his arm wrapped around my waist and his fingers brushing up and down my side. I couldn’t comprehend the compliment I had been given. It was as though I had been dropped in the middle of the desert and had no idea how to make my way back home. "Liar," I thought. "He just wants me for sex. I guess that’s all I’m good for." 

“I know,” I responded.

He grinned as though he had just aced an exam he didn’t even think he could pass—utterly surprised yet pleased with the outcome nonetheless.

“Your confidence is so sexy,” he said. 

When I came to Penn in the fall, I had hoped that being surrounded by intelligent people would distract me from my trivial obsession with my body. How could I worry about how thick my thighs were when the guy or girl down the hall from me was probably curing cancer? Would I still be thinking about better ways to starve myself while being lectured by one of the top professors in the world? But my brain has a funny way of prioritizing.

At the end of my first week, after back–to–back days of cheap vodka and Wawa quesadillas at 2:00 a.m., my roommate Madi asked if I wanted to buy a scale. It was late Monday afternoon, the day before classes started, and I was curled up in bed wearing fuzzy pink pajama shorts and one of my favorite feminist crop tops, which reads “Equal Pay.” The previous night’s quesadilla was still rolling around in my stomach and the only exercise I had done in the past week was dancing to repetitive party music. I instantly felt my hands move to my stomach, right below my belly button—the part of my body I wish I could chop off and throw away.

The next thing I knew, I was headfirst in the toilet in the girls’ bathroom, two fingers down my throat and knees shaking against the cold floor. I could hear my mother’s voice in my head, telling me how stupid I was being. "You’re too smart for this," she says, "Don’t take the easy way out." I banged my head against the side of the stall, hard, and told myself to snap out of it.

I was up in seconds as though nothing had happened, walking to the mirror to grapple with my reflection. I wiped the wetness from my cheeks and stared at myself with eyes that were now bright red. "Smile," I told myself. "You’re happy." I forced a toothy grin in the mirror. I’d heard somewhere that making yourself smile can lead to happiness, but I was willing to settle for stopping the tears. I learned then that no matter what school I attended or accomplishments I might achieve, my illness was not something that could be suppressed by logic or reason, and certainly not ignored. 

There is no perfect ending to this story—I no longer pretend I am perfect. I no longer pretend I am okay. Getting help is not a sign of weakness or an indication of being flawed, but a yearning for what we all deserve: self–love. While every day is still a struggle, there is nothing more freeing than knowing that I am not alone, and I am learning to embrace this. 

Campus Resources:  

The HELP Line: 215-898-HELP: A 24–hour–a–day phone number for members of the Penn community who seek help in navigating Penn's resources for health and wellness.

Counseling and Psychological Services: 215-898-7021 (active 24/7): The counseling center for the University of Pennsylvania.

Student Health Service: 215-746-3535: Student Health Service can provide medical evaluations and treatment to victims/survivors of eating disorders, regardless of whether they make a report or seek additional resources. 

Reach–A–Peer Hotline: 215-573-2727 (every day from 9 pm to 1 am, texting available 24/7), A peer hotline to provide peer support, information, and referrals to Penn students.