Yogurt with fruit for breakfast. Salad with tuna for lunch. Hummus and veggie sandwich for dinner. Any of these meals on their own seem perfectly reasonable, but on a daily basis, they don’t add up to enough calories.
Or at least, seeing as I was 5’6 and weighed 87 pounds by the middle of my sophomore year of college, they clearly didn’t for me.
When an opportunity arose for dessert or pizza, I would say to myself, is it really worth it? It was easy to refrain. I ordered so many salads from the university dining halls. Salad was my most frequent meal. I knew exactly how many calories I was eating because I kept count and celebrated on days when I was able to keep it below 1000. Instead of gaining the freshman fifteen, I lost the freshman 20.
My low BMI was easy to overlook for awhile, because I have a relatively lanky frame, but when I came home for the holiday break over sophomore year, the people I had grown up with began to notice. It looks terrible, some of my relatives scornfully told me. My feelings were hurt, my self-esteem crushed. I wanted to be thin, but I didn’t want to feel like I was repulsive. Though it did play a role in my decision to recover, negative criticism is not a healthy way to help someone heal.
A couple of my childhood friends took a different approach, pulling me aside at synagogue one morning. We really think you need to consider gaining some weight, they said. We took a photo, still happy to see each other, and for the first time I noticed the sharpness of the bones in my shoulders.
No one helped me figure out ways to heal, something that bothers me whenever I think back to that time in my life. I did it all on my own, without instructions, with no clue as to whether I was doing it right. I began by allowing myself, bit by bit, to indulge.
Friends going out for pizza? Treat yourself, I said as I ordered a slice instead of eating on my own beforehand. Student group selling brownies? Treat yourself, I said as I bought one. I ate pasta for the first time in months (by the way, pasta is not necessarily unhealthy; I had just developed a very skewed perspective on health). Treat yourself. I began to enjoy my food.
I’m not even sure if I’ve seen the “Treat yourself” episode of Parks & Recreation, but I am grateful that they gave me the idea for my
My next step was to become a good cook. I had always enjoyed Mediterranean food and began to look up recipes. I cooked not for calories but for taste, developing an appreciation for fresh vegetables, and I cooked solely for my own enjoyment. Recovery does not have to look like burgers and fries for every meal; it can look like seasonal produce, fresh herbs, healthy proteins and carbs. It felt so good to eat until I was full!
Before I knew it, I had gained enough weight to be in the healthy BMI zone again. The final step came when I studied abroad in Berlin, land of quality beer and first-rate bread. Coming home, I felt the extra weight and was thrilled to realize that I did not care: those few pounds meant that I had made the most of my semester abroad.
My friends and family probably said little to me about my disorder because they felt that they had no right to tell me what to do, but for anyone reading this who knows someone suffering: do. Do not force them to seek help, but if you can, look up resources. Gently ask whether they would be interested in looking at those resources with you and have a conversation with them.
Discuss all the paths they could take. Express hope and confidence in their abilities to heal. Five years ago, this is what really would have helped me recover the quickest.
I am proud of myself for conquering my own disorder, but I know that my experience was easier than most. I was never to the point where I could say, as Emily in the Devil Wears Prada explains, “Well, I don’t eat anything and when I feel like I’m about to faint I eat a cube of cheese.” I never had to seek professional treatment and I was never hospitalized.
It is especially important to note that as a white person and as someone who is still relatively slim, there are a plethora of challenges that I did not have to face on my road to recovery.
Contrary to the persistent notion that eating disorders only affect young white women, one study “found that among the leanest 25% of 6th and 7th grade girls, Hispanics and Asians reported significantly more body dissatisfaction than did white girls.” Public discussion of eating disorders often marginalizes Black and Brown folks or excludes their experiences altogether: another study found that doctors were less likely to diagnose fictional patients with eating disorders if they were people of color.
Overweight people, who may be losing weight but not necessarily in healthy ways, face issues of marginalization as well. I cannot speak for these experiences, but there are personal stories online from some of these folks and I would really recommend reading them.
I see my victory over my disorder as a sign of my strength and my ability to prevail over any challenge.
My relationship with food will never be completely healthy – there are still times when I find myself feeling guilty about eating dessert – but I now know how to address those emotions when they arise. If you believe you have an eating disorder (and eating disorders take numerous forms), seek help from friends, family, the Internet. There are so many paths to recovery; I was fortunate enough to find my own way, but needing additional assistance is no sign of weakness.
And remember: treat yourself.