Trigger warning: eating disorders
In middle school, one of our school spirit days was ‘80s-themed. I wanted to go all out and convinced my best friend to do the same. That day I showed up to school with big hair, leg warmers, the whole shtick. She showed up in her usual clothes and insisted she was wearing blue eyeshadow in the spirit of the day.
Another time, I wanted to wear a kurta (a South Asian style shirt) to school instead of a t-shirt. I have never been ashamed of my culture, but there was a time when I wanted to teach others about it, too. My friend agreed to do it with me, but only if I lied to anyone who asked and said it was because we had dance right after class.
After that I began to understand. I wasn’t supposed to stand out.
In high school, I towered over all my friends by a solid 6 inches, and I hated my height. They were petite, so I starved myself not to look like a giant. They didn’t like school dances, so we didn’t go to any. They took all the hard science classes, so I did, too.
Needing to fit in is a hallmark of the young. I knew it and I still couldn’t help myself, and as a result, I felt like a fraud so much of the time. I never used to care about my height or my weight, but I spent years trying to become invisible. I loved wearing pretty dresses and doing my hair and nails and makeup, but I didn’t get to very often. It would’ve drawn attention. It wouldn’t have fit the status quo. I was supposed to be the quiet ugly girl in the back of the room.
For most of high school, I struggled with food. At first I just wanted to be small enough not to be noticed or teased. As my life at home began to spiral out of my control, food became a security issue. I couldn’t control what was happening to me or happening around me, but I could control what I ate and what I weighed. I started walking to and from school just to burn calories. I would drink pots of tea every day to stave off the hunger, and I offended many parents when I wouldn’t eat their cooking because I didn’t know the calorie content.
I started to see collarbones and hipbones. I finally had a jawline, and people congratulated me every step of the way. Because it’s only disordered if you’re already thin. No one thought I needed help or that every meal was a mental battle I wanted to lose.
It was NEDA week a little while ago and my Instagram feed became flooded with recovery posts. On the left: a clearly sick, underweight individual, and on the right, a fitness model who gained recovery weight in all the right places. Instagram has never been the paradigm of inclusivity, but I hate this perpetuated stereotype that you’re only sick if you look sick. It’s only okay to recover if you look like you’re dying, and it’s only okay to gain weight if it all goes to your ass.
All those years, when I struggled to eat enough to function day to day, I thought to myself: I can’t be sick. I’m still huge. I would stand in the mirror and imagine what it would be like if my thighs didn’t touch, if I could wrap my fingers all the way around my arm, and I would cry and cry. You may think it was body dysmorphia, but even at my lowest weight I was considered to be at a healthy BMI. I wasn’t skinny, but I still needed help.
I don’t like drawing attention to things I consider so personal, and so this piece has been sitting half done for a long time. But I wanted to write it and put it out there just to say that it’s okay not to look emaciated to need help. It’s okay not to look like Jen Selter in recovery. And it’s okay to look like there’s no difference between the two at all! Because your body is just a side effect of the battles you’re fighting in your mind, and you shouldn’t let those stop you from living your life.
So this piece is for the people who don’t look sick and for the people who feel like frauds. It’s for the people who think they can’t get help because they aren’t thin enough. For the fat girls who cry over 10 calories and nobody cares. For the people who get praised for eating salads and running 10 miles when the last thing on their minds is health. Men or women, White or Brown or Black, skinny or fat or athletic. Eating disorders don’t discriminate, but neither does recovery.