- Relationships -When I Realized The True Cause Of My Eating Disorder, Everything Changed
Disordered eating, and everything that comes with it, is full of complexities. It’s frustrating because when you’re looking for straightforward answers (why am I like this? how can I feel better?) and solutions (will this book help? will this therapist help? will I just wake up one morning and not over-think my food?) the answers aren't there. So instead, you find some ways to cope and some new tools – some positive, some negative – that will help move you through the highs and lows of dealing with your own self image.
My disordered eating has changed as I’ve gotten older. When I was younger it was a lot of just not eating, or eating very little. Being very selective about the things I chose to eat. As I've gotten older, it's become more of an obsession with food; sometimes I'll make sure not to have any food in the house, or I'll purposely overshop and there will be too much food. I obsess over cookbooks and meal planning, and ingredients, which is a slippery slope for me, because then, I am hyper-conscious about every single thing I put in my body.
At one point, I tried to do the Whole 30 thing because I had several friends who loved it and felt great. I thought I’d give it a try, and boy was that just not a route I should've taken. Of course, I was totally and completely consumed by it; I would look at recipes all day, I would look up the benefits of each vegetable, each grain, and I realized, I had to step away.
I don't hate my body, but I don't love it. I'm confident one moment and then I'm deeply insecure the next. And my eating disorder and my relationship with food is just as divided. And it’s taken me eleven years to figure that much out.
Growing up, I was the skinny girl. I won't sit here and pretend that being told to "eat a sandwich" or that being called "small fry" in any way is the same as someone being mocked or bullied for being fat. That's a very different experience. But, my point is that body image was something I was always incredibly aware of; others seemed aware of it, and if they’re keeping an eye on it, I should keep two eyes on it.
Middle school, of course, is when my focus on body image really set in. Everyone was getting boobs and becoming young little women, while I was still looking like a fourth grader. As we creeped into high school, I remained scrawny and perhaps a little under-developed. I didn't look like the rest of my class; I mean, I still had baby teeth in ninth grade, which I had to get pulled, so… I was toothless and boobless. We call this character development.
Junior year, my self-image began to change. I met this random guy from another school and he gave me a little attention, which I never really got from the boys at my school. He and I talked for a little bit and in the short time I knew him, he began to be very hyper-critical of me, often making sarcastic jokes about "how fat" I was, despite my thinness. Before him, I thought maybe I was too skinny and flat to be admired by the boys; after him, I had a whole 'nother issue.
Because after awhile, when someone says something to you over and over, you kind of start to believe it. He wasn't in my life for very long but the impact his words left lingered for years.
Now here's where things get interesting: What if I told you that was all a lie?
OK, it’s not a lie per se, but the way I told this story to myself was deceitful.
Until recently, whenever I’d reflect on the cause of my disordered eating, I’d think back to the times he and I would go to the movies and he would comment on the popcorn I’d ask for, and I’d blame moments like those. I’d tell myself that’s what caused this lingering relationship with food that I want to change. It was his fault. It was his jokes.
But, after some self-discovery, I learned that pinning all my eating issues on that brief romance was just the easiest way for me to explain my disordered eating, and it completely omits the truth.
Between my TikTok binges, day baths, and paint by numbers, in the quietness of COVID isolation, I realized my eating disorder started, yes, around the same time I met that boy, but it was also 2008.
At the time, I lived primarily with my mom, just me and her. I’d see my dad once a week, then every other weekend. Then, along with millions of others, my mom lost her job. Things were tense and the stress of "how are we going to pay for such and such a thing" hung like a heavy cloud in the house. I could overhear her talking on the phone about her worry, or crying softly in her room, and frankly, you could just feel her stress. Understandably.
At school, I was surrounded by kids who couldn’t relate. I grew up in an upper middle class town where the majority of the households had two parents and never seemed to worry about money. Then there was me. And I kept that all inside. It was a secret I never wanted to tell; I was embarrassed and didn’t want to be different. I never wanted anyone to know what was going on at home and that my mom couldn't find a job despite the fact she had a college degree, or how many times she was told "you're overqualified" – no one, I felt, would be able to understand.
My mom stayed unemployed for almost two years, if I remember correctly, but not one to wallow in it, she went back to school for her master's degree. We lost our house – the house she'd fixed up and basically built from scratch – and we moved to a completely different side of the world, which was about 30 minutes away from everything I knew. I don’t blame her one bit, we had to do what we had to do, but I think it affected me in a deeper way than I realized at the time. Because in 2008, I couldn't control anything, except my body.
Maybe I subconsciously found a boy who reinforced what I thought about myself: I was unworthy and needed to be richer, or better looking, or smarter, or come from an unbroken home, in order to be accepted and receive kindness.
While the boy played a part in kick-starting a control issue with food, I now recognize that it’s not as black and white as I’d originally thought. My trauma at the time was greater than him.
It’s funny, I used to feel sort of relieved to have him to blame for the way I would only eat three grapefruits a day. It was nice and neat to pin my issue on him because I could back-burner it. I’d tell myself, well, I’d lie to myself, and say that, this week, I’ll bring him up in therapy and cure my eating issues. This week, I’ll dive deep into that relationship and I’m sure that will help the way I can’t eat something without immediately thinking about which part of my body it will make bigger. This week, we’ll get to the bottom of how badly he affected my psyche.
But, of course, now I see he’s just a scapegoat. I have bigger issues to unpack, which in some ways, makes me really happy. What I went through with my mom – the uncertainty, the stress, the moving, the hiding – it was a lot, and knowing that, really feeling that now allows me the space (and the grace) to care for myself and my body like I’ve never done before.
Sure, it’s more painful and complicated to revisit my teenage years struggling with money than it is to revisit a silly 16-year-old boy, but I have compassion for teenage me. I’m not blaming her, like I used to, for choosing a boy who ruined her eating. Instead, my heart goes out to her – she was doing her best to find control. And she found it.
Now it’s time to figure out how to loosen that control's commanding grip on my life and my eating. One un-popped kernel at a time.