Trigger warning: disordered eating
Ah, toxic diet culture. Growing up in the ’90s it was almost a rite of passage. I attended Weight Watchers meetings with my parents, and they showed me how to calculate points. I snuck my first strawberry Slimfast shake in my tweens.
My teenaged years began in 2003 when low-rise everything was a fashion statement, but having the long, lean, flat figure to accompany that was something that seemed like it would never go out of style. But, having that body was something I was never genetically predetermined to come close to.
In my tweens, teens, and early 20s I was constantly chasing whatever quick fix I could find that promised me slimmer thighs. Seeing my collar bones protrude ever so slightly made me feel like a delicate flower—feminine and beautiful. Little did I realize, this would only be the beginning of a decade-long battle with an eating disorder.
It started the year I began high school. I’d never had as much freedom in my life as I did in my freshman year of high school. No one noticed if I skipped my lunch two or three days a week or substituted it for diet soda. You see, I was on a pom-pom squad (dance team) and was definitely one of the first and only girls to come into their full figure and I hated it.
I hated every time I couldn’t shop in the juniors department, despite only being 14, when the rest of the girls in my class could. I felt extreme shame when the rest of the girls on the team would show off the playboy bunny sticker outline (from tanning) on their hips with protruding hip bones and short-short Soffee shorts.
Being able to only roll my shorts once (because my butt was slightly too big and my thighs a little too thick) made me feel like a failure. When I laid down flat on my back, I could feel my hip bones and ribs, but the moment I stood, they disappeared. I wanted to be able to show them off. I convinced myself, five years before Kate Moss ever said it, that nothing would taste as good as being thin would feel.
The next four years (throughout high school) were a never-ending cycle of yo-yo dieting, restricting calories, and binge eating food. I find it ironic now, looking back, that I couldn’t tell you what I weighed then. I was so hyper-focused on how my body felt during my eating disorder, I didn’t focus as much on the scale.
The power fueling this eating disorder didn’t come from physical manifestation. It came from my dangerous, hateful, and illogical inner dialogue. Something people fail to understand about eating disorders is it’s not just a condition of the body, it’s very much intertwined with your mental health.
No one was the wiser just by looking at me. I looked very much like an average 5 ‘5 young woman. I wasn’t excessively thin, nor was I considered morbidly obese, but it was everything you didn’t see that would have given me away. This is the most insidious part of OSFED (Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders), formerly known as EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified).
I didn’t fall below 100 pounds, but I did meticulously plan every calorie I ate and had a very specific set of rules about what I could and could not eat. I didn’t purge after binge eating, but I did exercise until I got sick as a punishment for eating what I did. I’d rather go an entire day without eating than let someone outside my immediate family see me eat. I was painfully self-conscious about what they would think. In reality, they’d think, if you’re hungry, you should eat. But in my mind, they saw a disgusting, fat, worthless person who couldn’t control herself and didn’t deserve to eat. My eating disorder convinced me they were just too kind to say it out loud.
Engaging in this kind of behavior for roughly eight years did incredible damage to my metabolism and insulin sensitivity, which impacts my ability to lose weight to this day. I’ve done Weight Watchers before it was WW. I’ve done Atkins, Keto, and some very questionable use of over-the-counter allergy medicine (meant to suppress my appetite). I tried Hydroxycut and even a prescription appetite suppressant from my (former) doctor.
Because I didn’t exhibit a textbook case of an eating disorder, I struggled to get help. My true saving grace came in the form of my beautiful daughters in 2012 and 2014, which marked the beginning of a 9 year recovery and healing journey. My success comes in part from receiving treatment for underlying mental health struggles like anxiety and depression.
But the most powerful motivation for getting help was my daughters. I’ll be damned if my daughters fall into the same pain and devastation an eating disorder can bring to their life. Toxic diet culture isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But being aware of it and dismantling the dangerous and untrue narratives it glorifies, is something we can work toward every day.
Relationships with body acceptance, body image, and food have made leaps and bounds since the early 2000s, but the mission will not be accomplished until these attitudes are the rule, not the exception. There are a few things we practice in our house to encourage positive relationships with food and our bodies.
- In our home, we eat food so we have the energy to skip rope, run races, and play a million games of hide and seek.
- In our home, what we choose to eat doesn’t have a moral association. The food might be sweet, or it might be salty, but it is not good or bad.
- In our home, we move our bodies to keep them feeling good and strong. Exercise is not a punishment.
My daughters are currently 6 and 8, and I’m already holding my breath, waiting to see what the relationship with their bodies will be like. I hope and pray their experience will be nothing like my own. In the end, the only thing I can do is have open and honest conversations with them and set the example of what accepting your body really looks like.