Everyone Congratulated Me On Losing Weight ... But I Had An Eating Disorder

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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Around Halloween, I weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of 220 lbs. I wore a 2x or so. No one had told me that Lithium, a drug that controlled my bipolar disorder, had weight gain as a side effect. I had become borderline diabetic; no matter what I ate, my skin broke out like a teenager’s. My doctor switched me to another drug. I began losing weight immediately. This wasn’t weight loss I worked for; it fell off me. For someone who had tried diet (didn’t work), exercise (nope), and orthorexia (an obsession with healthy food, and no, that didn’t work either), it was intoxicating.

I was on a lot of other drugs, too. Some of those drugs suppressed my appetite. I began to realize that if I just… didn’t eat, my weight loss became more dramatic. At first, when my kids had lunch, I had a drink instead. Then when my kids had breakfast, I stuck to coffee. Soon I was often weaseling my way out of dinner, too. I could go 24 hours without food. Then I could go 48. Sometimes I could go 72. Carefully, I ate enough to keep from passing out. I knew my own blood sugar limits.

No One Asked Questions

My weight loss was rapid and dramatic, at a rate of more than 13 1/2 lbs a month. This doesn’t sound like much, until you think of it like this: from October 31st to June 1st, I halved myself. I went from 220 lbs to 110 lbs. I could not only wear pre-baby clothes, three kids, a decade, and gestational diabetes later. I could wear clothes from college again. I weighed roughly what I did as a senior in high school, and would have fit in my Catholic school skirt, but my baby belly wasn’t going anywhere.

My feet shrunk back to pre-baby sizes.

Sometime around March, when I began to hit a hundred and fifty, a hundred and sixty pounds, the comments began. “You look great!” friends would say. “You’ve really lost a lot of weight!” I’d smile through my teeth. If only you knew what it took to get here, I’d think. Even then I knew my eating patterns were severely disordered. I didn’t care that they were disordered, but I recognized it.

Guys would stumble. “I don’t know how to say this,” one said, smiling. “But you look, uh, really good.” I blinked and smiled like a Stepford Wife.

No One Made Connections

I tried to dye my hair. So brittle from lack of vitamins, it fell out. I was left with bald spots, so big I eventually started wearing wigs (thank God I live in the South where, if it’s on your head, it’s your own goddamn hair). Some of my mother’s friends visited, and they congratulated me effusively on my massive weight loss. Once, while we were driving, one tilted her head. “I wonder if your hair all fell out because you lost all that weight so quickly,” she said.

“Maybe,” I said blandly.

Hair loss is a common side effect of anorexia.

But other than my wig (which baffled them), they thought I looked fantastic, and told me so — constantly. Oh, you’re so skinny. Oh, you look so great. When I went out with them I had a salad. I didn’t eat anything else all day.

My husband called all this “intermittent fasting.” This, he claimed, was a thing. I was doing it for weight loss even if I didn’t know I was doing it, and it was all over the news, and as long as I ate dinner, whatever.

One Person Expressed Concern About My Weight Loss

Only my friend Nicole ever commented. She saw a picture of me taken around mid-May, still not at my lowest weight, and messaged me. “Are you okay?” she asked. “You’ve lost a lot of weight.” Nicole is that friend I love dearly and don’t see very often, but who has cleaned my kitchen.

“I’m fine,” I messaged back, and I cried, because someone had actually seen and done more than pat me on the head and told me what a good girl I was. Later that fall, my mother-in-law worried about me; when my bosses here at Scary Mommy saw a picture of me with a shaved head, my weight loss was so clear and dramatic that they asked if I needed time off. My mother-in-law danced around it and sort of confused me. My bosses made me cry with gratitude.

My psychiatrist mentioned my weight loss, but I had to tell her the truth about it. She didn’t float anything unhealthy as a possibility until I did. My male general practitioner was mid-congratulations when I cut him off.

My Weight Loss Was Called “Atypical Anorexia”

It’s a terrible name: anorexia is anorexia, no matter what your age or weight. Just as you can eat healthily as a size two — and now I do — you can starve yourself as a size 2x. Both pin-thin teens and overweight undereaters deserve the same treatment and the same sympathy. Unfortunately, myths about atypical anorexia abound. But unhealthy food intake — with or without weight loss — makes the diagnosis, not age or weight.

Molly Gwen was considered “morbidly obese” when she was diagnosed as having atypical anorexia. And yes, she had “real anorexia,” and the health consequences she suffered were just as dire. After all my psychiatric treatment, I really started on my recovery when my bosses assigned me an article about the health effects of anorexia. It terrified me into eating. From heart irregularities to a seriously shortened lifespan, I didn’t want them to happen to me.

Fatphobia Concealed My Weight Loss

America says fat is bad. Thin is good. We make this not only an aesthetic consideration, but a moral one. A fat person, our cultural narrative says, is a glutton: someone who overeats, who can’t control themselves. They’re too lazy to get off their couch and exercise. Their fat is their fault, no matter what their health (which may be fine). Thin people, however, earned their aesthetic appeal through self-control around food and motivation to exercise. Thin people deserve to be admired.

So when my weight loss became runaway, I was a moral success in most people’s eyes. I was clearly showing self-control and self-motivation. Nevermind that meant not eating. People congratulated me on my appearance, and as a subtext, on my hard work. This is why you do not comment on other people’s bodies. “Are you okay?” is one thing. “You look great, you lost all that weight,” is fatphobic. And for me, it only masked a serious health risk.

Is someone losing weight? Don’t assume it’s intentional. If they say they’ve lost weight, rather than “Congratulations,” try, “I’m happy for you if you’re happy and you’ve done it in a healthy way.” And if you see a friend has dropped weight dramatically, your first question should be, like my friend Nicole’s: “Are you okay?”

“Are you okay?”: the only acceptable way to react to dramatic weight loss. Period. You do not have a right to comment on people’s bodies. You do not have a right to say they look better or worse. America’s fatphobia could have killed me. It almost certainly shortened my lifespan. Think about that: the way you view fat people could have deprived my children of a mother.

I’m grateful to those who saw my weight loss and called it what it was. I love you for caring. I don’t blame the rest of you. You’ve been brainwashed. But I am asking: please deconstruct your fatphobia. And next time, with your next friend, please think.

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