Today, I drove past my old middle school as I went to the park for my run. Out on the combination tennis/basketball courts, the gaggles of middle schoolers in their gym classes were out in their matching grey t-shirts and black shirts, last names emblazoned in red on them. Girls nervously flirting with their first crushes, boys tackling each other in fits of newly produced testosterone, groups of two or three avoiding the larger, athletic groups playing for blood with slightly deflated basketballs with the crust of decades on them.
I began to think back to my middle school days, the beginning of being a teenager, hours upon hours spent on those exact tennis courts. Discovering boys, then shortly after discovering how creepy and willing to overstep boundaries boys could be. Making real friendships that I thought would last a lifetime (none of them did). Thinking I was so grown up, that I knew everything there was to know.
Noticing that some other girls got more positive attention from boys and peers and even teachers. Noticing that some other girls were putting away their glasses for contacts, putting makeup on their virgin skin, doing more to their hair than could be done with a single hair tie and five minutes in the morning. Noticing nicer clothes with logos and brand names plastered all over them. Noticing the popular girls were all beautiful and confident and thin and talented and outgoing of which I was none.
I wanted to be well liked (and really, who doesn’t?). And I decided that the way to become well liked was to be skinny, because, well, all the popular girls were, not to mention the actresses on TV and the protagonists in movies and the strong women in the videogames I played. Skinny began to become something more than a body type for the first time in my life, it was the key to happiness and that was why I wasn’t currently happy.
I wish someone had grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me and told me no. I wish I had been sent away to be a goat herder in some remote land where TV or magazines of supermodels didn’t exist. Of course, none of that happened.
I decided to start dieting when I was 11 years old.
And as I drive by those courts today, I wondered how many of those little girls looked at themselves in the mirror and cried at night. I wonder how many of them think that the key to everything they want in life is losing weight. I wonder how many of them will fall into the same trap of self-hatred that I fell into when I was the same age as me.
I am turning 22 in a matter of weeks. I have battled with my weight and self-love since that day when I was 11.
Here’s something that I’m not incredibly public about: I struggle with disordered eating and have since high school. In high school I was incredibly active and fit and I was popular and confident (on the surface) and always had either a popular boyfriend or a herd of boys liking me and I also threw away my lunch every single day and dressed nicely and had the most amazing best friends (who I’m still best friends with) and drew emaciated skeleton girls in my notebooks during class and made straight As and was the co-editor of our literary magazine and cried on my bathroom floor wishing that I had enough self-control to have an eating disorder and was in the running for homecoming queen.
I wish someone had noticed and helped me. I wish that I had a second set of eyes that could see me for how I really looked. I looked in the mirror and saw someone who was obese and unlovable, when in reality I was incredibly fit and rather small.
In college things went downhill. I skipped meals frequently. I had few friends. I had constant headaches and I counted every single calorie that went into my mouth: every single grape had to be counted, every single piece of lettuce had to be weighed. I began to make myself throw up on occasion. I ate the recommended number of calories for a five-year-old per day. I passed out twice and was told to seek counseling or I would have the “tell someone” line notified.
I’ve been to multiple counselors about this. I’m finally getting to a place where I can accept where and who I am (although every single day is still a struggle).
When we picture eating disorders, we picture the scare photos they showed us in k-12 health. We imagine skeletal girls with dead eyes, we imagine girls politely refusing food, only eating a stick of celery a day.
That’s not how this works. The vast, vast majority of people with eating disorders are never underweight: despite having disordered thoughts since I was 11, I have never, ever been even close to being underweight. I am a completely healthy weight, and eat three meals a day. However, my mind is still a battlefield.
I know this was my problem for the longest time, so I’m going to scream this to you in hopes that it resonates with you if you need it: YOU DO NOT NEED TO GET SICKER TO DESERVE HELP. You do not need to be underweight to see a counselor. They will not laugh at you. They will take you seriously. You can get the help you need and start your course to a life free of calories and messed up metabolisms and heartburn and eroding teeth and hair falling out and eventual death.
It’s been more than a decade since that first “I should lose weight” thought popped into my head. That thought should have never been there in the first place, but it was. And I’ve spent a decade destroying myself and recently, very recently, rising from the ashes of my former self. Reach out. You don’t have to suffer anymore.