In honor of Operation Beautiful's Change the Way You See, Not the Way You Look Week, courtesy of Caitlin @ Healthy Tipping Point, I decided to write a post about self-esteem and body image, with a focus on my struggle with anorexia and how I am finally coming out on the other side.
*Note: If you are currently struggling with an eating disorder and are easily triggered, please read the following post with caution.
“You’re beautiful just the way you are.”
“We are all unique—that’s what makes us special!”
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
“God made you the way you are for a reason.”
“FAT is not a feeling!”
…If I could count the number of times I’ve heard the above phrases, either from well-intentioned family and friends, therapists and pastors, boyfriends, or random acquaintances…well, let’s just say I’d be a very rich young woman.
We’ve all heard those cliché phrases about loving ourselves from the inside out and embracing the unique ways in which we each are beautiful. But how many of us really internalize those words? I know I haven’t always believed them. And I’m not going to lie to you and say I do now. In fact, I think it would be rather abnormal not to have any sort of doubts or self-esteem issues. After all, we are only human. However, there is a difference between accepting a bad hair/skin/butt/fill-in-the-blank-with-your-body-image-woe day, sighing with frustration as we get ready in the morning, and moving on; and letting those body image and self-esteem issues weigh us down (no pun intended).
I was always one of those girls who felt pretty comfortable with my body growing up. I knew I wasn’t perfect, but I was confident enough in my looks and talents to be a happy and well-adjusted teenager. I was active in dance, theatre, and choir, and although there was definitely a pressure to look a certain way—especially in dance—I really didn’t worry too much about my looks. I was blessed with a fit, slim body, thick blonde hair, and bright blue eyes. I had lots of friends, a great family, and endless opportunities, including going to my first-choice college—a small liberal arts university nestled in central Pennsylvania that cost my parents a pretty penny. All in all, I was a very lucky gal.
It wasn’t until halfway through my college career that I began to let body image and self-esteem literally affect who I was and how I behaved.
The spring after my sophomore year of college, I returned home with a body that was a bit “softer around the edges”. By no means was I “big” in any way—I was still within a healthy range for my height, at 5’6” and right around 130 pounds—but I was also out of shape and had gained about 10 pounds since leaving for college. The combination of late-night pizza and beer runs, lunchtime burritos with sour cream and cheese, and a total lack of physical activity, was finally taking its toll on me.
I wasn’t too concerned about my weight or my body, as I was still fairly thin. However, after receiving a few comments from my family and even a doctor about my habits, I decided to “get healthy and fit” and “eat better”. So, I started taking jogs with my brother and dad a few times a week, substituting water for soda, and watching my portions. By the time I returned to school for my junior year of college, I had dropped about 5 pounds and was toned and healthy. I had reached what I believe to be my body’s healthy adult weight—around 125 pounds, give or take.
I remember finally feeling confident again that first month back. I went to a party the first weekend of the semester, and I got more attention from guys than I had in awhile. Plus, all of my girl friends told me how fabulous I looked and how jealous they were of my body. I have to admit, it felt pretty darn good. So, I thought: if it wasn’t so hard to lose 5 pounds, why not lose 5 more?
…And so the spiral into a life-threatening eating disorder began.
I started working out every single day before class, and cutting back on my food intake more and more. At first, I felt great. I felt powerful, strong, and in control. Over winter break, my family noticed that I was a bit thin (probably around 115 pounds), but I still seemed to be eating fairly normally, so no one thought much of it. It wasn’t until I returned to college for the spring semester in 2009 that things got much, much worse.
I began religiously tracking my calories. Each week I would set a new goal—not to exceed 1,800 calories per day, then 1,700, then 1,500, and so on. In the period of a few short months, I was barely surviving on 500 calories (or less) per day. This, combined with rigorous runs on the treadmill for an hour a day, led to a severe and incredibly dangerous weight loss. I literally lost about 20+ pounds that spring alone.
My friends were worried. They emailed and called my parents, expressing their concern. I was referred to the campus health center. I was told to stop working at my on-campus coffeehouse job because the staff was concerned for my health and didn’t think I should be on my feet for long stretches of time. Meanwhile, the eating disorder was not only whittling away my body—it was eating away at my soul. Once a confident, quirky, funny individual, I was nothing but a shell of my former self. I was cold, tired, sick, pale, gaunt, and depressed. By the time May rolled around, it took all of my energy to simply wake up and put on some sweatpants in the morning. I slept more than I was awake. I still couldn’t eat.
And it’s not that I refused to eat. I honestly just couldn’t. Eating disorders are deadly because of their deceptive nature and the way they control your mind. The lower my weight dropped, the more irrational my thoughts about food and weight became. My mind was playing tricks on me. I honestly had no idea how thin I really was. To me, eating a whole apple was “splurging”. I would eat half and throw the other half away before I’d be “tempted” to finish it. And on the rare occasions I did “give in” and eat the whole apple, I would berate myself. My eating disorder would tell me I was fat and ugly and worthless and that I didn’t deserve to live.
By the time I returned home in May of 2009, my weight had dropped well below 100 pounds—I won’t give the specific number for fear of triggering someone who may be reading. Looking back on it, it is amazing to me that I was able to finish out that semester—with straight A’s, no less.
My parents were terrified. I hadn’t seen them in awhile, and they were shocked when they saw me again. I expressed some of my anxieties about food and compulsions to exercise with them, but they were very uneducated in the area of eating disorders—as was I. My doctor took blood tests and they came back normal (note to readers: normal blood results DOES NOT mean everything is ok!). My parents and I went to France for 2 weeks that May. I still cannot believe the doctor allowed it. However, that trip to France was a real turning point for me. In a new environment, I suddenly found myself faced with all kinds of new things—people, places, languages, sights, sounds, smells—and, of course, food. So, for some reason, I held nothing back. For those two weeks, my eating disorder fell by the wayside as I indulged in chocolate éclairs, crispy croissants, a multitude of wines, escargot, beef bourguignon, and sweet sorbets. I gained at least 5 pounds, and finally started to find life worth living again.
However, little did I know, this was just the beginning. I thought recovery would be easy, and I thought I could do it on my own. I started seeing a nutritionist and therapist weekly, and managed to put on a few pounds before my senior year of college in the fall of 2009, but I was far from being “in the clear”…
3 weeks into my senior year, I returned home on a random Thursday when a class was cancelled…and I never went back. In those 3 weeks, I had lost almost all of the weight I had gained over the summer, was exercising obsessively, and had pretty much cut all fat and carbohydrates from my already meager diet.
With the support of my parents and treatment team, I made the most difficult decision of my adult life—I dropped out of college and signed myself in to an inpatient treatment facility at the eating disorders unit of the hospital.
I was scared, disappointed, overwhelmed, and upset, but in a way, I was relieved. Finally, I found people who understood what I was going through. Finally, I had reached out for help. Finally, I had given up control. Being inpatient was no picnic (again, no pun intended), and my blood sugar and heart rate were so low those first few days that I was checked up on every 15 minutes in the night to make sure I didn’t stop breathing in my sleep. But I wasn’t scared for myself. I was too numb and shocked for that. Instead, I worried about my parents, whose eyes filled with tears every time they visited me. I worried about how they would live without their only daughter. So, for them—at least at first—I decided to recover.
I followed the program’s meal plan without complaint, even when it left me bloated and uncomfortable and filled with disgust. Once released, I attended intensive outpatient treatment 4 days per week for several months. I was weighed once a week, and ate dinner each night in the program. Some days I resented the people who were only there to help me. Some days I considered not showing up. Some days I wanted the comfort and security that my eating disorder had provided, rather than the scary reality of moving on with my life. However, I kept going, even on the toughest of days.
That was last fall and winter. Since then, I have slowly been piecing my life back together. I commuted to a college closer to home in the spring so I could attend treatment and still lean on my parents for support. I am in a new relationship with a guy who is kind, patient, and listens when I need him. And, when I just need a good laugh, he is there with a funny joke or a random story. I got a job for the 2010 Census this past spring. Finally, at 22, I am beginning to live my life again.
I am nowhere near full recovery, but I also know I am far from where I was 2 years ago. I am finally healthier, stronger, and more confident.
I won’t lie and say I love my body now that I’ve gained weight back. And I won’t lie and say I look in the mirror and love everything I see. But, through my experiences and my treatment, I have learned that maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s not about being perfect or being skinny. After all, I was the skinniest person I knew for a long time—and I was also the least happy.
Beauty isn’t the best makeup or perfect hair or a meticulous manicure. Beauty isn’t a tight butt or luscious lips or long, lean legs. Beauty isn’t a flat tummy or perky breasts or delicate hands.
Beauty comes in all forms—beauty is a laugh shared between two friends, or a shooting star on a summer night, or a hug from a loved one.
Beauty is the scar on your shin from when you fell off your bike in the third grade. It’s the stretch marks on your stomach from when you held your child’s body in your womb. It’s the cut on your finger from when you were slicing vegetables while making dinner for your husband. Beauty is when your hair is all messed up from riding with the top down. Beauty is the delicate sound of your daughter’s laugh. Beauty is so many things. Beauty isn’t just physical.
So, please, don’t listen to those ads and commercials that tell you that all of your problems will disappear if you could just reach that magic number on the scale. Instead, listen to your heart when it tells you that the person you are with is worth it, or when your mind lingers over a particular passage in a book.
And maybe, even though it’s cheesy and a little cliché, just listen to your boyfriend/husband/partner/friend/mother/teacher when they say:
“You are beautiful just the way you are.”