vulnerable: our disordered culture and my disordered eating

This essay contains content about eating disorders that may be upsetting, please continue with care.

Thank you for approaching this tender work with compassion for me, and for yourself.

author’s note: I offer this content in hopes that it resonates with other humans’ experiences as we collectively continue to exist in a fatphobic culture that equates health with thinness and thinness with value. Although a more accepting society is emerging in terms of body size, growing up in the fat free 90s and watching the rail thin ideal of 2000s has left an indelible mark on my generation.

the rogue feminist — Mean Girls: Feminist Review and Analysis

I have struggled with disordered eating since I was in middle school, alternating between cycles of purging, binging, and restriction. My disordered eating had never been prioritized by professionals managing my health because I exist in a fat body, despite the fact that I had been to eating disorder group therapy and formally diagnosed with EDNOS.

When I sought help last spring, I finally found a nutritionist willing to take me very seriously and acknowledge that I could be both “overweight” and malnourished from restricting so much. She practiced using intuitive eating and HAES methodologies, and seemed eager to help me for several months. I am not an easy client, though, and eventually she gave up on me. (I know that sounds dramatic, but seriously—she told me that I needed a second therapist for my eating disorder in addition to her, then just never followed up when I cancelled my next appointment. Which is fine. Clearly we weren’t meant for each other.)

Since then I have done a lot of personal work around eating and feeding myself. Most of it felt incredibly hopeless, but recently I have started to break through and relate to food in a new way that is pleasant and liberating. Unraveling takes decades. A journal entry I made during my work with the nutritionist last year turned into an essay that I’m pleased to present to you today.

As a writer, I have become gradually more comfortable sharing stories that feel vulnerable to me, but talking about my relationship to food and to my human body is much more complicated. Writing boldly to the world about this has taken me years, but the hardest stories to tell are the most important.

Mid 2020

To my younger parts:

Throughout our life together, you’ve had to deal with a lot of really challenging things. From our most tender years, we have been the object of sexual abuse and sexualization by males much older than us. For so long that is the only life we knew or understood. Whenever we tried to change anything, mom and dad would make fun of us. They constantly criticized our appearance. They actively forced you to do things you shouldn’t have had to do, sweet eight year old. Third graders don’t need to wear bras and shave their legs, they need to play on the monkey bars with their friends and learn cat’s cradle. I’m sorry that you didn’t get to enjoy your childhood like you should have. It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair at all. 

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But I remember when we were eight, and I remember how you were horrified by the fact that you already weighed one hundred pounds. I know just how horrified you were, because you still tell me about it all the time. It was really impactful to you, standing in the hallway of your elementary school in front of a wall with pictures of all your teachers. That shame rooted deep in us, and we are still trying to weed it from the soil of our soul. Our little sister ran around the house showing off her four year old six-pack abs while everyone poked fun at our soft belly. The adults encouraged it, thought it was great fun. That wasn’t kind. You didn’t deserve that. You don’t deserve that. 

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All the real curves women still had flat flat flat tummies.

That’s when we decided that we didn’t like chocolate milk. Except, we really do like chocolate milk, but dad always talked about how it would make us even more fat. And in the early 2000s, there wasn’t anything worse than being fat. Every celebrity you admired was rail thin. We didn’t have Ashley Graham or Tess Holliday or Lizzo. You had never seen anybody on TV that looked anything like you. You decided that you would never admit to having a crush on a boy in fears that he would be actively disgusted just by your interest. You wondered how you could ever look like Lindsey Lohan looked in Mean Girls when your mom’s friend Rebekah took you to see it after school. I mean, an entire string of the plotline to ruin Regina’s life is making her so “fat” that she can’t get her prom dress from the store she wants because it stops at a size five. I know that it felt like shit to sit there and watch that knowing that you wouldn’t even fit in that dress. What did that mean about you? Other people convinced you that it meant everything, but I promise you, it meant nothing at all.

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I know that things just got harder from there. I can’t count the number of exercise initiatives and diets that you had to endure, child self. I am so sorry that you grew up in a world where movement never felt joyful. It took twenty years for us to find our way to yoga, and I can feel your playfulness in my practice. Finally, the young parts can move this body for pleasure rather than punishment. Two decades is a long time, but I promise, babies, the suffering to come can and will be avoided. We aren’t ever going back there. We aren’t ever going to be stuck in that house with those opinions. Existing as you are is more than enough. I accept you, just like that. 

We spent hours on the internet in high school learning new ways to starve. We talked to girls who talked to their eating disorders, named them Ana or Mia and spoke to them like a frenemy. We read about the princess diet, an effort to sleep as many hours per day as possible, because you can’t eat while you’re sleeping. We tried diets where nothing but liquids could be consumed. We threw away our lunch or just didn’t buy any at all. We lived on sugar free energy drinks for days at a time. After mom caught us bingeing and purging in middle school, we learned to put that on hold, at least til we moved out. Not eating was the way to go. Oh, teenage self. I remember exactly the way you thought. You still think that way, especially when we are at school. You never let us eat at school, even at law school, although we’ve spent thousands of hours there.

Who are Ana and Mia? - Janine DeMichele Baggett
I just found this image from a google search, but I legitimately had this exact picture saved on my computer as a teenager.

 

But I know you noticed that your classmates all gained weight in the stressful first year, if only because they constantly complained about it. And I know how you felt, even in this adult body, when a friend at school asked you if you were sick because you’d lost so much weight so fast. I remember your reaction when another friend expressed concern that she had never seen us consume anything but sparkling water and shots of espresso. You told me, see, look, people are watching us, they notice our body, they know what we eat. Yes, I know what you think, darling, I remember all your teenage feelings like they were today. How could I ever let anyone see I eat when I was so much bigger than they were? When my friends could all buy size two jeans and I had to buy a size twelve? When my chubby inner thighs rubbed together at volleyball practice so much they bled?  Dad was so angry when he found out we were skipping lunch and we explained our reasons. “What’s the point? Do you think that people are really going to believe that you don’t eat?” God, dad, I fucking hope so. 

Always the ugly Friend
I taught myself not to be hungry, I stopped eating, and my external body barely changed at all.

Even before thirteen, we were secretly bitter with our friends who ate the exact same thing we did and “achieved” such different results. They would complain about feeling fat, about gaining weight, about being monstrous. All of them were smaller than us, and it felt like shit. If you believe fat makes you a disgusting, bad person who needs improvement, what does that make me?

Princesas de porcelana – Dejámelo pensar

With all of these things, it’s completely understandable that your eating patterns are so fucked up. I know that’s hard for you to accept or believe. But remember when your sister talked to us about her disordered eating? Did you tell her that she should keep starving herself? No. You, sweet sixteen self, just responded to me right now and said “no, but she doesn’t need to be smaller” and I acknowledge that you feel that way…but we both know that even if she was exactly our size, we would never say that to her. I would, and did, tell her, that this isn’t her fault, that it didn’t start with her, and that there’s almost no way she could’ve grown up with our parents and not have disordered eating, since they both have their own unique flavor. And I offered to help her find professional help. 

I have brought you help in many forms, small parts, but we’re still fiercely holding on to old habits. Group therapy, regular therapy, books, body positivity, journal prompts, research on fat activism. None of these things were strong enough to conquer the shame.  I know we hold on because it makes us feel safe. But it’s actually becoming really unsafe. Like, we are malnourished at least half the time. We don’t even drink any water. We go days without eating if nobody is around. And it’s not conferring any benefit to us. Maybe our waist is a little smaller but we still feel the same. Our tummy will always be soft. These inner thighs will always rub together. We have been punishing this body for so many things that it could never even avoid. 

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the infamous tumblr thigh gap

You remember every man who ever commented on your weight because it hurt you. You were only in eighth grade and even the teacher sided with your bully. You could never live down your chipmunk cheeks. Your abusive eighteen year old boyfriend had no right to make you feel small because of the size of your hips. I know that you can’t imagine feeling free enough to eat at will in front of a room you are sure notices your every bite.  I acknowledge that that is so difficult for you, younger parts. It’s difficult for me, too. 

But we have to do something. Because the alternative is bleak. Even without the physical health consequences, this has wreaked too much havoc on our mental peace to go on. We have worked so hard, I have worked so hard, and you, little Amandas, have worked incredibly fucking hard to climb out of a pit of PTSD and depression. We can’t live the life we deserve to have without eating. We can’t be stuck in a cycle of restriction forever. It’s time to let go, little ones. We are too growth oriented to stay stuck for always. 

I believe that you are each strong enough to take on the entire world. But you don’t have to do that anymore. It’s okay if you go play in the rooms of my heart or if you lay down and rest. It’s my turn to deal with this world, and you don’t have to do it for me anymore. Even when I’m scared now, I’m better at taking care of you. I promise I will keep you safe, even if you have breakfast or lunch, even if you have breakfast and lunch. Even if you have eighteen snacks. Even if you eat everything in our entire kitchen. We’ll go to the grocery store and start over. We will sit and fold our hands and thank the universe for feeding us again.

These are the things I swear to you, inner children: I promise I will help you keep trying to aparigraha away your shame and sadness and hurt, but I will always acknowledge how real and important those feelings are. I promise we will only move in ways that bring joy, and that we will never exercise to punish you again. I promise we will refuse to talk to anybody who isn’t a professional about the size of our body, what we eat, or anything else. And, I promise that if you don’t feel comfortable talking to some professionals about this, I will never ever make you. 

Your pain is real. Your suffering is real, but optional. We can eliminate the kind of suffering you’ve had to experience from our life. Your shame is real too, but it has been created by people who never managed to overcome their own. We can dismantle it together. 

I know that reading these things might not make it any easier to eat like “normal” people do. I never promised it would be easy. It won’t ever be easy. But babies, think of how worth it it will be to be free. To eat what we want when we are hungry without having to have days worth of internal dialogue about it. To stop counting the hours between meals like beads on a rosary. To have seconds when we’re still hungry no matter who’s sitting across the table. And to be healthy, and well, and nourished. We deserve that. You all deserve that.

With all my love and goodness, 

your wisest self 

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