Health class. Seventh grade. Nineteen-ninety something or other.
“Today, we’ll be talking about eating disorders,” the teacher said. “Read the chapter in your textbook and take notes on the different kinds of eating disorders that are mentioned. After you’re finished reading, we’ll discuss. “
Each of the chapter’s sections bore an italicized heading. In my notebook, I carefully printed those headings and bulleted out some of the signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. That’s as far as I got in the chapter before the videos began.
One was a documentary chronicling the experience of teenagers with these two conditions; the other was a dramatization of another young woman’s struggle with anorexia, which ultimately ended in her death.
Other eating disorders existed, we were told, but anorexia and bulimia were the main ones. I left the class believing that eating disorders were an overblown response to societal pressures to be skinny. These poor people, I’d learned, were ruled by their obsession with thinness, and they needed serious mental health support in order to overcome it.
I wasn’t one of these people.
In a world that idealizes thinness, fatness is seen as a personal failing
Fat. Say it out loud. Go ahead.
The word makes me uncomfortable. True, it’s just an adjective. But the word fat suggests so many negative associations that we have trouble applying it, even to a person who insists they’d prefer it over another euphemism.
I occasionally refer to myself as fat in front of certain people, trying on the label. Others, after all, can claim the term as their own and seem very happy doing it. When I use the word myself, though, I’m immediately met with resistance. “You’re not fat,” someone might say. “You’re beautiful.” As if the two can’t exist in the same body.
It’s a tricky word, I’ll admit. There’s no single objective definition of fat. I’ve thought I was fat most of my life, whether I was a 135-lb high-school student or a 240-lb mother of two. But whatever my weight, and regardless of the label to which I subscribed, one idea has always stuck with me: My weight is my responsibility.
If I’m fat, it’s because I don’t try hard enough. I lack the self-control to monitor my food intake. I don’t know enough about nutrition. I don’t exercise enough.
I don’t want badly enough to not be fat.
Consider the difference, solidified in my mind that day in health class: People who are too thin suffer from a disorder for which they need mental health support; those who are too fat are simply not trying hard enough.
I eat too much
There are a lot of reasons people become and remain fat. On its face, mine appears simple. I eat too much.
I can knock out a bag of candy in a day. A sleeve of cookies in one sitting. A box of crackers or a bag of chips before my kids get home from school and see them.
I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember. Some of my only memories of eating when I was a kid are of shoving food into my mouth, yet still feeling hungry. Others are of being questioned by my mother about where the new box of bacon-flavored crackers went or what happened to the last six Hostess cupcakes.
My favorite place is the break room at work. On any given day, there might be a birthday celebration, a special breakfast put on by parents for Teacher Appreciation Day, or just someone’s leftover baklava from a weekend party.
On a good day, I will avoid even going through the door. These are the days that give me the self-confidence to know I can restrain myself if needed. Most days, though, aren’t good days. Most days, I’ll walk in looking for a cup of coffee or to refill my water bottle, and I’ll find a couple of dozen donuts staring me in the face. I’ll tell myself I’ll only eat half of one, but by the end of the day, I’ll have visited the break room half a dozen more times and eaten more of the goodies than I can count.
I don’t talk about it. I don’t tell anyone. I’ve gotten one or two comments over the years, from people who genuinely care about me and are concerned with my compulsive eating. That just made me better at hiding it.
I feel guilty and ashamed. Gross. Out of control. Disgusting. Like this is something I should be able to manage on my own, and that my failure to do so was an indictment of my very character and worth as a human being.
It took me nearly three decades to realize I had an eating disorder
I was in my thirties before I started asking earnestly for help with what I then called my food issues.
“I need someone to hold me accountable,” I said to a personal trainer. “Can you just send me a quick text a couple of times a day to ask what I’ve been eating?”
“Sure,” they responded, but it didn’t last the week.
“Can you be my accountability buddy?” I asked a friend, who I’d recently learned had lost a considerable amount of weight.
“Sure,” she said, but it never got off the ground.
I looked into professional accountability coaches, but they were exorbitantly priced and I couldn’t justify it.
I ended up doing the only thing I knew how to do: I abstained. Of course, I couldn’t abstain from all food, but I could avoid what I knew were my triggers – sweet, sugary foods that would set me off on a (what was the word for it? Oh yeah. Now I can say it ) binge. If I declined these foods, my food issues would have a much harder time rearing their ugly heads.
“You can’t deprive yourself forever, though,” said a well-meaning friend who was wholly unaware of what it felt like to be me with a half-dozen whipped-cream-frosted cupcakes sitting in front of me.
Comments like this, rather than providing comfort, left me feeling even more alone in the world. I didn’t think anyone could understand what I was going through, and I didn’t seek help from support groups like Overeaters Anonymous because I was still under the belief most days that I should be able to manage my issues on my own.
Even in therapy, I never want to talk about “the food thing.” I will spend more than half of a therapy session complaining about home construction, my parents, my husband, my kids, the fact that I can’t focus on my work – anything to avoid talking about what I’m really there for.
Despite my long-standing avoidance, over the last several years I’ve become more aware of my issues and my triggers, and I’ve slowly drifted through the idea that I have an unhealthy relationship with food, followed by food addiction, then disordered eating, and finally what I can on most days call binge eating disorder.
My eating disorder developed when I was a child, from a lot of different factors meeting up at once.
I was pretty neglected when it came to food when I was a kid. In my family, food was never connected in any meaningful way to health and nutrition. I rarely saw actual examples of healthy eating, and most of the messages I got were around looks (thin is in!) And diets (advertisements for weight loss systems, even in the ’80s and’ 90s, were everywhere).
Not once was I praised for my physical existence. When my body or looks were acknowledged at all, it was a criticism. My grandmother, my mother, even other kids – they all seemed to have some problem or another with my body.
A mantra that played in my head, bass line to the melody of worthlessness, loneliness, and guilt, was that I was already fat so there was no use in trying to be anything different.
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I experienced a lot of trauma that made me seek out my own ways of comforting myself because there were not a lot of comforts to be found from those who were charged with caring about me.
In short, my disorder developed as an attempt to control something – anything – about my life, which seemed so out of my control.
I suspect many eating disorders develop in this way, though of course there are many different causes and signs of eating disorders.
My eating disorder is not my fault, and it’s okay to need help recovering
I have a disorder that developed as a coping mechanism for a life that was out of control. It developed outside of the realm of adult logic, and I required professional help to overcome it.
This can be very perplexing to someone who doesn’t suffer as I do. It can be frustrating to someone who, like me, has been socialized to believe eating disorders always leave their victims rail-thin and that fatness is a result of personal weakness.
It took me years to finally learn this, but at last, I have.
It’s not that I don’t want badly enough not to be fat. It’s not that I have no self-control. It’s not that I’m a worthless failure of a person.
I have an eating disorder. A disorder for which I needed mental health support. And once I accepted that, I was able to start taking steps toward recovery.
Learn more and get help: www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
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Nikki Kay writes fiction, poetry, personal essays about parenting, mental health, and the intersection of the two. Check out her column Invisible Illness.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.