‘‘Do I look fat in this?” I asked my mom as I tried on my piano recital dress. It was red, with a big bow on the front, in a baby doll style where the skirt puffs out. I was 14 years old. “Of course not,” she said. I rolled my eyes knowing that she was just trying to make me feel good.
Looking back, “fat” is the last word I would have used to describe myself, but back then I looked in the mirror and saw bulges. When I put on jeans I felt like my fat was trying to break free. I was 5-foot-6 and 127 pounds and my doctor told me I was healthy. He said I weighed a little more than my classmates because I was taller than them. But when I looked at the gorgeous women on America’s Next Top Model who were taller and thinner than me, I felt chunky.
My older sister has always been thin and she models a little. I wanted to look like her. It seemed like she could eat anything, not exercise and stay the same weight. My mom would constantly remind me how beautiful I was, but when I looked at my 48-year-old mother, all I saw was how beautiful she was. My mother and I could wear the same jeans and tops so most people called us “twins.” I know my mom felt great that people compared her to a teenager, but I didn’t like that our bodies were so similar.
I wanted to look like the popular girls
In eighth grade, I started at a new school and didn’t know anyone. At my old all-girls school I would just put on my uniform skirt and shirt and head to school, not trying to impress anyone. At my new school, girls wore tons of makeup and wore their skirts way higher than my old Catholic-school limit. The prettiest girls were the cheerleaders with long blond hair and small waists. They sat with each other at lunch, always laughing and wearing their uniforms. I felt like they would like me if I were as skinny as them.
I complained to my parents that I didn’t like my new school, but after a few months I realized that they weren’t going to let me transfer. So I stopped complaining, kept my problems to myself and decided I would try to make people look at me the way I looked at them. That meant losing weight.
My first step was working out. To lose weight, I played a sport each season—volleyball, soccer and basketball—and worked my butt off to stay fit. I’d be the one who wanted to practice twice a day. I’d also do 30 sit-ups every day. And three or four days a week I’d run on the treadmill for 45 minutes to an hour. I would do this even after I had my hour-long practice.
Exercising made me feel strong and healthy, but when I sat down I hated the way my thighs expanded on the chair. I’d ask my mom “How do I look?” She would tell me, “Well you look nice, but if you want to lose weight then just eat the way I do.” Her diet didn’t allow her to eat flour or foods with artificial sweetener or added sugar. This meant no cake, cookies or even some Starbucks drinks. I thought that was so extreme. I’d be embarrassed if I was on the same diet as my mom. I didn’t think 14-year-olds went on diets.
In December I started skipping meals. My mom would ask me why I was eating less. I’d say I wasn’t that hungry. On weekends my mom made big breakfasts with waffles, bacon, eggs and potatoes, and I had to eat them. Those days I would skip lunch and for dinner I would put smaller portions on my plate. Once I went to Johnny Rockets with a friend. I ordered fries, which I didn’t even finish, and water. She ordered a chili burger and a root beer float. She said, “This is too big, do you want some?” I replied, “No, I’m good,” but secretly I did because I was really hungry.
I began to get headaches. Sometimes I’d get woozy during soccer practice. I was always hungry and always thinking about my favorite foods like pizza and pasta. I even ate ice and imagined it was food. I thought that eventually I’d lose weight and have the body I wanted and everyone would say, “Whoa, she looks really good.”
After a few weeks, my mom would ask me why I was losing my appetite. I’d shrug and say that I wasn’t hungry or that I had decided to eat healthier. Then I would try to change the subject quickly so she wouldn’t suspect anything. Even with smaller portions, I still ended up just moving the food around on my plate. When I talk to my mom about this today, she says she always knew something was wrong. She called it a “mother’s intuition.”
By Christmas break I’d lost only two or three pounds and I didn’t look any different. How was I supposed to lose weight? I used to think that puking away the weight was disgusting, but since nothing else was working I was ready to try it.
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One day in January, my mom made a delicious meal with bow-tie pasta in cheesy cream sauce with small chunks of lobster and shrimp. I ate two bowls of pasta until I felt stuffed, a feeling I immediately wanted to go away.
When I finished I ran downstairs to the bathroom, got on my knees and forced myself to throw up into the toilet until I felt empty inside. I thought I would feel better, but instead I felt weak and disgusting. I wiped my mouth and sat on the cold tile floor and laid my head against the wall. My throat stung from the stomach acid and I felt very cold. My hands were shaking and I started coughing and trying to catch my breath. The worst part was that I knew what I was doing was wrong.
When I was around 9 or 10, my mom was a nurse and she used to go to group homes where girls with eating disorders got treatment. The girls had anorexia (when you starve yourself) and bulimia (when you throw up after you eat). Sometimes I joined my mom when she went there to give the girls their medications.
My mom had told me how dangerous eating disorders were
My mom explained how harmful starvation and purging can be to your body. Your teeth could rot from the excessive vomiting. It can cause you to feel very faint from the lack of nutrients, and you can die. The girls in these houses had luckily been sent there to get help before their disorders became fatal. She also said that most people who have eating disorders have them because it gives them a sense of control. I knew so much about eating disorders, but somehow I was sucked into this illusion that I didn’t look good enough.
But knowing all that information about eating disorders didn’t stop me from throwing up. I came up with ways to excuse myself from meals without being caught. At restaurants I’d go to the bathroom when everyone was too caught up in their conversations. If someone was in the bathroom, I’d wait until she left.
Puking left me hungry, tired and lightheaded. At this point I was eating only dinner and a snack every day and sometimes I threw up after my dinner. When the headaches were unbearable, I would have another snack that I wouldn’t throw up. This would include a small bag of chips or something else unhealthy, which probably contributed to me not losing much weight.
I couldn’t talk about this with anyone, even though I wanted to. I thought people would think that I was taking the easy way out by puking up my food instead of using a healthy diet and exercise to lose weight.
That February after I’d lost a total of four pounds, I finally got the guts to tell a friend. I wanted to know if I was the only one who was so insecure. When I told my friend, she looked at me shocked, but then turned her head as if trying to avoid eye contact. I felt like I had uncovered a secret about her as well. She told me that she used to have an eating disorder, and she didn’t lose much weight either. I was surprised that she was telling me this. At this point, I was relieved that I wasn’t the only one who felt like this and I realized how alike we were. We had the same body shape and played the same sports and people even thought we looked alike. After she told me, she looked ashamed of herself and sad that I was doing the same thing.
“It’s something that a lot of girls think about and try, but in the end it doesn’t really work,” she said. I expected her to lecture me about how wrong it was, and how much damage it could do to my body, but she didn’t. “I know you’re not going to listen to me, but you should know that it doesn’t work and it’s just going to make you feel sicker.” I thought she was probably right, but I couldn’t stop for a few more weeks.
One day in March, after having lost only about six pounds, I looked in the mirror. I looked really tired. My eyes felt heavy and I always wanted to sleep. I felt ashamed. I didn’t recognize the worn out young lady who had lost all the sparkle in her eyes. I knew then that nothing was worth looking like this.
I thought about what my friend had said and told myself that I needed to learn to be happy with who I am. I was making myself sick. If I kept not eating and got worse, my mom could find out and I could end up in the hospital. I didn’t want to end up like one of those girls in the group home who my mom used to give medication to.
I’m working on liking my body as it is
It wasn’t very hard to start eating again. I ordered my much-missed onion rings and a root beer float when I went out to eat. I didn’t worry about how I would get rid of the carbs I had just eaten. On some occasions, I would eat a nice cheesy slice of pizza and then go into the bathroom and look in the mirror. But now when I did this, I stopped zooming in on my imperfections. “I am beautiful on the inside and outside,” I thought. Whether I believed this or not was not the point. I had to keep saying it to myself, to make myself believe. It served as a reminder and eventually helped my self-esteem.
Today I am hard on myself about things like school and sports, and I focus much less on my weight. I still see skinny model-like girls and envy them. But while I think it’s natural for me to want something I don’t have, I no longer let my envy drive me to starve myself. In the end the only thing that matters is how I feel about myself and I care less and less about people who might not accept me.
But this isn’t one of those stories where suddenly I thought I had the perfect body. I still try on clothes and don’t always like how I look. Sometimes, I still see love handles but I remember that everyone has imperfections. Sometimes I have to tell myself to eat all my food or eat three meals a day. Deep down, I occasionally want to slip back into my old ways or I feel guilty about eating something like a hamburger, but I tell myself that starving myself is out of the question.
Where to turn
If you think you have an eating disorder, you can get help. Check out these websites for information and referrals to treatment centers and support groups.
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders
(630) 577-1330 or email@example.com
National Eating Disorders Association
Something Fishy website on eating disorders