*Trigger warning: this post will cover disordered eating, and my early experiences with restriction.
I’m avoiding writing today because what I want to write about is scary. What I want to write about is personal. What I want to write about makes me feel vulnerable, naked, unnerved. What I want to write about is body size, weight, restriction, and recovery. This morning, after years of heading toward recovery, I tried on a skirt that was once too big and is now barely the right size and I landed in a tailspin of shame. I try to tell myself that I love my body at any size, but I don’t know if that is totally true yet. To process, I thought I’d share some of my story. My journey is still ongoing.
When I was four, my dad declined to buy me the Cheeze-Its I requested, because they are unhealthy. In their place, he bought me pretzel thins, probably saltless, which tasted like cardboard. They sat in my mouth, refusing to be dissolved by saliva, or to be properly dismantled by my teeth. Flecks stuck to my tongue and the roof of my mouth. Health, I learned, was a burden, but was somehow preferably to cheesy, salty, delectable snacking. My first lesson.
Around the time I was nine, my step-mom’s sister pulled me aside to feel how hard her legs were, from biking so much and subsisting on Trident sugarfree gum (the wrappers of which she scattered around the house, messy reminders of her strength) and on the boiled cabbage that had been filling our house with the smell of sulphur since her arrival. “Hit them,” she said. “They don’t jiggle at all. See? Feel?” And then we went on a bike ride. That night, I hit my own legs. They jiggled. My second lesson.
I don’t know how much I weighed by the time I was ten, but I remember feeling like I was bigger than the other girls in my class. Not fat, and years away from puberty, but larger. I was never a skinny child. Strong, my mom told me. Well-proportioned. The hit-test on my thighs (which I soon performed regularly on myself in the shower, or whenever I needed to reinforce my inadequacy) told a different story. My legs jiggled. I was not enough. My third lesson.
By the time I was in sixth grade, I learned I could substitute my normal breakfast of a bagel and yogurt with my younger sister’s toddler-portioned containers of yogurt. I learned I was okay with part of a half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I learned to leave the cheese off turkey and cheese sandwiches and to only use one slice of deli turkey. At family meals, and when I was at my mom’s house, I ate normally and so my restrictive habits went unnoticed.
I became obsessed with stories of anorexic and bulimic women. I knew it was unhealthy, I knew the articles in teen magazines and the books about recovered actresses were meant to be cautionary: do not repeat our mistakes. But I wanted their strength. I wanted their willpower. I wanted to be skinny and cool enough to have a story of my own.
In sixth grade I also discovered running. A friend suggested I take out the frustration I was feeling toward a teacher during our weekly timed mile in gym. The relief was almost instantaneous. I was hooked. I was the fastest girl, and relished the praise of my teacher. I had shunned sports before, and was always picked last for teams in elementary school. Being good at running took some (but certainly not all) of my attention away from food. If I ran, I figured, I deserved treats: a cookie, a scoop of ice cream, a soda.
In seventh grade, my friends convinced me to join an after-school running club, designed to keep kids off the street by training them to run the Los Angeles Marathon. I never intended to continue long enough for the marathon (I hadn’t run much more than a mile at a time by this point), but it was more entertaining than sitting around for hours waiting for someone to pick me up from school. But then I became hooked on increasing my mileage, and my strength. My legs hardened. I could see new muscles. The adults in my life began to comment with approval. My parents had a reason to brag (a twelve-year-old marathon runner is a unique conversation topic). I felt their pride. And I enjoyed my changing body.
Becoming vegetarian, also in seventh grade, was one more way to exert control. To keep myself from becoming fat. My decision was accepted without much fuss, as long as I promised to continue eating fish on occasion. I felt smug in my choice, powerful. I could abstain from meat. I could subsist on vegetables and ranch dressing, on salads with the dressing on the side, on soy protein powder in orange juice (horrible, horrible combination. Do not try this at home).
Still, part of me was worried about my weight, or increasing lack thereof. The rational bit at the back of my mind knew I was too thin and wanted hello. In eighth grade, after I had run the marathon, had begun running track on a club team, and had increased my mileage, strength and commitment to the sport, I was weighed in gym class. I was 5’5″ and 83 pounds. I commented to my teacher on my low weight and she replied that I had been running a lot and was fine, and gestured for the next student to step on the scale.
A picture from around this time, taken at my then-best friend’s birthday party, shows me in a bikini top, twisted to the side, my torso all rib cage. My friend told me I looked like an alien. I felt pride at having whittled away so much flesh and embarrassment and not being able to feed myself enough to look human.
My mom was worried, too, but I resented her questioning and encouragement to eat, and my weight and eating patterns only became fuel for fighting. If I ate the right amount at the right times, and compensated when I was away, peace was easier to maintain. And so I hid my restriction as much as possible, trading cake now for carrots later.
There were moments of unabandoned indulgence, when I forgot I wanted to be skinny and just enjoyed being happy, like the day I found out I had been accepted into a boarding school far away from my family and in celebration ate half a pan of brownies before track practice (also the day I discovered the visiousness of side cramps as I struggled through two-mile repeats). Or the Cinnabon I devoured at the airport the day after competing in the Junior Olympics in South Carolina.
But those moments were rare, often tinged with shame, and always connected with running.
**This is all I can handle for today. I will share the rest of my story next week. Thank you for reading.