Hi everyone! Below is a guest post written for you all by my wonderful friend, Charlotte. I asked Charlotte to share her story with us because it’s always important to recognize that eating disorders and disordered eating affect people of all genders, races, religions, sizes, socioeconomic statuses, and more.
Content warning: this post contains vague mentions of behavior use and discusses diet culture in action.
I was nine the first time I realized there might be something “wrong” with my body. My mother and I were in my bedroom and I was handing a pair of her jeans back to her.
“They don’t fit,” I told her. Already I was frustrated that she had made me try them on. She knew I hated jeans, they were never comfortable. And now I was even more frustrated that they hadn’t fit. She took them back from me, her face falling.
“Are you sure?” She asked me frowning, “Maybe you could just try one more time.” I shook my head.
“I don’t want to.”
“Please honey. Just try them on over your leggings,” she pleaded with me. I couldn’t understand why it was so important to her. But I took them back and tried them on.
“You’re so close!” she exclaimed. “They almost fit, maybe if you just– breathe all the way out for me.” I did as she asked, pulling at the too tight pants. They didn’t move. She sighed, clearly very disappointed. Had I done something wrong?
“Well, maybe next year.” She took the jeans back and left my room.
This encounter was my personal introduction to the societal belief that there is a right and a wrong way to have a body. Because of a rare insulin disorder I had in my childhood, I had always been in a bigger body. However up until this moment, this had always existed as merely a fact, rather than the moral condemnation it became. From then on I would start to think a lot about my body. I began to notice how I was different from the other kids, I was bigger, slower. Soon gym class became my own personal nightmare. This was the second time I learned that there was something wrong with my body. I learned there was something wrong with me. So at ten years old when my mother suggested I go on a diet, I jumped at the opportunity.
Because of my insulin disorder, there had always been a lot of rules in my house about food. I was told repeatedly that there were “good foods” and “bad foods.” My parents were very strict about what and how much I ate. This is when I learned shame. I began to experience shame every time I ate more than what was given to me. Food became a secret. I would sneak food at night, or when my parents weren’t looking. I had already bought into diet culture before I was even old enough to understand what it was.
What you must understand is that my mother was in no way trying to hurt me. If anything she was trying to “protect” me; both from my peers and my body. She had completely bought into diet culture. We are taught that in order to be healthy we have to limit or eradicate “bad foods,” and confine ourselves to “good foods.” This is one of the hardest things about diet culture; even while we are hurting our bodies and our minds, we believe with everything we have that we are helping ourselves. It is as if society has built us a prison that we willingly walk into, close the door and happily turn the key. All in the name of fixing ourselves.
The first diet I went on, like most “crash diets,” cut out important and necessary food groups. The rules I had already learned were reinforced and expanded. Now, there were certain ways to cook that were better for you. Because I was ten, and because I was human, I would sometimes sneak sweets. But with these new rules came a more intense shame. An unbearable shame. I wanted my body to be different. I was told that being thinner was in my control. That being thinner would make me normal. This is when I learned to hate my body. When I did lose some weight on that diet, I remember how proud everyone was of me. Instead of being something wrong, I had done something right.
My diet ended with a trauma. The two were unrelated, but my coping skills were not.
My life had become unstable and food became my only constant. I began to binge eat every day after school because it quieted my emotions. And for those moments I had control over how I was feeling; I could make myself feel better by eating, so I did. But the shame I had already developed around food followed me. I would only eat alone, and I ate past fullness. My self image plummeted. This is when I learned to hate myself.
Binge eating is a disorder that is as built into our culture as dieting. No romantic comedy is complete without the scene of the broken-hearted girl eating ice cream to cope with her sadness. We are taught to use food to handle our feelings. We are also taught to deprive ourselves which makes us want to binge. There is often a different kind of stigma around binge eating disorder. But just like other eating disorders, binge eating is a coping skill. And a mechanism to feel in control.
This period of binge eating lasted until I was 14. One day my dad caught me crying in front of a mirror. I explained I was upset because I hated the way I looked. I wanted to be beautiful, I wanted other people to think I was beautiful.
I am going to pause the story here to address something that I don’t think is talked about enough. I have always been bigger. Even at my thinnest I was still a bigger girl. As I have discussed, I was taught that this was wrong. I internalized it. When I looked in the mirror I considered myself to be ugly because I was “overweight.” But what many people overlook is that, not only was society telling me that my body was wrong, it was telling everyone around me that my body was wrong.
Bigger people aren’t treated the same as our thinner friends. We are asked out less, pitied in retail stores. We pay more for clothing, are told to wear more makeup, and are expected to be eternally grateful every time we receive romantic attention. We get comments like “you’re so pretty for a person your size,” and “are you sure you want to eat that?” This means that on the journey to self acceptance, not only are we battling with the internal voice telling us we aren’t beautiful, we are also fighting the external forces confirming that we aren’t. It adds a whole other layer to the process that needs to be addressed. Because when I was crying in front of that mirror, not only did I not think of myself as being beautiful, my own father didn’t see me as beautiful either. Which explains what he did next.
My father suggested I go on a diet, and offered to start going to the gym with me. He really believed he was being supportive. And he was helping, in the only way he knew how. He told me that if I did these things I would feel better. And I believed him. I agreed, and we began to go to the gym almost everyday before school. I cut out more food groups and became even more restrictive. For the first time in a long time, I felt in control.
Around this time in my life I was also diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I was overwhelmed by the emotions I was experiencing, and used my relationships with food and body as ways to cope. It became the only thing in my life I could really control. And I really did believe that if I lost weight, I would become beautiful, and I would finally be happy. So that became my mission.
But the thing about losing weight when you are considered “overweight,” is that no one notices or cares if you’re being dangerously unhealthy about it.
One of my most vivid memories from that time took place in an Express dressing room. I came out wearing a smaller pair of jeans, and I don’t think I had ever seen my mother that proud of me. She was practically crying. Everyone around me was so happy for me. I was hurting my body, and everyone was really, really happy.
My weight would go up and down the rest of high school. I used different behaviors at different times, but I would always return to chasing that feeling. And it was never enough. No matter how much weight I lost, I was never really happy with my body, because my body was never the issue: I was never really happy with myself.
I am 22 now, heavier than before, and I am a lot happier now than I ever was then. I have done a lot of work in therapy around body image, mental health, and self acceptance. I am rebuilding my relationship with my body and with food, because foods aren’t heroes or villains; they are just foods. This is not to say it has been easy. I am in recovery from an eating disorder and, like everyone, I have my good days and my bad days.
Looking back, there are many things I wish I could tell my little self. But the one I think is most important is I wish I had been told that there is no wrong way to have a body. So I guess that is what I will leave you all with. There is no wrong way to have a body. Your body is beautiful just as it is, and it is okay to love it just the way it is.
It takes a lot of courage to combat your inner voice and those external forces that are all telling you you aren’t enough. You deserve to take care of yourself and your body, and you deserve respect and love from the people around you. But in order to have something you maybe have never had, you must do something you have never done. So, we must be brave.
Charlotte’s story highlights the ways that diet culture can be present in our lives from the get-go. Through the sharing of her story, Charlotte hopes to raise awareness that eating disorders affect people of all shapes, sizes, races, genders, ages, religions, and socioeconomic statuses. Help is available to all.
Charlotte holds a degree in counseling and loves spending time outside. She can be found on instagram at @charlotteagain.