National Eating Disorder Awareness Week

This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. As part of the Come As You Are campaign, I want to be vulnerable (eek!) and share my story with you, with the hope that it can help someone.

I don’t think there was a time when I was not self-conscious about my body. I grew up in the early 2000s, so low-fat, diet foods, and rail-thin actresses were the norms. No one ever talked about larger bodies being okay. We didn’t have plus-sized role models. Instead, there were commercials about diet pills, eating magic foods for the “perfect” body, and fat jokes made in children tv programs; messages I internalized to mean smaller is better.

In middle school, I stood at 5’5″, 140 lbs, with an adult-sized chest and short curly hair, looking noticeably different than my petite Hispanic friends. While this is the size of the average woman, as a pre-teen, I felt out of place. I was tired of being big. I wanted to shrink and become small like everyone else. I wore sweatshirts when it was hot so that others wouldn’t see my rolls. I ate salads without dressing for lunch when I wanted to eat chicken nuggets like the other kids in my class. I wanted to be normal, but I told myself I couldn’t be because I thought I was a fat kid.

I got my first phone at 13, and I downloaded the app LoseIt. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my app usage was slowly damaging my relationship with food. LoseIt taught me how many calories I was “allowed to eat” (not enough for a living teenager) and that bananas were definitely off-limits because they had way too many calories (eye roll). My competitive nature kicked in, and soon it became a challenge to see how large my calorie deficit could be. Two hundred calorie deficits eventually turned into 1000 calories. The praise I received for my “hard work” and losing weight made calorie counting even more addicting. Soon my entire life surrounded how much or little I was eating. I couldn’t focus on school and definitely not on social relationships. The numerous notebooks I have filled with calorie counts and meal plans reveal the amount of energy and time my eating disorder took away from me during my adolescent years.

After over a year of struggling with these obsessive thoughts around food, I eventually did get help. Recovery led to gaining the lost weight back and eating more of the foods I once considered “forbidden.” Since society tends to associate eating disorders to a certain size, to those around me, I looked “cured,” and therefore, it appeared I no longer needed support. The truth is, I felt more helpless at a larger weight than I did at a smaller weight. The obsessive thoughts around food increased, as did binges and feelings of guilt and shame. I couldn’t help but think of the compliments I received in the depths of my eating disorder for my weight loss. The thought crossed my mind that if praise is given for losing weight, weight gain must result in criticism.

What I wish people knew then, was disordered eating patterns are found in all body sizes and individuals, despite what we see in our textbooks of white, thin women. Your ability to receive help is not conditional on your weight. Interestingly, we praise diets and frown upon eating disorders, yet they are similar in nature, founded on restriction, deprivation, and obsession. For this reason, I’m so grateful for NEDA bringing awareness to this issue and the dangers of diet culture and weight talk.

So, where do I stand today?

As much I would like to say I’m free from the influence of diet culture, it still has some effect on me. I can honestly say I accept others without judgment, regardless of their looks, but I struggle to treat myself with the same kindness. I’ve come a long way. I now eat potatoes and pasta, foods I once labeled “bad”, and I will serve myself a bowl of ice cream for dessert. Yet, at the same time, I also feel down when I am the biggest dietitian in the room or see a picture where I look different than I imagined I did. The path to recovery and self-acceptance is a process. It requires going outside our comfort zones a little bit every day and knowing that discomfort is a sign of progression. My old boss used to say, “If you’re stuck in the mud, sometimes you have to get out of the car, get dirty, and get yourself unstuck.” When you struggle with food or body issues, “getting dirty in the mud” may look like gaining weight as a result of improved health, eating foods that seem scary, or not tracking your calories this week.

How am I achieving self-acceptance?

As a type-A person, I’m not too fond of the idea of being stagnant. I’ve avoided striving for self-acceptance because it seemed that being okay yourself halted progression. When, in fact, it’s actually the exact opposite. Just as we treat our valuable items with care, when we respect our bodies, we honor them with nourishing food, sleep, joyful movement, and loving relationships. Plus, research shows as humans, we grow more with love than shame (a.k.a. why fat-shaming doesn’t work).

I am taking steps to self-acceptance by first realizing that I have talents and gifts, other than having a supermodel body, that needs to be shared with the world. As uncomfortable as it may be to be seen in a body I don’t love, other people need role models who look like them. When I hide because I’m waiting to have a different shape, the only message I’m sending is you have to be in a smaller body to achieve greatness. I remind myself that negative self-talk doesn’t help me or anyone around me; it only shifts my focus from helping others and doing good onto myself.

What Messages Need To Be Shared:

There millions of people out there with similar stories, so my specific experience isn’t as important as knowing what we can do moving forward. I hope you take these messages with you and share them with your friends, family, and internalize them yourself.

  • Eating Disorders don’t have a look. The scale doesn’t indicate how sick you are. You can receive help at any shape or size. If someone tells you otherwise, you need to go somewhere else for advice.
  • Stop commenting on people’s weight. It doesn’t matter if you think their weight makes them unhealthy. People receive millions of messages telling them they need to be smaller. They don’t need yours added to it. If you really care about someone’s health, help them make a plant-based dinner, let them vent to relieve stress, or ask them to go to a Zumba class with you to bond/move joyfully.
  • Eating disorders are the number one most deadly mental illness and need to be caught at early stages. If someone is showing signs of obsessiveness or stress around being healthy or if they are neglecting other aspects of life for “health”, it may be a red flag for disordered eating behaviors.
  • Recovery is a process and requires active work. It’s physical, behavioral, and physiological. Don’t give up on yourself!

Check out NEDA on Instagram @neda. Share your story and what you are doing to achieve self acceptance with #comeasyouare.

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