Recovering from Body Image Issues and an Eating Disorder: My Health Journey By Elissa
My struggles with body image and insecurity started young, probably in the third or fourth grade. That was when my parents were the midst of an ugly divorce and, unfortunately, I was also going through my “chubby” pre-adolescent years (you know, the “baby fat” you have right before you hit a growth spurt?). I think this is when my self-esteem issues took root. Not only was my home life fractured and messy, but I was no longer “cute” or “pretty” like the other girls in my grade. I felt clumsy and awkward, uncomfortable in my skin. Once highly outgoing and talkative, I withdrew socially and lost several close friends.
Elementary school ended and I entered the sixth grade---middle school. I don’t know if anyone really loves middle school (if the number of horror stories written about it are any indicator), but I had a particularly hard time. As a people-pleaser, I was taken advantage of frequently and even bullied by a group of girls I had called my friends. Now I know that many kids are bullied in middle school---but at that time I didn’t know whom to talk to about it, and I kept stuffing the negative emotions in---priming me for the disordered eating patterns I would soon enter into.
The summer before eighth grade I grew five inches (to my current height) and, as a result, lost all of my “baby fat” and then some. Now thirteen, I was becoming increasingly aware of what people thought of me and was elated to find that, since that I was thinner, I was getting a lot more positive social attention. Because I was so afraid of regaining weight, I started severely restricting what I was eating. I remember that all I would bring for lunch most days was a “100-Calorie” packet of dried cranberries because I so badly needed to control what I was eating, down to the Calorie.
I was restricting so much that I was moody and chronically hungry. By the time I reached high school, I felt like I was barely keeping it together---my overexercised sense of self-control was slipping. My social anxiety started to kick in within the first few months of ninth grade. Not only was I in a new environment---a huge high school (there were over 500 kids in my grade alone)---but I was dealing with change at home, too: my dad had recently remarried and moved us into a new house out in the country. I experienced anxiety attacks. I remember thinking that I just needed a release, an “out,” an escape---and I found that in food. My first binge ever (which happened one day after school, when I was home alone) felt like pure euphoria---I ate just about everything that I hadn’t allowed myself to eat for so long. Pretty quickly, bingeing (without compensating) became a regular activity for me, anytime I needed some emotional comfort or a distraction from the stress of life. One binge won’t affect you much, but frequent bingeing will---by the time spring rolled around, I had put on twenty to twenty-five pounds and my self-esteem, already low, fell even further. This disordered eating continued into the tenth grade.
Eleventh grade was another year of great change for me and my family. Within a year’s time, my mom met, got engaged to, and married my now-stepdad...who had signed a contract to work for three years in Germany only months before meeting her. It was after moving to Germany that my self-esteem finally started to pick up slightly. Moving there was a huge adjustment, but it had also helped me to become more independent (I biked to and from school and could take the train into town to explore or go shopping). Unfortunately, I soon reverted to some old behaviors. Towards the end of 11th grade, a classmate started showing interest in me. I hadn’t really had this happen before, and when I returned to school in the fall for my senior year, I felt super motivated to lose weight “for good.” To accomplish my goal, I started off incorporating a moderate amount of exercise and keeping tabs on what I was eating---but, as the months passed, became increasingly restrictive. From September to December of that year, I lost thirty-five pounds, which off my 5-foot, 5-inch frame was extremely noticeable. I got a lot more attention at school and felt much more outgoing, but I was also miserable because I was so fearful of losing my self-control and having another binge. I remember breaking down one night because I accidentally ate “too much” at dinner and had had dessert and the feeling of being full for the first time in awhile was too much for me to handle.
In December I flew back to the States to spend Christmas with my dad’s side of the family, and that’s when my fears of bingeing again were realized. Surrounded by cookies and other sweets---my weakness---I ended up bingeing at my grandparents’ holiday party, first on Christmas cookies and then on a whole box of chocolates that I had gotten as a present. Long after everyone had gone to bed, I was in the bathroom, throwing up into the toilet bowl---I was so nauseous. I felt disgusting, regretful, and ashamed. The next day, I ended up bingeing again. This pattern continued over the break, and I felt powerless to stop it. I was terrified of returning to school, to my friends, having gained weight in only a month’s time. To compensate for the binges, which continued into the spring of my senior year, I began forcing myself to vomit and over exercising on a regular basis. At my worst, I was throwing up three to four times a day, then going to sprint up and down my street because I naively thought it would eliminate any remaining Calories in my system. These compulsive behaviors affected everything---my friendships, my family relationships, my mood and energy levels, my sleep.
Today, in my last year of college, I can truthfully say that I am a much healthier person---physically and psychologically. I may not be slim like I was for a short time in high school, but I feel much more at peace with my body now. This is the first time I’ve ever shared my story in a written way, and I think that’s a testament to how far I’ve come. In middle or high school, the shame would’ve just been too much for me---I never would have felt okay opening up about my struggles. Now I place an emphasis on developing my spiritual and emotional health, trusting that good physical health will follow. If I feel emotionally stable and spiritually sound, I am more likely to act in self-respecting ways such as working out and eating healthily. My spiritual walk has been a source of strength and comfort---praying and reading the Bible reminds me how God views me and how I should view myself. I’ve also adopted a much more moderate mindset---instead of cutting out all sweets or carbs or whatever it is I used to restrict, I now try to include those in my diet in small amounts, especially when I’m craving them. I’m not an over exerciser anymore, either---which is good, because that always made me hungry and crabby. Now, more in tune with my body, I am free to enjoy the benefits of exercise without straining myself. Trust me, if someone who has cycled from binge eating to severely restricting to engaging in harmful compensatory behaviors can recover and come to a place where she isn’t perfect, but enjoys life and doesn’t hate her body, but appreciates how much it does for her---then you can too. Never forget that you are worthy, loved, and amazingly unique.