“You’re so skinny, Mary!”
I haven’t heard that in a while. As I type, an article titled “Thinner People Eat This Many Meals A Day” is open in my browser. For the first three years of college, I was skinny. Skinny enough that my twin sister admits that people would ask her if I had an eating disorder.
When people exalted my slenderness, I laughed it off, but inside, I knew they were right. I was thin. And I was one of the lucky ones. Without too much effort, my weight barely tiptoed over 110 pounds.
I never had to worry about what my arms looked like in sleeveless tops and committed the cardinal sin of fashion by wearing leggings as pants on a regular basis.
However, in the summer of 2014, something changed—maybe it was the emotions of my childhood dog dying, the imminent reality of senior year of college, or perhaps that my metabolism just gave up on me. Between May and December 2014 I gained somewhere between twenty-five to thirty pounds.
(Disclosure—I would probably not be considered overweight by most, and am still considered “small” by many—including a lovely middle age woman in the underwear section of my local Target.)
I can no longer fit into my size zero boyfriend style jeans that I loved so much my sophomore year of college. There are times that I feel like shit about my body, as if my whole identity and self worth rests on that pair of size two dark wash skinny jeans that are shoved somewhere in the bottom of a box in the basement.
My friends and acquaintances said this as if it was a compliment, as opposed to stating the obvious. However, I do not believe my friends meant any harm in this statement. Their words were simply a reflection of the culture in which we exist—skinny is good, anything else is bad.
Weight is tricky to talk about. It is personal yet visible, and strangers judge other strangers on something as trivial as the composition of another’s body. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average weight for an American woman over the age of twenty is 166.2 pounds and the average height is about 5 feet 3 inches, yet the images of womanhood perpetuated by popular media are of women who tower close to 6 feet tall, weigh less than 125 pounds, but still manage to have curves in all the “right” places.
“You’re so skinny, Mary!”
I don’t want to be judged on my physical characteristics. I don’t want people to tell me I am too thin or too big. Why am I worrying about what my arms look like in photographs? Why am I not good enough for myself at whatever weight I happen to be?
I am not defined by my weight. No one should be. The society we live in is toxic. It is one that tells girls and women that we are not good enough. That we never will be worth something, unless we fit into a certain size. I have no doubt that I, and many others, have internalized much of this self-hatred.
I think we can do better. I think I can do better.
I’m learning. I’m learning that vegetarians should eat more than bread and that fruits and vegetables are my friends. That the goal of exercise does not necessarily have to be weight loss.
I’m learning that I still can bare my arms if I want to. That there are jeans out there in sizes bigger than a size two and make my butt look fantastic, and if I feel like rocking a pair of leggings, I will.
You’ve finally made it. You’re wearing the cap and gown, anxiously awaiting the moment you’re ushered to turn your tassel, signifying the declaration of that you’re a college graduate. You’ve dedicated four hard years to furthering your education and are now sitting in the stadium of one of the top universities in the country with your family there to cheer you on. This is the biggest moment of your life and should be treasured.
Except you’re fixated on cake. Cake, really? Yes, cake. That beautiful vegan cake your father went to great lengths to procure solely for you, to make you happy on your graduation day. Rather than let this thought fill you with joy and gratitude, you’re filled with fear knowing you’ll have to eat it. You don’t know the calories. You don’t know the ingredients. You don’t know how much exercise is required to burn it off, so you’ve already made arrangements to be in the earliest spin class the next day to prevent any ounce of fat from accumulating on your body. All this unnecessary anxiety caused from one piece of cake on a day that’s meant to be celebrated.
This is the detrimental thought process that gradually began taking hold of my mind over the past year. Because I had no idea what post-graduation life would entail, I clung tight to one thing I knew I had control: my weight. It began innocently enough with eating clean, counting calories, and developing a regular workout routine. I was graced with labels such as “health freak” or “health nut” and took immense pride in them. Friends and strangers alike kept telling me how great I looked and were enthralled by how tiny I was. But it never seemed to be enough in my mind. I had to eat cleaner, slash more calories, and workout even harder. If there was a way to lose weight, it was pertinent that I incorporate it into my lifestyle.
In some cases, this even included healthy foods like sweet potatoes and bananas because they were too high in carbs. I wouldn’t allow myself to make sandwiches using more than one piece of bread, mind you, the healthiest possible bread I could find. More than one piece of fruit a day would allow for too much sugar in my diet. I wouldn’t dream of eating any products with more than five grams of sugar. Suggested serving sizes were too large for me, so I ate less. Cooking, one of my favorite things to do, was tossed to the side because I knew I would have to calculate the calories in each recipe I wanted to try. Going to restaurants was completely out of the question. I denied requests from friends to spend time together because there was the fear that food may be involved somehow. I hated for people to see me eat, fearful they might think I was eating too much.
I was consuming at least 1,000 calories fewer than what my body required to function on a daily basis. Factor in the workouts I was doing, sometimes twice a day, and you can imagine my level of exhaustion. I look back and cringe at the thought of how tired I was, even after a full night’s sleep. I had enough energy to get me through that early morning workout but not much else. I would go about the rest of my day completely depleted of energy. I’d been active my entire life and was now getting winded from walking up a flight of stairs.
Fast forward a few months to the end of August. I was offered a job and moved back home to save money while I worked. Everything was slowly falling into place and a regular routine was in the process of being established. That meant I could relinquish the obsessive control over my weight, right? Not exactly. It took at least a month after starting my new job before I realized the toll I had caused my body.
I was getting ready for work and looked in the mirror, as I do every morning. But something sent panic through me: the sight of my scalp. Hannah, the girl with notoriously thick hair, who was born with a full head of hair, now had thinning hair. I wouldn’t blame you for thinking this sounds completely superficial of me. But it’s a real wake-up call when something you’ve been praised for endlessly is no longer applicable, especially when you can’t blame anyone but yourself. It was this realization that caused me to truly take a hard look at myself. In addition to the thin hair, I looked frail, exhausted, and downright miserable. And I felt miserable. I was constantly freezing, despite wearing sweaters in the middle of the summer. I was irritable because I was constantly hungry (just imagine being “hangry” all the time). I was so incredibly uncomfortable in the little skin I had left.
For the past month, I’ve been working with a dietitian. As sad as it sounds, I’ve had to teach myself how to eat. I’m learning how to eat when I’m hungry, which is something that shouldn’t even require a second thought. I’m learning that food is energy. I couldn’t recognize this simple concept and I hate how long it took for me in order to do so. Food is essential to our well-being and I recognize how absolutely ridiculous it was for me to fear it. The first day I increased my caloric intake, the benefits were instantaneous, giving me more energy than I’d felt in a year. After months of feeling hungry, even just minutes after eating, I finally felt full and satisfied. I can’t emphasize enough how great a feeling that is and I’m ashamed how long I went denying myself of it.
I wish I could say I’ve completely stopped counting calories, but I haven’t. I can’t yet go out to eat without having an intense wave of anxiety strike me and instantly wrack my brain for excuses. I’m still not at my ideal weight. Recovering from an eating disorder is a gradual process and I know these issues will resolve in due time.
So far, my weight has increased by 10 pounds. I am eating the proper amount of calories my body requires. I am still exercising every day, but my mindset towards it has changed: Not every workout has to be more intense than the last. I enjoy exercise now that I have the energy to go about my day afterwards. It’s not a punishment for the foods I consume.
From a young age, we are taught to never be satisfied or happy with the bodies we’re given. There is always some improvement we need to make in order to love ourselves, rather than accepting our bodies for what they are. Gaining ten pounds over the course of a month brings on a lot of days where my body image is not the least bit positive, but I’m finding these days are becoming less frequent. I’m learning how to live without my life revolving around food. Because that’s not living. What does my weight have to do with my ability to perform my job well and pursue my passion? Does my weight take away from the fact that I graduated from one of the best universities in the country? Is the love from my family and friends contingent on a number on the scale? No, no, and definitely not.
This fixation on weight is so irrelevant when looking at the big picture of how much I’ve accomplished, how lucky I am to have family and friends to support me, and the dreams I still have to chase.
My still-wet braid dripped water down my back, providing a cool relief from the sun rays dancing over my skin as I trudged up the swim trail from the lake.
My ankles were now covered in a thin coat of dirt that had been kicked up by the boys running ahead of me, excited to be first in line for the weekly “Burrito Bar.” As my campers gathered around our table at the coveted location on the Lakeside Porch, I filled a glass to the brim with iced tea before going out to sit with my little ones under the shade of the Manzanita trees.
Beaming faces, gap-toothed smiles, and wide eyes offered the backdrop to our meals as my campers excitedly bragged about their courageous accomplishments on the ropes course between bites of lunch.
The innocence of childhood was shattered as I stared back at Andrea, my sixteen year old “Camper in Leadership Training”. I glanced down at her empty plate–a blank slate apart from a few half-eaten carrot sticks and an untouched pile of lettuce–then back at her face, showing an expression just as empty.
Andrea’s guilt was palpable: a criminal stealing calories which she did not feel she deserved, she desperately needed to dispose of any evidence of a meal. Her long, willowy arms and hollow cheeks brought me back to my own days of guilt, my own days of calorie counting and meal skipping, the days of weighing and watching, exposed ribs and hidden secrets.
. . .
It was senior year of high school, and man, I was on top of the world. I had a wonderful group of friends, a boyfriend who doubled as the school’s MVP on the water polo team, a place in the Advanced Dance class at my studio, and involvement in an array of clubs across campus.
It would have shocked anyone to find that the girl whose life was so laced with love and laughter spent her nights hungry and alone in bed, thinking up plans on how to escape meals the next day.
“Dad, I’m running late- I’ll just grab a granola bar from the vending machines.”
“It’s alright Mom, I’ll buy lunch today, don’t bother making one.”
“Thanks Matt, but I had a big breakfast. I’m not really hungry for lunch.”
“No mom, don’t worry about me for dinner, I’m eating at Sophie’s.”
“No Sophie, it’s alright, I’m going to eat dinner at home.”
I was living a double life: the girl who smiled and hugged friends around school, and the girl who frequently spent hours staring in the mirror, pinching her waist, and bringing herself to tears at the sight of her own body.
Occasionally, my public and private lives would cross paths– I would find myself wondering why my thighs touched in my desk at school or contemplating how much higher I could leap in ballet if I didn’t have all of the “extra” weight pulling me back to the ground. An almost catatonic state would wash over me, as if the world went silent to accommodate for the numbers screaming louder and louder in my head.
7 apps on my phone dedicated to calorie counting.
6 websites to calculate my BMI, only finding satisfaction when deemed “underweight”.
5 times a day on the scale to make sure the numbers were dropping.
2 secret hours at the gym after school.
0 calories consumed without being burned off.
My life had become a numbers game- constant counting, constant weighing, endless obsession.
Look at the fork. Pick it up. Stab at a piece of broccoli. Put it down. Drink water instead. Carry on conversation with mom. Look back at the fork. Pick it up. Put it down. You don’t need this. Look at your thighs. Mom is looking at your plate. She can’t know. Pick up the fork. Take a scoop of rice. Open your mouth. Chew. God, this tastes good. God, you are getting fat. Put down the fork. Repeat.
I was lucky, in a strange way, to see the negative effects my choices had on my body. I was tired all of the time; I was brittle and fragile and always bruised up; I got skinnier and skinnier, but it was never enough.
It was as if the pounds I shed from my figure returned twice as heavy to the air above me. When the weight of the world is heavier than the weight of your body, it becomes hard to distinguish between the two. Often I would mistake one burden for the other and find myself dragging around my weightless limbs like anchors.
It was a Tuesday. The lunch bell rang and students poured out of classrooms into the quad the way water fills a reservoir when the flood gates are finally let open.
Convinced I was shielded by the waves of my peers, I reached into my gray canvas backpack and fumbled around for the crinkled brown paper bag my mom was adamant about packing that morning. I kept my well-wrapped kryptonite at arms-length as I scanned the schoolyard for the nearest trash can, determined to catch not even a breath of the homemade brownies that were under-cooked, just to my liking.
I released the sweet treats into the dismal plastic bag, feeling momentarily guilty that my mom’s always-perfectly-symmetrical sandwiches and apple slices were now the equivalent of mangled pizza crusts and half-finished Gatorades. As I turned away from my abandoned calories, the pride of another skipped meal was short-lived.
I remember it as a movie scene–you know the kind–where everything is moving in a blur but there’s one focal point which remains clear. That focal point was my boyfriend. The stares exchanged between his eyes and mine made up a conversation more insightful than any words could do justice.
This was the look that told me his suspicions were confirmed. It was the look that told me I had been caught. It was the look that catalyzed my desire to be well again.
He moved closer, enveloping me in his familiar, warm scent of lingering chlorine poorly masked by Old Spice and his mom’s dryer sheets. As if his arms were the glue holding the very pieces of my soul together, I immediately came undone when he stepped away. A marionette controlled by self-hatred whose strings had finally been cut, I crumpled to the pavement feeling as small as I had always hoped I would look.
. . .
The crisp mountain air in my lungs only made my thoughts seem more muddled by contrast as I stared back at Andrea. I knew what I needed to say. I knew what she wanted to hear. I wanted to force her to believe that she was beautiful.
I wanted to let her know that she was enough. I wanted to scream that a number on a scale cannot measure your intelligence or your self-worth. I wanted to convince her that it is so much prettier to have a full heart and big dreams than an empty stomach and thin thighs. I wanted to fix her.
I wanted to love her in all of the ways that I knew she did not love herself. I knew what words I should have said, but when I opened my mouth the only syllable I could utter was a raspy “Sure”.
After all, who was I to tell her to avoid the allure of the fire while I was still nursing my own burns?
Andrea made her way back to the table with the bloodshot, watery, post-purging eyes and sniffling nose that I had grown to know too well. I forced myself to look away from my adolescent reflection sitting across from me and added another heaping spoonful of sugar to my tea–a desperate attempt to sweeten the bitter taste left in my mouth.
I filled my cheeks with the sickeningly sugary liquid and forced a swallow, hoping that if I took a gulp big enough, my secrets would be washed down with it, once again burying the words that begged to escape my lips.
I am bigger now than when I left home for college. My freshman year has gone by in the blink of an eye and I am bigger now.
The “freshman fifteen” became something that took over a multitude of conversations I had when I entered college in the fall. Everyone chats about the calories here and the fat there and how much they saw this girl from their hometown gained last year and so on and so forth. I jumped in, talking about my body and its size and where it gains when it gains and where it looses when it looses and how much was too much and how little was too little and it consumed me.
I started spending more time criticizing my body than ever before. I became hypersensitive to body-talk and realized each one of my friends had a thing (or twenty) they wished they could change. How every girl (and guy, I promise, I heard it) dreaded the freshman fifteen in their own way.
I was starting to let this idea that fifteen pounds of extra weight would completely ruin me as a person take up a pretty good amount of head space. I guess I figured when you gained weight, you lost something else. You lost friends or popularity or self-worth. It was as if I wouldn’t be a “good enough” person if I gained some extra love on my love handles.
I got that extra love on my love handles and a rounder face. All my jeans are snug and I bumped up a size in Nike shorts. I gained the freshman fifteen. There, I said it. And here I am, bigger now than when I started with tighter jeans and arms that take up a little extra room in the sleeves of my shirts.
But here’s the magic, I didn’t loose anything by gaining. I am on the other side of the infamous freshman fifteen, feared by most every high school senior about to embark on this great college journey. I gained weight but it’s the very least important thing I gained this year. I’m bigger. My soul is bigger, my life is bigger, and my heart is bigger. I am full and it has nothing to do with the chicken nuggets and fries I just ate.
I could never have imagined just how much every aspect of my life would grow and change for the better when I started this crazy ride just nine months ago. My life is more full of people who love me for me, who listen to my crazy stories and theories and who want me to succeed.
My heart has made room for so many new people who have become lead roles in this chapter of my story. I have gained best friends and memories that I know I will carry with me into the future. My world is expanding every day and I am learning (emphasis on learning) how to be a real, adult human who has educated opinions on real world events. I am gaining life skills (like how to complete group projects in college, cue cringing) and a feeling of belonging to something so much bigger than myself through my university and my sorority.
With every sip of every drink I had this year I tucked a memory away. I didn’t loose anything by gaining and sure, I still think about the crunches I could have done or the running habit I wish I had, but I’ve decided that the freshman fifteen is okay, that nothing about me is less because I take up a few extra centimeters of space.
So whether you’re about to embark on this college journey or you’re already waist deep in it, try to remember this: it all comes down to you. If running makes you feel alive then run, if corn dogs make you feel alive eat the corn dogs. But don’t do either because you feel like you have to. Because here’s the greatest thing: you don’t. Your life is up to you, so do what makes it bigger and fuller and richer and try to find pieces of yourself along the way.
The other side of the freshman fifteen isn’t so bad after all, and I’d order the cheese fries all over again if I had the chance.
The number flashed on the screen and my self-confidence shrank immediately. It was Christmas break freshman year of college and I was interested to see how the holiday eating and my first homecoming of the semester was affecting my body, apparently not so well.
I was at the heaviest weight of my life, only 5 pounds more than normal, but I felt like the elephant in the room. “I’m a freshman in college,” I irrationally thought to myself, “its time for me to act like the grown up I am and take charge of my body.”
As I returned to school spring semester, my resolution to diet was put into full force with the deadline of Spring Break racing toward me. There would be bikinis, there would be pictures and there would be judging, I needed to be ready. I downloaded apps on my phone to document my daily calorie intake and I signed up for local 5k races as motivation to get fit. I was conscious about the food I was eating and intent about maintaining a steady exercise plan in order to melt of the fat that clung to my belly.
After playing squash with my friends one night I entered the women’s locker room at Ramsey and noticed that there was a scale, so I hopped on out of curiosity and I was pleased with the result. The evidence of a lower number revealed that my tactics were working and that if I continued with my efforts, than I would achieve spring break glory.
Once Spring Break arrived I spent half the week with my out of state family who I had not seen since my heavier days of Christmas and they all congratulated my seemingly healthier figure. After meeting my family at the airport we went out to a restaurant to eat lunch, where there were no calorie counts on the menu. I was slightly distressed by not knowing the exact content of what I was consuming, but I let it slide because it was only one meal right?
My routine was thrown off, but I maintained a calm composure. That night in bed I woke up in the middle of the night with a panic attack. My heart was racing, my frustration was peaking and tears filled my eyes. “Is this the end of my diet? I just ate so many calories! Will I be fat again by tomorrow?” These thoughts flooded my mind as I wrestled with sleep. “No I have worked too hard to get to where I am to let it all go. I’ll enjoy myself this week and I make up for it when I get back to UGA.”
Spring break freshman year was great, I enjoyed my family’s company for a few days, and then I met up with my friends at the beach and felt confident with my body’s improved look. Spring break glory accomplished…now what?
Once I returned to UGA I kept my promise to make up for my treacherous eating patterns of the previous week. I lowered my daily calorie intake and increased my workouts, but I never reestablished a diet deadline. With no goal in sight, my diet took on a whole new meaning. I wasn’t working out for fitness, I was working out to make up for the breakfast that I ate.
I wasn’t counting calories to meet my recommended daily value; I was counting calories to assure that I was eating less than even my diet required. From there, my habits worsened. Over the summer, when I returned home, I would flashback to the pounds that were added to me by my mom’s meals so I decided to cut my all of my portions in half.
A week before returning to UGA for sophomore year, my mom handed me a piece of paper with 10 symptoms of Eating Disorders and asked if I recognized any of them in myself. I was enraged with defensive anger and cried as I cursed her out of my room. I was shocked by my reaction because I barely ever cry, so it was apparent that my emotions were unmanageable.
I was elated to return to UGA fall semester sophomore year because I was thrilled with my sleeker appearance and I imagined that it could only get better. I bought a scale so that I could continue to check my progress on a daily or even hourly schedule. There was no stopping my new dieting hobby. Or so I thought.
I received the call from my parents that they were forcing my withdrawal from UGA so that I could enter an eating disorder treatment facility in Wisconsin. I broke down and cried for a week. I cried through telling my roommates that I would be leaving, not sure when or even if I would be returning. I cried through writing my withdrawal application to the university. And I cried through the assessment phone call with the treatment center as they concluded that I needed to be admitted to their inpatient hospital facility due to my “emaciation.”
When I was at my skinniest moments, I felt as though I was looking in a different mirror than everyone else, “no way can anyone think that this body is too skinny. Do they not see my belly poking out?” In fact, at that point it was literally my stomach poking through my skin, just as my ribs and hipbones did. By the time that I entered the facility on October 16, 2013, I had a BMI of 14.9, my EKG tests came back irregular due to malfunctions in my heart, I had night sweats due my body’s constant struggle to stay warm and my kidneys were close to failing.
I had started a diet to better my appearance and due to a multitude of teenage struggles rooted in low self esteem, including boys, media influence and a lacking sense of control, I had put my body through so much that it was ready to die.
I was put through such a physical and mental challenges that I sometimes look back on my recovery and marvel at the difficulties that I put myself through. One of my first mornings in treatment, I broke down crying because I was given a white bagel instead of the wheat one that I ordered. If that doesn’t show how low I was in my life, I don’t know what will.
Thankfully, with the phenomenal support of my family and friends I was able to return to a physically healthy state, along with a sound mental state, and on Christmas Eve I returned home with a new outlook on life.
Of course I still have my occasional struggles with body image and self-esteem, who doesn’t? But I vow to never treat myself in the same manner of 2013 ever again, because I value my life, and the lives of my loved ones too much to suffer through anymore avoidable pain.
During this time of year I am reminded of where I spent Thanksgiving of 2013, and I am thankful to be out of that disastrous stage of my life so that I can relish in my health and celebrate my life.