The first time I remember carefully watching my food intake was when I was 10 years old. I was in fifth grade, and I started to create a list of foods I was not allowed to eat. It was starting to get so long I scrapped it and decided to make a list of what I could eat. Much shorter. Essentially anything low calorie, non- processed, no sugar….nothing that I would feel go to my thighs. That’s where I always felt it. God, how I hated it. Even sticking to that very short list, after anything I’d eat, I had to make sure I burned it off, whether it was running around at recess or out at the green belt outside our home. I drew pictures of how I wanted my body to look and what I thought it looked like. I was obsessed with bones. I wanted my wrist bones to protrude, my ankles to be sculpted, my legs to be sticks… This continued for a couple years. My mom began to worry about me as she saw me shrink. At the time I didn’t know anything about body dysmorphia or disorders. All I knew was that I had to set myself free from the villainous, hateful fat that held me prisoner in my own body.
Turns out at 10 years old I had a disorder called orthorexia: obsessive behavior in pursuit of a healthy diet. It also turns out that body dysmorphia, obsessive focus on a perceived flaw in appearance, is now classified as a mental illness. You can have body dysmorphia without an eating disorder, but you can’t have an eating disorder without body dysmorphia. So even though, at 23 years old, I’m free from my eating disorder, the dysmorphia is very much alive and well inside my head.
Because it doesn’t just go away. Because that’s not how mental illnesses work.
I discovered this over the summer when I had the biggest setback since I was 18 years old and was eating maybe 800 calories a day.
I had to come to terms with the fact that growth is not a light switch.
I take birth control for PCOS. For hormone imbalances. For pain. For regulation. Over the summer I was put on a new one, and I began to gain weight. There was nothing I could do about it; I was so hungry so often. For the first time in years, I cried over my body. I cried almost every day. It was like nothing had changed since I was 13 years old, sobbing in my bedroom because I felt imprisoned within my own skin. I started to religiously weigh myself and went back to counting calories. And all I could think was, “I thought I was past this, what’s wrong with me?” I’d been completely lying to myself that I’d outgrown this insane obsession with body image; I was only okay because I’d been thinner. I had never been completely free; I just hadn’t noticed the bars.
Ironically, this pill has been the best one at doing what it’s supposed to, so I can’t stop taking it. This has forced me to come to terms with my curvier body. Which is really fucking hard for someone who’s dysmorphic. I look at my legs and automatically think “gross.” Just like that. No hesitation. That’s the illness normalizing this incredibly toxic relationship with the skin I’m in. And it’s so difficult to change that thought process after over a decade of it. This has been my normal.
I’m not okay, but I’m better than I was. Three years ago, I would have fallen back into an eating disorder, no question. Instead, I’m finally trying to change my relationship with my body. I’ve stopped weighing myself and started to focus on being strong and building muscle, rather than being smaller in size. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have to battle the beast inside my brain every day. Every single day I have to consciously stop myself from obsessing over my legs in the mirror and be aware of how I’m responding to the way I look.
I’ve watched helplessly as friends of mine starve themselves. Measure their waists. Their thighs. Force their food back up. Watched as they’ve gotten better, had a setback, and beaten themselves up about it. I understand because I went through it myself. I’m still going through it. But setbacks don’t negate the progress you’ve made. Setbacks can open up a new conversation for you on how you’re really coping with whatever it is you’re dealing with. I thought I was past my dysmorphia. I didn’t know it was a mental illness. Over the summer, I learned I wasn’t being honest with myself. No matter the situation, growth is a never-ending process. So even if you don’t have an eating disorder or body dysmorphia, you still don’t just wake up one day and suddenly you’re ‘cured of whatever you’ve been struggling with. You don’t just get over trauma. That’s not how it works. But it doesn’t mean you’re not farther than you were.
Growth is courage. Patience. Persistence. Love.
Growth is not a light switch.