[Trigger Warning: This essay discusses one woman’s journey with an eating disorder.]
We stopped for ice cream on the way home from your last day of kindergarten. As chocolate ice cream dripped from your cone and melted onto your hands and smeared across your face, you talked excitedly about how we would spend the summer weeks that stretched out in front of us. The sun had already started to lighten your hair and send rows of freckles marching across your cheeks. My newly minted kindergarten graduate, the little girl big enough to order her own ice cream, but young enough to still ask politely for sprinkles.
Today, you told me that your thighs are chubby. I don’t know what caused you to say something like that. You probably heard it on the playground, another little girl parroting an adult’s insecurities.
I know for a fact you have never heard me talk about myself that way, because as soon as the ultrasound tech told Daddy and I that the little creature squirming around on the screen in front of us was a little girl, I made a promise to you that you would never hear me talking badly about my body.
Here’s why: When I was 15, I had an illness called Anorexia Nervosa. If you were to read about this harsh sounding name on the National Eating Disorders website, you would learn that anorexics have an “intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though underweight,” and suffer from a “disturbance in the way in which one’s body weight or shape is experienced, undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial of the seriousness of the current low body weight.”
But let me tell you what it’s really like to intentionally, deliberately, starve yourself.
I was a freshman in high school when I decided to stop eating. It wasn’t a sudden, impulsive decision. My eating disorder was a long time coming, and, in some ways, a rather inevitable result of genetics mixed with my early love of cross-country and distance running.
I was always a very intense, goal-oriented people pleaser. In middle school, I was skipping dessert and wearing one-piece bathing suits because I hated the way my stomach looked. The stress of high school—being in a new school where I didn’t make friends easily—and running varsity cross-country as a freshman-brought my eating disorder to the surface.
Also, I didn’t know it at the time, but there was something different about the way my mind works. There was something electric, something wild, about how quickly my thoughts went racing around in my head, and I was desperate to find a way to tame the energy and anxiety that sent my brain spinning. And starvation did just that.
You see, anorexia tricks so many girls and boys into thinking that by controlling what you put into your body, you control the parts of life that you truly can’t do a thing about. I couldn’t help that I wasn’t the most talented runner on my team, but I could starve and skip meals and count calories, and if I couldn’t be the fastest, my sick mind would settle for at least being the skinniest.
So I starved. I restricted my diet until it consisted of only flavored water, ice chips and gum, but soon even the pieces of gum had too many calories. I starved until my pants became baggy and my cheekbones sharpened.
I became a master of deception. I knew how to trick my parents and coaches into thinking I had eaten, and I learned how to hide food and lie. I starved until my weight became dangerously low and I was forced to stop running.
I was starving when the bloodwork came back that showed my body was starting to break down my muscles because it so desperately needed something to digest. And then, when I couldn’t starve anymore, when I finally realized what my lies were doing to my family and understood how much danger I was in, I had to recover and learn how to care for myself again.
It is hard for me to explain to you what it was like to recover from an eating disorder. ‘Recover’ is too gentle and far too passive of a word to describe what it was like to beat anorexia and learn how to eat again. Every small step forward, from giving myself permission to eat when my belly grumbled to finding the right medicine to help me worry a little less, was an exhausting, miserable, uphill battle that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. And I promise you, sweet girl, that the desire to starve never fully leaves you. Not quite. The temptation to relapse and fall back into my old ways of skipping meals and counting calories is always there, lurking in the corners of my mind, ready to overwhelm me when I’m feeling stressed or sad.
That, dear girl, is the thing about anorexia: You either recover or you die. Eating disorders are the most lethal of all mental illnesses, and that’s why your comment about your thighs worries me so much.
My first reaction when I heard you say your thighs are chubby was disappointment. I try so hard to model self-love and how to have a healthy relationship with food. I try to teach you the importance of exercise and cook you healthy meals, but I also make a point to let you see me enjoying a donut or a cookie.
Yet, here you are, a 6-year-old who looks at her thighs and sees them as anything less than what they are: Healthy, strong legs that help you do things like chase after your brother or ride the big girl bike you were given for your sixth birthday.
But, I understand. I understand that no matter what I do, no matter how many times I tell you you’re smart and beautiful, that your genes might render you vulnerable to a dark voice inside your sweet mind that tells you you’re less than worthy. One day, that horrible voice might drown out all the behaviors I try to model for you and all the love that I give, and it might convince you that you aren’t the thoughtful, creative, compassionate daughter I know you are.
Let me tell you what will happen if you give in. You will lose, and you will lose so much. Months and years of your life that should be spent chasing your passions, enjoying friendships, and simply being happy will instead be spent counting calories and hiding food as your body wastes away to nothing. You will never have those years of your life back, and I promise you when you do eventually recover, the years you have lost to anorexia will be one of your greatest regrets.
I promise you that if you find yourself on the path of self-destruction that I will never give up on you. I will hold your hand through your darkest days until you are able to treat yourself with kindness again.
I know I’m your mom and you won’t think I’m cool in a few years, but please promise you’ll always come to me and we will figure this out together. I want you to know that strong is more important than thin. That the ads you see in magazines are lies. That chocolate is good for the soul. That the person who you will spend your days with will love every part of you (including your love handles). That bodies are here to carry around our hearts. And my darling, your heart is the most beautiful heart I know.