Unfortunately, not everyone sees food as something yummy that gives them energy. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 20 million women and 10 million men in America will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives. For most, they begin during adolescence when the pressure to look thin, small and perfect starts to kick in. For women especially, those chosen to walk down runways, smile on magazine covers, star in popular movies and perform on stages around the world usually share one common body type. Girls are taught from a young age, whether it’s conscious or not, that being skinny is necessary to make it to one of those places and become successful. Many will find that restricting what they eat and depriving themselves of what their bodies need is a viable way to get there.
I got a little nervous the other day when one of my close friends who’s been recently diagnosed with an eating disorder asked me how long it took for me to recover from mine. I really wanted to tell her that I could remember the exact day, the time and place when food finally became something I could enjoy instead of something I used to torture myself with. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do that without lying to her. I wanted to tell her how I was able to stop memorizing exactly what I ate in a day, and how I no longer need to list the foods that I put into my body over and over again in my head until the moment when I fall asleep. I wanted her to know how great it felt when I was finally able to stop hiding from every mirror I’d walk past and explain that I no longer want to curl up in a ball and cry on the mornings when I try on that one pair of jeans in my closet and realize that they’re still a little too small to fit my legs. I really wanted to give her this story of how I struggled with something, worked really hard and resolved it. But I couldn’t do that without lying to her.
I guess I was a little uncomfortable with the fact that I was having to give advice on how to solve a problem I hadn’t really solved yet myself. Only recently have I figured out that sitting down and enjoying your food doesn’t have to require obsession, guilt and self-hatred. A few weeks ago, I sat down on my bed one night with a package of Oreos and decided I would eat just as many as I wanted and then stop, imitating how I thought normal people probably ate foods they enjoy. So, I peeled back the lid and I ate one. I chewed through it and then waiting a few seconds, I peeled back the lid and I had another. And when I went in for a third, I started to hate the sound of me peeling back that lid. I started to get self-conscious that my roommate would hear me and think, “Man, she’s peeled that lid back quite a few times. She’s eating a lot of Oreos.” I hated that I was worried that my roommate would think that and think that it was such a bad thing to eat some Oreos. I pushed past that thought and I kept reaching in, taking another and chewing it and hating that I just kept reaching back in and eating another and another. Finally, I got to the end of the package and felt pretty disgusted with myself. Moreso disgusted with the fact that I was so concerned about what someone else would think of my eating habits than the fact that I was letting myself, or attempting to let myself, enjoy something that I liked.
Nonetheless, I felt so sick with myself and upset by what I’d just done, that I got out of bed, I put on my gym clothes, and when I started lacing up my sneakers, my roommate turned to me and asked where I was going so late at night, right around when I usually go to bed. I told her I was going to the gym. She thought that was strange, but she told me to go have fun. I got there feeling so sick, in my stomach and in my head, but I pulled myself onto the treadmill and I forced myself to work up a sweat only because I knew that working out was supposed to always make you feel great afterwards. You’re supposed to feel accomplished, healthy, and your endorphins are supposed to run all over and make you feel just great. That was the very first workout I ever did where I felt horrible afterwards. I remember looking in the mirror and hating the fact that I felt I needed to work out to try and cancel out the “bad” thing I’d just done. I hated that I couldn’t just be a normal person who could eat a ton of junk food, laugh it off, and go to bed.
What almost bothers me more is that I’m now twenty years old and only now learning how to enjoy food. More importantly, I’m only now learning that you’re supposed to be aware of how you feel, how to manage how you feel and take care of your brain. By now, I know how to play an instrument, I know how to drive a car, I know how to make an omelette and take a derivative, but learning how to take care of my brain and my body is something completely new to me. Maybe I just missed that day in kindergarten when they taught us how to do all that. How to love food, how to not hate yourself for enjoying something, how to not hate the way you look and blame yourself every day and how to appreciate all the good progress you have made, instead of being blinded by all the progress you’ve yet to make. But who knows.
I think the fact that I still haven’t really resolved my relationship with food isn’t a comment on my weakness or how lazy I’ve been by not putting the work into figuring out my problem, avoiding it, or just living with how shitty I know it is. I think it’s more telling of the fact that I’ve got a bigger lesson to learn here than just learning how to eat. I think the world wants me to learn why I’m supposed to take care of myself. Why appreciating the body I have and the food that’s available to me and the way that I look and the amazing things my body is capable of. There are some bigger lessons in there that I’ve yet to figure out. So I’m going to enjoy how long this process is going to be. This process of figuring out how strong I am. I’m going to take my concept of progress, this long-haul of hopelessly waiting for the day when I wake up, look in the mirror, love what I see, and can feed myself without freaking out or obsessing over what the food might do to my body, and I’m going to turn it into something a little smaller. Progress for me now is just going to be making moments every single day where I can do whatever I need to do to make myself feel good. And that’s it. If over time, finding more ways to make those moments becomes easier and I’m able to make more of them, then that’s great. But for right now, I’m going to figure out how to enjoy the fact that this lesson the world is trying to teach me isn’t as easy as I thought.
The next time someone asks me how long it’s taken to get over my eating disorder, I’m going to tell them that that’s the wrong question to be asking. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get over anything, it matters that you’re even trying. What matters is that you want to fix your situation, you want to learn how to love yourself, and you want to learn how to enjoy the time you have on Earth. Don’t worry about how long it might take you, and don’t worry how long it took someone else. We’re all going to get there, slowly but surely. And we might as well enjoy it along the way.
I wish eating disorders were easier to see. I wish restrictive eating could be solved by simply asking your skinny friend to eat more. With how prevalent eating disorders are, it’s very likely that one of your friends is dealing with anorexia, binge-eating, or bulimia right now. Luckily, you know your friends better than anyone, and if you notice them struggling around food, avoiding dinner plans, or talking negatively about their appearance, let them know exactly why they should take care of themselves. Tell them what you see in them that’s so incredible until they start to see it themselves. When they realize how incredible they are, they’ll want to care for their incredible mind and body. Go the extra mile and show them how much you appreciate and take care of yourself and they’ll imitate what they see. The next time you look in the mirror, talk about what you love to see, and you’ll inspire someone else to do the same.
Emily Azzarito is a sophomore is the Blair School of Music. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org