It lasted for seven years.
I remember as early as elementary school that I noticed my body. It’s crazy looking back at old photos and seeing how thin I truly was, and yet, I didn’t look in the mirror and see that girl. I thought I had huge thighs and the thought of having any sort belly flab disgusted me. When I was in middle school, I used to come home from school and go straight to the treadmill. I’d do so many sit-ups until my body ached, and then I would skip dinner when my mom got home. She’d ask me, “Hey, Kav, did you eat?”, and I would wash a few dishes so it looked like I did. And I didn’t think for a second that I was doing anything wrong. Little did I realize that I was suffering from an eating disorder, particularly symptoms of body dysmorphia and anorexia.
Anorexia nervosa is a disorder characterized by weight loss, difficulties maintaining an appropriate body mass index and, in many individuals, distorted body image, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Mayo Clinic defines body dysmorphia as a mental disorder in which you can’t stop thinking about perceived defects or flaws in your appearance, which are either minor or not observable.
Growing up, I didn’t see myself as conventionally beautiful. Moving from the Bronx to upstate Orange County was quite a culture shock. I was the only person of color in my class, and I used to be very insecure about that. I used to look at what was conventionally pretty in my school, which was skinny and blond, and since I would look ridiculous as a blonde, I focused on the skinny aspect of my appearance.
Plattsburgh State Health Counselor Kimberly Fisher said that identity and fitting in are two major factors that go into why some people develop their eating disorders.
Fisher said that I might have shown more symptoms for disordered eating, or an eating disorder not otherwise specified.
“A lot of people will have disordered eating instead of an eating disorder, where you might not have the criteria for an eating disorder yet, but you do have disordered eating, and you don’t know when it’s going to shift,” she said. “For an eating disorder, you might have never met criteria for either bulimia or anorexia. That’s what we call an eating disorder not otherwise specified, and that’s very prevalent in our society. It’s a wide spectrum.”
In other words, my disorder wasn’t nearly severe enough to be defined as full blown anorexia, so for a while, I normalized my behavior. Fisher said it’s interesting how the environment that people are in can play a major factor in disordered eating, especially in a school setting.
“College campuses are tough,” she said. “There are a lot of comparing behaviors all the time. There’s a lot of identity and existential issues that are being raised. You can do what you want here.”
If I ever brought up an insecurity, a lot of my friends would shut me down because they saw how skinny I was already. So I kept all of this to myself because I knew how controlling and obsessive I’d come off had I mentioned my weight. I felt ashamed doing what I was doing, but again, I had a totally warped perception of my body.
When I went to restaurants, I would look up the menu online to find the lowest caloric meal. I’d restrict myself from indulging and if I did, I’d be back at it with the treadmill. Did I ever indulge? Of course, in fact, when I did binge eat, I ate everything in sight.
During all of this, I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. I mean I wasn’t throwing anything up. I didn’t let it affect my social or academic life, and to me, it didn’t seem like I had the kind of problem that I had witnessed in movies. In movies, the girl would be forcing herself to throw up and would be so stick thin. You see, even though I had symptoms of anorexia and body dysmorphia, I didn’t think I had a problem. Just because I wasn’t the disheveled girl in the movie throwing up didn’t mean I didn’t have an issue.
It wasn’t until college that my problem had improved. It helped living with roommates because there wasn’t any room to keep secrets or restrict myself. I started realizing that I had a lot going for me during college. I was making more friends, excelling in my major and joining clubs, so my weight became less and less of a priority. A big part of why I started in the first place was this need to be perfect. Once I became comfortable in my own skin beyond physical looks, I saw the inner beauty of myself.
That doesn’t mean I don’t still have body image issues. Over the summer, I gained about 15 pounds. It, in my eyes, was slightly mortifying. But that was the thing. It was only slightly. It wasn’t something that consumed my conscience anymore. Instead of resorting to unhealthy ways of extreme exercising, I chose to eat a little healthier and work out whenever I had a chance. I am getting better.
“It’s interesting how you looked at those old pictures and said, ‘Oh my God, I was so thin. What was I thinking?’, but that happens a lot with people,” Fisher said. “You pulled yourself out it, but a lot of people cross that line where that’s not really possible anymore because for whatever reason, the behaviors are a coping skill at this point and not a good one.”
Every 62 minutes at least one person dies as a direct result from an eating disorder, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. That’s a scary statistic and could have been me. I was lucky and was able to fix my problem before I became one of those girls in the movies, but it shouldn’t have to come to that. If you feel like you have a problem, don’t keep it to yourself, and don’t feel ashamed.
Fisher said she knew one woman who turned her life around because she realized her teeth were decaying.
“If we can find something more compelling than why they’re doing it in the first place, then we’re good,” Fisher said. “And sometimes people find it.”
For me, my “something compelling” was just life itself. It sounds corny, but I kind of found myself in college and once I did, all those insecurities about my appearance started to diminish, because I saw a more confident, happy person in the mirror.
Email Kavita Singh at firstname.lastname@example.org