For National Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2018, Tonic is taking a look at our relationship with food—and how what we eat is often symbolic of who we are . Our intention is to shed light on the ways in which eating disorders have persevered, even during an era known for #bodypositivity, and to share the stories that are often overlooked.
I can still recall with detail the yellow painted walls of the back stairwell at my high school. The black banisters; the small windows teasing us with a view of the East River. The sound of a classmate calling out “look, everyone, Gabriella’s staring at her own boobs!”
I was walking with my head down, a habit that I had developed around fourteen, and which persisted through my sophomore year as well. What my classmate saw instead was my eyes focused on my own chest—my 32DDD chest.
Growing up in a female body has its fair share of challenges, ones that I managed to distract myself from by being a competitive swimmer. The relationship between my inner self and the body that I was in was always positive. I knew my best stroke was butterfly; that I was a sprinter, not a distance swimmer. But I saw the girls on the senior team with their broad shoulders and flat chests, and prayed for the day when I would look like them.
I stopped swimming when I was 15, for all the reasons young women tend to drop out of sports around that age. Bubbling depression and anxiety mixed with a change in swim coaches meant that the safety of my team evaporated, along with the feelings of ease in my own body. I had gone from being comfortable in nothing more than a Speedo to wanting to drown myself in large tee shirts and hoodies.
This is quite common, according to Joan Chrisler, a professor of psychology at Connecticut College. “Adolescent girls who develop breasts larger than their peers are often targets of sexual harassment—leering, ogling, comments by strangers, friends, and family alike. Studies of early-developing girls show that some dislike the unwanted attention, which causes them embarrassment, or even shame.” She also tells me that sexual attention from others can lead to self-objectification, which is related in psychological studies to a number of problems, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and reproductive shame.
We were all struggling to fit in—not just into our peer group but into ourselves. But as a teenager, I became increasingly self-aware of my shortcomings. My body didn’t match up to this new sort of self I was building out of the wreckage of being a former swimmer. I was now—or perhaps, in a way, had always been, an emo girl. I was overjoyed at finding a new label, a new community. The problem was that I didn’t think I looked like the stereotype.
They existed in corners of the internet where, through a web of tags and likes, the ‘thinspo’ community became apparent. The new kind of idealized body—no longer the flat-chested broad shouldered swimmers—was waifish. The skin and bones in those images provoked a deeper anxiety that seemed in-articulable.
“There are some genetic predispositions towards anxiety about the body. People are prone to different types of anxiety. If you think about people’s need for control—most things people are trying to control are the things that make us anxious,” says Sarah Parker, director and co-founder of the Reeds Centre Treatment of anxiety, OCD, and related disorders in New York City. “There are certain types of anxiety that some people find difficult to tolerate. So if you’re feeling a lot of anxiety in a lot of areas in your life, being able to control your eating and your body weight and shape can make some of that feel better.”
My behaviors were driven by a desire to be seen a certain way. I had spent so long expecting that I would turn into a flat-chested, powerful swimmer that I hadn’t stopped to wonder what my body would be like if I didn’t. Whether my anxiety made me leave swimming, or leaving swimming exacerbated my anxiety, I don’t know. Either way, this new person I was—socially withdrawn, overly anxious, and body conscious—brought me into a new dynamic with food.
Parker says the cultural image of the “waif” and trying to achieve that ideal is emotionally taxing. Chrisler echoes this, saying that “waifs and twigs are not possible looks for most girls and women. To look that way, especially beyond puberty, requires a degree of self-control that is nearly impossible to sustain.” And thus, the vicious circle began. There was nothing short of surgery that would fix what I saw as a flaw. I was marked by some symbol of womanhood, sexuality, and maturity that I hadn’t yet grown into. My problem was more about the shape of my body than my actual weight. It seems I wasn’t given the physical reflection of who I was—or who I badly wanted to be—on the inside.
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When I began college, my insecurities crested. As I was thrust into a new world—small town Connecticut, where everyone, it seemed, knew everything—I felt I needed to measure up. I started exercising multiple times a day, taking smaller plates at the dining hall so I could trick myself into thinking I was eating more, and never ever partaking in the cookie pie in the dessert cabinet. Still, nothing changed. My boobs were ever present. I dabbled in diet pills —ephedra—but they only made me feel sicker.
Junior year, I joined a local theatre company. I finally found a place where I was comfortable again. There, my boobs took center stage. In Elizabethan costumes, there was no hiding them. One day, during a performance of ‘Romeo and Juliet,' when I was the only person on stage (save for my ‘dead’ daughter, Juliet), an audience member shouted: “Show us your tits!”
There it was again, a marker of my identity slipping out where it shouldn’t have. In a moment when I was supposed to be was a grieving mother, I was highlighted by the sexual bags attached to my chest. And though I was lauded for not breaking character, my character was broken.
A year or so later, I broke up with my boyfriend and swiftly lost almost twenty pounds. I drank black coffee and smoked cigarettes and once more I could feel the anxiety about who I was beginning to creep to the surface. I was #emogirl once again, and though my hip bones stuck out and my collar bones protruded enough to catch water during a rainstorm, I was still big-breasted.
For a few years this persisted—a back and forth in dabbling in the types of eating that made me feel most myself. But I never went full tilt into any one diagnosis as far as I knew. I was always EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified)—which is now, according to Parker—OSFED: Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders. “It describes many types of people who may have some symptoms of anorexia or some of bulimia or binge eating and find those symptoms very difficult to live with,” she says.
Parker says that it’s not uncommon for her to meet with somebody who’s eating somewhat regularly, not vomiting or taxing laxatives and not exercising three hours a day. “If I were to follow them around on a day-to-day basis I wouldn’t see anything that was clearly unusual. But when they come to see me they tell me ‘I can’t stop thinking about this. And I’m miserable,’” she says, “They still have an eating disorder, even though their behavior may not be so different than a person who doesn’t have an eating disorder.”
I had never spoken to someone who had so acutely described how I was feeling. I couldn’t look at another girl on my college campus without instantly assessing her thigh gap—was it bigger than mine? Or her chest, was she wearing a bra? Could she get away with that? I couldn’t. While my body didn’t change that drastically during these swells of OSFED anxiety, my thoughts did. And those thoughts led to behaviors that led to feeling better. Temporarily.
I moved to London for a graduate writing program that included six other women. For two years we read the most personal essays about each other’s lives. I made friends, I got a job, I became a published writer, and slipped into that identity, and into that community. And my anxiety, my EDNOS need to look a certain way to be perceived a certain way, waned.
Why did it happen? When did this switch flip in my head? It has been four years since I’ve looked sideways at ice cream or denied myself a second helping of anything. What changed?
“If you thought you fit in well with your peers—e.g., the swim team—before your breasts developed, that could have triggered the angst you felt and the lengths to which you were willing to go to try to regain your place,” she says. “Not only do you have a new peer group now, but you also have the maturity to realize the value of unique aspects of yourself. Who wants to be just like everyone else? What fun would that be?”
Recovery is a long and hard process. For many, it takes years of treatment. Somehow, finding my place served as that process. Am I always happy in my skin? No. Do I stare enviably at the shirts I can never wear? Of course. Am I still a victim of harassment, particularly related to the size of my breasts? Absolutely.
Only now I’m not silenced. I do not keep my head bowed in the back stairs, I do not remain Lady Capulet in stoic silence. I tell my stories so that other young women may see that these trials are not insurmountable. There can be balance; who you are and the body you’re in can co-exist in peace.
If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, contact the helpline of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) at 1-800-931-2237, or visit their site. You can also live chat with a volunteer via Facebook Messenger, and text 'NED!' to 741741 for crisis support 24/7.
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