You don’t deserve to eat.
I have told this to myself over countless meals, times, days, years and disordered eating habits.
I didn’t share or seek help for my disordered eating habits for years. I was afraid that I would be sent to a rehabilitation center and was too ashamed to describe my habits out loud. I didn’t start sharing my experiences until four months ago, after six years of feeling controlled by food and obsessing over my body image. The response to my sharing has been, for the most part, incredibly positive and supportive. However, I have also been met with skepticism over trying to start a discussion about eating relationships and body image.
“You might want to read the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) so that you’re more confident in what you’re saying.”
One of my closest family friends texted this to me when I mentioned that I wanted to start sharing my experiences with anorexic, binge eating and bulimic behaviors. While I know that this was said with every intention of being supportive, all I could see was:
“You can’t talk about eating disorders, you’ve never been diagnosed with one.”
I’m not going to pretend to have ever been diagnosed with an eating disorder. I have not. In fact, I actively did not seek help for my behaviors because I was afraid of the consequences of diagnosis; I did not want anyone to know that food controlled me and that I hated my body. I did not want that to define me.
As a fitness coach whose passion is empowering people to realize their abilities, I hope that sharing my self-perceptions and memories can help anyone who draws parallels to them feel less alone. Everyone has different experiences and goals. I’m not going to give advice on training or eating. I merely want to create a discussion about food relationships and body image for anyone to join.
“I decided that I was not enough and started trying to lose weight.”
For the first 17 years of my life, I was known for loving to sing, loving to train for the sports in which I competed, and for loving food. I had a profound love for Mexican food and dessert. I took pride in the food babies I would get after consuming an entire Chipotle burrito after track practice. I took pride in the fact that I frequently ate cake for breakfast. I had never counted a calorie. I weighed a consistent 135 pounds at the end of high school.
I started college. I somehow decided that I was not enough and subsequently started actively trying to lose weight.
I distinctly remember the first meal I lied about eating on a hot mid-September afternoon in Claremont, California. I waved goodbye to my newly made friends as they walked towards the dining hall, telling them that I would grab take-out later as a study break. I had no intention of eating anything for the rest of the night. I went to bed hungry. I can still hear the sound of a warm breeze knocking the plastic window shade of my un-air-conditioned dorm room barely drowning out the sound of my grumbling stomach. I remember feeling cold and happy. I told myself that if I was going to bed hungry, then I was doing something right.
The summer after my freshman year I stayed on campus to work. My eating regimen consisted of ¾ cup of cereal for breakfast, a 100 calorie cracker with a can of tuna in water for lunch, a nectarine for a snack, and baked chicken with mixed greens and vinegar for dinner. I was exhausted all of the time.Every time I felt faint I would eat a piece of beef jerky. I didn’t have a scale to weigh myself that summer, but I fit into size 0 clothing for the first time in my life. I was terrified of ever not fitting into size 0s.
In my sophomore year, I lived with a friend who owned a scale. She kept it under the sink of our shared bathroom. I would sneak into the bathroom to weigh myself every chance that I got. If I weighed any more than 116 pounds I would skip a meal. I had lost so much muscle and physical fitness that I was cut from my club volleyball team. I could not stand on one leg at a time to shave my legs in the shower.
It was during this time when I received the most compliments about my physical appearance that ever have in my life. My peers regularly asked me about my exercise routine and diet. I told them that I ran 3 miles every morning and stayed away from processed carbs. I did not tell them that every day I obsessed about making sure that I did not gain any weight back. I did not tell them that I would throw away food that I bought in social settings to make it seem like I was eating more than I was. I did not tell them that I planned every single calorie that I ate each day and said “no” to countless social events because I did not want to eat more than that plan.
“There are entire months of my life that I cannot remember.”
I cannot remember the first time I ever binge ate. There are entire months of my life that I cannot remember, likely because I do not want to remember them. The first time that I remember feeling a loss of control when eating was at the end of my sophomore year. I was sitting at my friend’s table that supported a family size package of peanut butter Oreos. I ate a sleeve of them. A few hours later I felt so sick that I threw them up. I remember that taste that in my mouth but I don’t remember the next two months.
The next moment in my life that I remember was getting my blood drawn to find the cause of my fatigue. I remember being told that my hormones were unbalanced. I got an MRI to check for a pituitary gland tumor. I was prescribed specific birth control pills to supplement my hormone levels.
I returned for my junior year in college two weeks after this prescription. My first day back I ate an entire pound of hazelnuts over the course of half an hour. I felt sick halfway through but I could not stop. I closed the bag and put it away several times only to return and finish it. When my roommate moved in, I started to steal her food. I tried to prevent my bingeing by not keeping any “unhealthy” foods in the room. I would fight the guilt and urge to eat but end up manically searching through her things to find food that I could steal without her knowing. I’m sure that she knew and I’m deeply sorry. Our friendship died out after that year.
I blamed my bingeing on my hormone levels that I believed were making me depressed. I took numerous online questionnaires for depression and anxiety. I sought help from a therapist off campus. I asked my best friend at the time to drive me because I did not want anyone else to know where I was going. I paid around $250 out of pocket for my therapy session because I did not want my parents to know if I used their insurance.
I remember sitting, facing my therapist, on a leather couch in a blue lace dress that I thought I was getting too fat to wear. She told me that she thought there were things that I wasn’t telling her. I remember purposefully not telling her several things: when I was twelve I cut my left arm with a bread knife several times to “punish myself” for not being perfect and that I was currently, uncontrollably eating thousands of calories at a time. I’m not going assume any connections between mental health, body image and food relationships. My therapist thought that I might open up more if I came back. I never did.
The rest of college is a blur of the memories of my binge eating and compensatory behaviors. I spent the night of my 21st birthday alone, eating the remaining half of a 12” diameter cake that my friends had bought me. I tried to throw it up afterwards. I shoved my right two fingers down my throat and gagged over a toilet for an hour. Nothing came up. I didn’t eat for 48 hours after that. I told myself that I didn’t deserve to eat. I drove to fast food restaurants and grocery stores off campus to stockpile foods to feed my future binges. I avoided going to social events because I was embarrassed of the way I looked. I weighed 165 pounds at the end of my senior year.
“I hoped that my new environment would change my behavior.”
I took a job in Chicago because I wanted to get as far away as possible from anyone who knew me when I had weighed 115 pounds. I believed that everyone looked at me and thought that I had let myself go. I convinced myself that everyone looked at me and thought that I used to be attractive but they weren’t sure what happened to me. I hoped that my new environment would change my behavior.
I spent the first Sundays of my Chicago residency meal prepping my lunches and dinners for the week. I didn’t have any go-to binge stores. I don’t remember bingeing for those first few months. However, as I became more familiar with my setting, I started to form new bingeing habits. I discovered GrubHub and UberEats. I used to order and eat entire Parlor Pizza pizzas, mozzarella sticks, cookie sandwiches and cupcakes in one sitting. Sometimes I would make myself throw it up afterwards. Sometimes I would skip several meals the next day.
Around this time I decided to quit my job and pursue preventative healthcare promotion through physical activity as a fitness coach. After a poor performance review at my job as an analyst for a healthcare technology startup, I sent my resignation letter two weeks later, realizing that I had no passion for my work.
The decision to pursue coaching next seemed logical. In my last week I had coffee with a coworker who asked me what I was doing next. I distinctly remember telling him that I wanted to improve systems of physical activity as preventative health and that I wanted to gain experience on the ground level by becoming a fitness coach.
At the time, I had done CrossFit for just under two years. Training was the highlight of my day. I spent all of my time that I was not consumed with work or my eating habits immersing myself in the culture of functional fitness. I got my group fitness and CrossFit Level 1 certifications. I started to work as an aid in a physical therapy clinic and at the front desk of a CrossFit gym. I just wanted to learn as much as possible in the industry of movement. I didn’t expect to be given coaching hours or handed opportunities. I simply asked as many questions as possible and worked as many hours as I could sanely manage.
I was quite lucky to have been working at a gym that had a mass coaching and subsequently management turnover. There was a need for coaches so I had the opportunity to start coaching. There was a need for management so I had the opportunity to pick up more responsibility. I didn’t think that I was ready for either role. In fact, I questioned and critiqued every class and move that I made in the first several months of assuming a full time coaching and management position at BRICK Chicago. In my mind, I could always be better.
I was incredibly self-conscious about my body when I started coaching. I doubted that anyone would respect me because I did not look like a fitness model or a CrossFit athlete. I blamed my inability to perform skills like muscle-ups on my weight. I credited my ability to lift heavy weights to being “fat”.
After a frustrating family vacation earlier this year during which I refused to be in any pictures, had panic attacks at restaurants and continually commented on how disgusting I looked, my mom desperately said to me:
You know how to lose weight. One day you’ll just decide to do it.
My mom is a very practical and blunt person. She was right in that what ultimately ended my bulimic behavior was an active process of making better choices and shifting my mentality. She just had no concept of how extreme my behaviors were.
Earlier this year I lost about 15 pounds because I ate 1,200 calories a day for a month and trained for about 2 hours a day. I had decided that I would not let myself get to 170 pounds. I told myself that I needed to have the same willpower that I did in my first year in college. I hope that nobody uses this as a template for losing weight; I want to stress that I was exceptionally unhappy during this time. I felt trapped by my diet regimen. I could not lift the same weights that I did a few months previously and I began to feel a familiar sense of exhaustion.
My decrease in fitness and physical capability was what inspired me to seek help. I didn’t want to be caught in a cycle of restrictive eating, bingeing, and compensating. I asked for help from a nutrition coach; I told her that I had some disordered eating history and that I did not want to track calories or macros. I didn’t tell her anything else. One of the first questions she asked me was:
What foods do you enjoy eating?
I’ll always remember that moment because at the time I couldn’t think of a single thing. Eating anything made me stressed. If I was eating something that was “healthy”, like baked chicken with spinach, I was worried that it might cause me to binge later. If I was eating something “unhealthy”, like a Do-Rite donut, I told myself that I had no self control and worried about my inability to stop eating.
What definitively helped me stop binge eating and compensating was telling myself that I have control over my reactions to emotions and to life. What helps me to accept my body is forgiving myself for not having the perfect eating habits and not comparing myself to others. It’s okay if I overeat sometimes, it doesn’t mean that I’m bingeing. It’s okay that I don’t look like fitness model, that’s not why I coach or train. It’s okay if I fail a lift or a muscle-up, I will train to get it soon.
That’s not to say that I’m suddenly filled with self-love. I still have to stop myself from critiquing pictures. I still have moments when I tell myself that “you don’t deserve to eat”. However, I can’t physically do the things that I want to do when I don’t eat. I don’t physically feel well enough to do the things that I want to do when I binge. I decided to let my body shape be a result of eating to support my fitness. I measure my progress by assessing my attitude and physical ability.
I wish I could tell you there there is a quick, easy, 3-step fix to having a perfect relationship with food and body image. But I honestly think that there’s some beauty in the fact that there’s not.