Cover photograph by Jamie Baik
She was sitting a few tables away from me. I’d seen her around, of course, because it was a small campus.
I paused and glanced around the room again, distracted. She was bent low, almost crouching over her table, eating something. She straightened up and pulled her plate towards her. On it were two pieces of Angel food cake, and crumbs from a third. She pulled out something from her pocket and tore it open. As she poured Splenda over the cake, she hastily scooped up one of the pieces and shoved it whole into her mouth, still bent over her table like she was trying to hide. As soon as she had finished, she scraped the crumbs off the table onto the plate, and walked away, depositing the dish into the kitchen basin as she went.
Should I follow her? I thought. Should I say something? Introduce myself, ask how she’s doing? Tell her that I’ve done the same thing before? That Angel food cake was the only dessert I allowed myself to eat for months? That I know its exact calorie count per serving, and all of its other nutrition facts? That I still have a store of Splenda in my dorm that I used to pour on my food when I was starving, so I’d get more out of the few bites I’d allow myself?
I decided not to. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, I told myself. Or maybe saying something would scare her off, make her lie about it, like I used to. I could just make it worse.
Turns out that a few months later she wrote a blog post about her eating disorder. She described the ups and downs, the health risks she went through, and how the disorder affected her relationships.
But the main point of her post was that she wished someone had noticed.
Why wasn’t anyone paying attention? Why didn’t anyone say anything? And even when they did say something, why was it almost exclusively unhelpful? As I was reading, I started crying. I’d failed her utterly, of course, but I also knew exactly how she felt: yearning to cover it all up and tell everyone how fine you are, but secretly desperate for someone to notice. And I cried because I’d also heard people say that I should just “snap out of it” or pray harder about it.
That “advice” couldn’t be more harmful.
I never thought very negatively about my appearance, my health, or control over my body before college.
Before I went off to Williams my parents told me that I might feel pressure to look like Williams athletes—thin, muscular—but that I shouldn’t let that get to me. I laughed at them and said I was the last person in the world who would get an eating disorder, and that they shouldn’t worry about me.
My freshman year, I started eating salads simply because I didn’t really like the other options in the dining halls. Yes, I was spoiled, coming from living in Uganda with fresh, organic produce every day. So I just went to the salad bar for meals. I would put protein and fat in the salads for the first month or so, but soon I stopped doing that, and basically just ate lettuce with low-calorie dressing. Of course I was hungry, but I thought I was being a healthy, independent adult or something. I’d eat a bowl of low-fat cereal to combat the hunger cramps.
People would comment on how “healthy” I was eating, and I liked the praise. It felt good, being an example of health to other people. Unintentionally, I started losing weight.
Instead of the “freshman five” that people told me to expect, I lost 40 pounds in two months.
I didn’t have a scale, but I could see the difference when I looked in the mirror. My stomach, hips, arms, boobs, thighs, even my face, looked thinner. It was an obvious difference, but I brushed it off as a positive side effect of my healthy eating. I was still completely convinced that I was doing what was best for my body. Other people had affirmed that, too, so what was there to worry about?
I grew obsessed with what I was eating, which was now tied to an obsession with what I looked like. Skinnier meant healthier. Over about a month, my diet and my appearance became constant fixations. That’s not exaggerating, either: I literally thought about food in all of my spare brain time. I stuck to meager salads, fruit, and bowls of cereal, eating impossibly small amounts then binge eating more amounts of the same food later in the day because I was starving.
My mind would fluctuate between self-congratulations for keeping myself on such a tight, “empowered,” “healthy” leash, then hating myself for eating slightly more than I “should” have.
I would count calories constantly: how many per meal, per day, per week. For example, I allowed myself one slice of Angel food cake per week.
If I ever ate a cookie or a full slice of bread, I would skip the next meal.
If I ever went out to eat and ate a standard plate of food, I’d starve myself for the next 24 hours to make up for it.
I carried packets of Splenda around with me so I could sprinkle it on my cereal.
I would say I was busy when people invited me to meals, just so I could sit in my room and do homework instead of eat anything. I started buying gum and chewing that instead.
If someone insisted I try something they baked–a cookie or a piece of cake or something–I would take a bite, hide it in my mouth, go to the bathroom and spit it out. I never threw anything up, but I seriously considered it. Instead I would, again, skip more meals.
I told my friends I was fasting so they wouldn’t ask any questions.
I grew to love the empty feeling in my stomach, with each growl of hunger a small congratulations on my progress.
At my lowest point, I weighed 117 pounds (I’m 5 foot 10).
When I describe everything like this, it sounds obvious that something was very wrong. With my body, with my mind, with my relationships and with my faith. At the time, though, it genuinely felt like I was just becoming a healthier me. I didn’t even notice as thoughts of utter control over my body took over all of my spare brain space. I was exhausted, constantly strategizing about my “health” but wanting to eat more all the time. I still never considered changing anything.
Once friends started commenting on how thin I looked, or how little I was eating, I would brush them off. A couple times I snapped at them, telling them to mind their own business. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, distancing myself from my friends meant that I had something to hide. Somewhere deep down, I knew something was off, but I still thought of it as my friends misunderstanding and judging me for something that was totally fine.
I was still reading the Bible and praying every day. I just never thought God had anything to do with this part of my life. I didn’t try to hide it from him, I just didn’t bring it up. Besides, Christian girls are supposed to know their self-worth in God’s eyes. Eating disorders are taboo and sinful, because it means girls just cared about the way they looked, and they wanted to be skinnier for guys.
As months passed, I gradually started thinking that maybe something was wrong. I heard a few people share their stories about eating disorders at mental health events, and their experiences sounded identical to mine. I could tell a lot of my friends thought I was weird for talking so much about food and health, and barely eating anything. So there were a few warning signs before the big wake-up call of my period stopping. I’ve dreamed about being a mother since I can remember, so for something to potentially be wrong with my fertility was a big scare. I practically ran to the health center.
I remember standing in the hospital robe they gave me with my bare feet on the cold tile floor, waiting for the nurse to return to take my vitals. Fear crashed over me, fear that the nurse would know that I wasn’t eating right and would tell me to stop, and fear that I would lose the control I had developed over my body. I closed my eyes and put my hands on my chest, feeling the ribs jutting out from underneath my skin. Something is wrong. I gasped from the realization. I need help.
And just like that, out of nowhere it seemed, I felt absolute love and tenderness wrap me up in a hug. It’s impossible to describe exactly what that felt like, but I’ll try. It was understanding of what I had done to myself, but without judgement. It was acceptance of who I was, but without guilt tripping. In that small room, shivering in my thin robe and skin, I felt fully understood and fully adored.
The nurse came back in and asked if I was okay, because I was standing in the middle of her room sobbing. I told her I was fine, and she weighed me. I was introduced to a nutritionist who set up weekly meetings with me on Fridays. I was still terrified at the prospect of telling anyone the truth, and losing control, but I decided to do it. God’s love was right there with me, telling me I was doing great.
As with any recovery from an eating disorder, I had a lot of relapse. I’d eat more on Thursdays and Fridays so my weight would look good to the nurses, and I’d lie to the nutritionist about what I ate. She’d give me homework of eating a piece of toast with peanut butter at every meal, and I’d ignore it. When friends asked for updates on how I was recovering, I’d tell them I was practically cured when I wasn’t. I still ate very, very little. It took months for me to start eating full meals. It’s taken years for me to change how I think about food and my appearance, and I’m still never going to fully get there.
The people around me had mixed reactions when I confided in them.
Some friends said things like, “I thought you were getting way too skinny. Yeah, you need to fix that.” This kind of judgmental stance trivialized how hard I was working to get healthy. It also condemned and shamed me, without a hint of love.
Or they’d say, “You should pray about it.” I felt that this insulted my faith by suggesting that I wasn’t praying about it. It also treated God like a vending machine: prayer goes in, desired result comes out. God isn’t like that, and while I know he wanted me to be healthy and I know he can work miracles, he very rarely makes a complicated medical problem disappear overnight. He helped me become healthy again, but not by flipping a switch.
I even heard one person say, “Can’t you just sort of snap out of it?” This is just about the worst thing you can tell someone struggling with mental health. It completely invalidates their mental and emotional struggle. Eating disorders are actual disorders, with changed brain chemistry locking the person into unhealthy ways of thinking. Someone cannot just choose to stop thinking that way.
One person said, “But you’re the last person on earth I ever expected to get an eating disorder!” Even though I used to think that, it of course makes me feel like I’m especially messed up, or that my struggle isn’t valid. There is no “last person on earth” to have this happen to them.
Everyone’s susceptible, regardless of gender, beliefs, background or medical history.
A lot of people treated it as if I was only concerned with being pretty. This was especially related to the idea of what Christians should be: not worried about what other people think, but worried about what God thinks. Turns out that not very many eating disorders are just about being good enough for other people. They’re about control and power. They come from things like stress, sexual abuse, family issues, or constant societal messaging about what people “should” look like.
Some wonderful, wonderful friends came to me and gently asked if there was anything they could do to help me out. No accusations, no condescension, just a sincere desire to love me. The people who did this were key to my recovery, encouraging me constantly. They reassured me that the eating disorder didn’t define me, that I was still a great person, and that they weren’t freaked out by my disorder. They loved me, they said, and they weren’t going anywhere.
It’s been a few years since I first walked into the Williams health center. I still have the inevitable ups and downs, but I’m doing well.
I’m a healthy 160 pounds, and I hardly ever check nutrition labels.
For those who helped me through it, Christian and otherwise: you really did change my life. My nurse, my Sunday night dinner partner, my Tuesday night dinner dates, my brother, my mentor, my roommate, my entrymate, my other bestie, my family, and my husband. You may not think you did that much to help, but you did. Thank you, and thank you for teaching me how to love others who are going through the same thing.
If you think you or someone you know has an eating disorder, here’s a good resource to help you out. Also feel free to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org