After a workout at the gym last year, a woman approached me and told me I was in great shape and that my stomach was “toned.” I was wearing a sports bra with leggings, as I usually did. Since I was caught off guard, I thanked her and walked away. Later I wished I had spoken up. I don’t know what I would have said, but I should have at least tried to convey the complexity of the relationship between one’s physique and one’s health.
At the time, I had just been discharged from a partial hospitalization program for an eating disorder. While I appeared slightly muscular, I was recovering from severe caloric restriction, an exercise addiction, laxative abuse, and self-induced vomiting episodes. My hair was falling out and two months prior, I passed out at school and had to get stitches in my head. Of course, noone could know this just from looking at me, but I wish people understood that eating disorders aren’t always visible. I was not emaciated, and most people would probably think that I was healthy. That could not be farther from the truth. I was ill. I had not had my period in months, I cried on a regular basis, and my entire body ached from starvation paired with exercise.
The woman said she wished she could have a flat stomach when she sat down like I did. I wish she knew that the cost is not worth the result. I did not feel beautiful or sexy. Every time I looked in the mirror, I pinched at the fat on my body and prayed that it would disappear. I wore baggy clothing and tried to blend in with my surroundings to distract people from my appearance. I never spoke in class because I did not think I had anything important to say. My social circle was small, and I was combative in all of my friendships because I feared vulnerability. My grades slipped because my eyesight was terrible, and I was often too tired to take notes or listen to lectures.
It has been over a year since the encounter with this woman, yet the experience is as relevant today as it was that day. I am just a few weeks into my sophomore year of college and I have to fight disordered thoughts everyday. Yesterday, I broke my laptop and my first reaction was the desire to binge and purge. There was an unopened bag of M&Ms in my dorm room. Wanting to forget about the quizzes I had that day, my laptop, insecurities, and the guy I like not reciprocating my feelings, it took everything in me to grab lunch instead of bingeing and purging.
When I am under stress, I tend to romanticize the days when I was in the depths of my disorder. I think about fitting into my “sick jeans,” feeling pure, and not being weighed down by food; it was as if I was superhuman.
I cannot forget that the perks of my illness came with health problems and misery. I never felt alive and I could not connect with friends. The rush that restriction brings and the outpour of compliments from misguided strangers is not worth the pain of relapse. Attaining a certain body type is not worth risking health and happiness. Life is so much bigger than having toned abs or a thigh gap.