The innocent joy I once found at the gym slowly perverted into an engrossing, never-ending need to get thinner.
( @Laura.iu / Instagram )
[TW: The following essay contains descriptions of an eating disorder that can be triggering to some readers. If you or someone you know needs medical help, please call the National Eating Disorders Association’s helpline at (800)-931-2237. For more information and resources, please click here.]
When I sunk into grief, it was sudden. In just a moment, a college assignment about eating disorders morphed into a storm of flashbacks. I did those things. The symptoms I read on these websites — fasting, preoccupation with calories, vomiting — felt like memories. Did I have an eating disorder?
I wanted nothing more than to hide behind my wall of denial like I usually did, but this time I felt stripped to my bones. My shock spiraled into panic as quickly as its debris settled into acceptance. I just laid there, with tear-stained cheeks, finally admitting, “I think I have a problem.”
Do you ever wonder how something that started so innocent could grow into something so cancerous? Or if you could scream at your past self, “Stop, what the hell are you doing. It’s not gonna end well,” you’d do it in a heartbeat? I would.
My earliest memories at the gym were the happiest. It was my senior year of high school. My family had just moved into an apartment complex with the most amazing gym. I began weight training there out of pure curiosity. I fell in love with the feeling of overcoming a physical challenge every day. The moment of exhaustion when I’d feel my heart thumping in my throat was so new to me; It became a measure of satisfaction.
My good friend Maga started joining my workouts, and I was quite literally having the time of my life whenever I was with her. Maga’s the kind of person who makes everything a million times more enjoyable by just being there. Learning how to use different machines, target my muscle groups, and feel like a total badass when upping my weight was better because Maga was there. We were both amazed at how far we could push our bodies, how much laughter we could share and how rewarding post-workout meals felt in our souls.
Maga eventually moved up to Gainesville for college, while I stayed in Miami for online school. I spent a lot of time by myself — enough time to turn a hobby into an obsession.
The innocent joy I once found at the gym slowly perverted into an engrossing, never-ending need to get thinner. The challenges to push myself became challenges to restrict myself. I discovered formulas to help me lose weight and hacks to help me eat as little as possible. It became my life.
At first, the change was slow. I cut out “unhealthy” food throughout the week. My main concern was how to control what I ate. Then it became about how not to feel hungry. MyFitnessPal app recommended that I eat 1,200 calories a day to reach my weight loss goals (which just about satisfies the nutritional needs of a 2-year-old!!!) So naturally, my competitive nature challenged myself to eat less, and less. I was exhausted 24/7, pushing myself to lift heavy weights when my body was deteriorating, and convincing myself that unless I was tolerating my misery, I was weak.
That guilt made me desperate to undo the damage — so desperate that I was willing to throw up my meals. To eat close to nothing, or nothing the next day. To work out in unreasonable intensities to burn off my calories, or ‘earn’ my next meals. I lost sight of what a normal relationship with food was. Every minute of my life was about when I would eat next, how many calories I was allowed to ingest, and what I had to do to earn or make up for my meals.
In the fitness community, these actions were all normalized. That’s the reason I called skipping meals “intermittent fasting.” I called binges “cheat days.” I called compensatory behavior “getting back on track.” I called starving myself “calorie deficit.” I called compulsive body checking “progress pictures.”
I didn’t see a problem. I saw dedication. When you become oversaturated in a culture that normalizes disordered extents as a means of achieving weight loss, you also become blind to your own red flags.
This culture is called diet culture. Diet culture can frankly go die. It’s the reason we think skinny people are awesome and fat people are lazy. It’s the reason we instinctively congratulate weight loss. It’s the reason you feel like a bad person when you have a milkshake and a good person when you have a salad. It’s parasitic. It convinces you that you should punish your body to look differently and that losing the joy of eating will be worth it once you achieve the figure of your dreams.
This is a lie that’s too easy to believe. It feeds off of our own feelings of insufficiency. I didn’t feel beautiful unless my body felt smaller. The people around me congratulated me for looking thinner, but I was isolated in my fight for their admiration.
Nobody congratulated me in the nights I spent in my bathroom with bloody eyes after making myself throw up. Nobody congratulated me when I fasted for days or ate to numb my sadness. I kept going because I felt like I was finally getting somewhere, but it always ended with me feeling deserted, feeling damaged.
Moments that were supposed to be fun were taken over by my mind telling me how disgusting I was. Foods that I was supposed to enjoy turned into marionettes that I micromanaged without realizing they were controlling me. Mornings that I was supposed to spend excited for the day were taken up by the time I spent standing in front of my mirror, stroking my stomach because it looked flatter than it did last night.
Even when I got to my goal weight, nothing changed. I was a million times more miserable than when I started working out in the first place. I swore that being thin would fix all the issues I had with my body, but the insatiable need to change myself never left. The idea of actually stopping to accept myself was a faraway fantasy. I was on the brink of really ruining myself. I decided to get help.
During recovery, I realized that I hungered for so much more than food. My stomach, my heart, my eyes, they were all vacant. I lost so much life to the obsession of calories and what they would do to my body.
What I really wanted was to be loved, not skinny. Love surrounded me entirely, but it wasn’t budding from within. I was so conditional in the way that I loved myself. I was only kind if I got what I wanted from my skin, if my reflection told a good enough story. I’d had enough. How long was I going to convince myself that there is something broken in me that needed to be fixed with a different body?
I wanted to live again. I couldn’t be a person who laid on her deathbed with regrets about how she spent her entire life trying to shrink herself.
So, here I am. Messily getting better with the help of my friends, family, close friends list on Instagram and therapy.
It’s been about six months now. Sometimes I’m still messy when I think I’m being good. But I’ve learned how to eat intuitively. I threw away the idea that thinness was ideal, that dieting was sustainable, and that my body was undeserving of unconditional love at any size. (Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch absolutely reshaped my relationship with food and body image.).
I stopped believing that I deserved to have half of my life consumed by hunger. And, for the first time in what feels like forever, I feel full.
A few tips for recovery: unfollow anybody on Instagram that makes you feel insufficient; Eat three full meals a day; Let go of that all-or-nothing mentality. You can have bad days and still be making progress; Open up to somebody you trust. Speaking up about some of the darkest days of my life has been the scariest and most rewarding decision I could ever make. But my ED voice is a lot less powerful without the haze of shame.
Daniela Camacho is a contributing writer at Rowdy Magazine.