Anorexia: Does it Begin With Others?
Warning: This piece discusses subject matter which may be distressing or triggering to some readers. If you have a history of eating disorders, please read at your discretion.
Throughout my life I have struggled with clothing, body image and how I feel I am “supposed” to look. I was formally diagnosed with early onset Anorexia Nervosa at the age of 14 years old, when I began to use food as a means of control in my life.
My lowest weight was 86 pounds, and I celebrated that morning when I stepped on the scale in my size 00 jeans. I didn’t get my period that month, but I finally thought I was on my way. I was on my way to being beautiful, and I was on my way to gaining control during a very difficult time in my life. You see, my parents’ relationship was disintegrating in front of my very eyes. My Father travelled five days a week for work, and when he was home on the weekends he wasn’t speaking to anyone. My Mother was dealing with a chronic illness which required her to be on very heavy medication on top of dealing with her relationship struggles with my Father. My Brother suffered from severe anxiety and was recently diagnosed with the same chronic disease my Mother had. My body was changing out of my control, my home was changing out of my control and I felt like I had no decisive power over anything in my life.
Any time I experience stress, feel like I am not living up to my own standards, or have a bad experience with clothing, I sink into a pit of continuous nausea. This pit (created by me and only me) caused by a whirlwind of anxiety, causes me to drop pounds a week. I stop eating entirely or revert to one or two small meals a day until I’m ribbed and exhausted.
Growing up half Italian half Scottish, food was involved in every aspect of life- especially from the Italian side. Having had to spend many summers and after school hours at my Nonno and Nonna’s house (Grandmother and Grandfather in Italian), their entire raison d’être was food. Coming from a life of poverty in war-time rural Italy before moving to Canada, food was scarce and was used as a currency to show affluence and affection. Reading a book? Here, have some grapes. Sitting at the TV? Here’s some veal on a bun. Having guests over? Pasqua, dove piatti? Aggua la porcellana! Compra la buona pasta! (Translation: Pasquale, where are the plates? Grab the China! Go buy the nice pasta!) My Nonna would cry and tell me in her broken Italo-English “You don’t love me!” when I would say “No thank you Nonna, I’m not hungry right now”. When I was thirteen, my Nonno told me that if I ever wanted to find a husband (yes, he said husband) that I needed to put on ten pounds. He said (translated) “Come here. I need to tell you something important. No man wants a skinny girl. Put on ten pounds and you’ll find a nice husband to look after you.”
I will never forget that day. It is burned into the filing cabinet in my mind- etched into the deepest corners of my self-confidence. Hearing that made me feel incredibly self-conscious, and in combination with stresses at home (the years before my parents’ divorce) it made me feel like nobody would ever love me the way I was.
There was even a boy in my class that would call me a “fat cow” every day. He said I needed to work on slimming my belly because I was going to get a muffin top. Every time I ate he would say things like “A minute on the lips is a lifetime on the hips, Sarah.” Yes, some would argue that these comments should have toughened me up, but when you have mental illness already lingering and this kind of toxic dialogue is catapulted towards you for as long as you can remember, it’s hard not to let that affect you.
Food was this continuously negative experience from every avenue, and the only person that seemed to really respect my desires about food was my Mom. She was the main reason I didn’t jump totally off the deep end, because she was the one person in my life giving me positive dialogue about my body. Everyone else made me feel guilty about my food and the way I looked.
I would get ready to go out somewhere, and I distinctly remember on quite a few occasions, my Father sending me back into my room. “You’re wearing that?!” he would say, scoldingly. “Go change.” If my outfit was inappropriate for where we were going, there are much nicer ways of expressing that. After all, it’s up to your parents to teach you what is appropriate and what is not. Perhaps he was having other issues that day, but it’s still his responsibility to be mindful of the impact of his words to his growing child. It wasn’t my fault that my body was morphing from an androgynous little girl into a woman, and I know that bothered my Father. As far as hormonal female teenagers were concerned, I was practically a nun. I never had any desire to show breasts, midriff or anything above mid thigh. In fact, I would have categorized myself more on the side of a tom-boy, looking to women like early Avril Lavigne, P!nk and Amy Lee as modest fashion inspirations. Now looking back as an adult, I understand the anger and defiance was coming from fear of me growing up, but at the time I didn’t have the life experience to know that.
I was in a constant state of self-loathing. I even suffered from Dermatillomania, and would pick at every little bump or imperfection I thought I saw on my body. If there wasn’t an imperfection, I would make one. I thought everyone around me hated my body because they were constantly telling me how to change it. Gain weight, be more active, eat more eat more EAT MORE! Every interaction made me feel like I wasn’t good enough.
When you are constantly being told that you are not enough because of your body, you begin to hate it.
A vessel that you are meant to love and cherish becomes a prison.
Once again, I was being belittled about my body.
Once again I saw a reason to punish myself.
Eating Disorders are exacerbated by existing mental health issues, yes.
But more importantly…
Eating Disorders are exacerbated by toxic dialogue throughout your developmental years by those around you.
In other words, your family helps shape the dialogue you have about your body in more ways than you would think.
This happens to men and women, girls and boys. This is not an exclusively female issue. You may think I’m too sensitive; that I was too coddled and needed to hear these things to grow a thicker skin. You may think that I’m not tough because I got an eating disorder instead of rebellion and anger issues, but it doesn’t always work that way; not when you’re already feeling symptoms of depression, a condition that runs in your family. Not when instead of being told to have fun, you’re being told at thirteen years old that you should be preparing yourself for how your future husband wants you to look.
I’m in a long term relationship, and my partner NEVER says these things. He uses words like: feminine, strong, sexy, healthy. Most importantly: He thinks I’m the most beautiful when I’m healthy and happy. He knows that the second I start to taper my food intake that it’s the beginning of a very dangerous path for me. He is aware of the signs and makes sure that I’m getting the support I need from him, even though he doesn’t fully understand what it feels like.
In times of reflection like these I constantly think of my Mom. She was the only one that listened and defended me. When I was exhibiting signs of an eating disorder, she took me right away for treatment. I can’t imagine what would have happened to me if I didn’t have her witnessing and protecting me from the toxicity of my family. Listening to the people around you and being a voice that supports having a healthy body is incredibly important. Sometimes, we have phases in our lives where our mental struggles control the inner dialogue we have with ourselves and that’s okay.
Most importantly: You deserve to be kind to yourself because there are so many people out there that love and admire you.
I wish I had more people around me saying those things. Not many people are fortunate enough to have compassionate people in their lives like I do, which is why I wanted to write this piece. Although we all have the power to change our outcome, the origins of our complex relationships with our bodies don’t always begin from the inside. Remember that and be kind to yourself in those moments. Be kind to others too, and educate them on why that dialogue is not healthy and does not make you feel good. Tell them you aim to be healthy weight and not a number on a scale, and last but not least: don’t be afraid to tell yourself that.
Anorexia: Does it Begin With Others?
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