For my entire freshman year of college, I had a secret. I was anorexic.
What started off as a diet to look good for my senior prom soon spiraled into a full blown eating disorder. I lost nearly 35 pounds in only a few months. I was frail, nearly always tired, and struggling with an incredible amount of self-hatred. I spent most of my freshman year, a time when I could have been out with friends making memories, isolating myself, fearing eating around other people. I feared their judgments about me eating too much or too little. I feared their judgements about food choice or habits I had picked up.
One of the most difficult things about eating disorders is that your mind won't let you believe you're sick. You're not that underweight. Other girls are thinner. You still eat some food. You don't exercise as much as other people. It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I was sick, and even longer to feel that I deserved recovery.
Throughout this time in my life, relatives and acquaintances from high school would remark about how good I looked 'now.' This backhanded compliment had devastating effects on my mental health. What was meant as a compliment instead reinforced the societal standard of beauty that I was so entrenched in: the thinner you are, the prettier you are. Each time someone made a comment on my appearance, I internalized it and used it to further spiral downwards.
I was underweight and struggling with a lot of dark thoughts.
However, to a lot of people, I didn't look all that ill. There were plenty of women who were smaller than I was. There were people who exercised more and probably ate even less than me. None of these things changed the fact that I had Anorexia.
Trying to police what we believe an illness should look like is a dangerous game to play. Many eating disorder treatment centers and insurance companies won't approve admission for treatment unless a person is already severely underweight. There's a real possibility to treat eating disorders before they become deathly serious, but many of the people who need treatment the most can't get it simply because they're not sick 'enough' yet.
Numbers aren't important to this story. My high or low weight don't matter. The number of calories I consumed at my lowest point is irrelevant. What does matter is this: I was sick. Anorexia is both a physical and mental illness. It takes a serious toll on a person, regardless of what weight that person is currently at. There is no weight minimum or maximum to having an eating disorder. Millions of Americans struggle with eating disorders in their lifetime. Eating disorders have the highest relapse rate and death rate of any mental illness. They are such serious issues, and yet people are so quick to make snap judgements about how sick a person is by their appearance.
If it hadn't been for the love and support of my boyfriend, my parents, and a select few friends, I might still be sick. I was fortunate enough to have a support network that I could count on to encourage me to eat, to check in on me, and to validate the struggles I was facing. I am lucky. I'm significantly healthier now than I was freshman year. I have a much healthier relationship with food and myself. While I gained weight back, I also gained my life back.
To anyone out there who is struggling with body image issues, self hatred, or disordered eating: you aren't alone. What you're facing is real. You deserve to be helped. Your physical appearance has no merit on your worth as a person. You are loved, and always will be, regardless of how much you weigh.
For a list of resources, check out NEDA