I’m not entirely sure what the general population thinks about eating disorders. Like most mental illnesses, they’re not usually talked about. And when they are, they’re mainly glamorized, used in the wrong context, or viewed in a negative light. Some see these illnesses as tragically beautiful. Others single out naturally skinny women and label them anorexic. People make crass speculations like: “It’s a choice” or “It’s just for attention.” I truly hope that most people don’t believe these toxic assumptions. But I suppose for some, it is still a question of how and why people find themselves with eating disorders.
Quite obviously, I can’t speak for everyone. But I can explain why I think I became anorexic.
Was it my choice?
In short, no.
I did not choose to grow up in a society where women are told they’re only beautiful if they are thin. My family also propagated these ideas. With a sister ten years my senior, I was exposed to dieting from a young age as I watched her try every restrictive meal plan in the book. My mother would always mention that after her divorce, she dropped below a hundred pounds. My aunt would then respond by saying how pretty she looked then, until she met my father and gained all the weight back. My father would describe gorgeous women as being “a hundred pounds soaking wet.” And so, I began to see being skinny as a sign of strength and beauty.
I have one memory from when I was younger that really stands out to me. I must have been no more than four years old; I was standing on the scale and I said to my mother and sister, “I want to be zero pounds.” Of course, they explained to me that I would be dead if that were the case. Yet it was a clear sign that even then, I saw losing weight as an accomplishment.
But the idea of seriously dieting would not enter into my mind until much later.
In grade seven and eight, I was bullied by the girls who were my closest friends. I became the running joke of the group, and the only one who wasn’t in on it was me. They picked on how I walked, talked, sang, laughed, and even breathed, since I was slightly asthmatic. When one of them finally told me about the backstabbing, I was distraught. I felt not only betrayed, but I also began to develop a deep sense of hatred towards myself.
Let me just note that I do not blame these people for my eating disorder or begrudge them in any way. They couldn’t possibly know what their actions would do to me, but I do believe this event did play a role in what happened.
My first coping mechanism was to eat more, so I eventually gained a lot of weight. Then in the summer after grade eight, I decided I wanted to go on a diet and exercise more. At first, there was nothing wrong. I lost ten pounds and felt great as I began high school.
However, I didn’t know anyone at my high school. As a shy, introverted person, it was difficult for me to make friends. With the stress of the new environment, I began to take it out on myself. And soon, I found myself occupying my time by trying to lose more weight. I counted calories, restricted what I ate, and later became vegetarian; I did gymnastics twice a week and had gym class every day; it was not long before I lost a significant amount of weight.
I felt accomplished every time I lost five pounds, but then always wanted to lose ten pounds more. One hundred pounds was stuck in my head as the ideal weight. But even after I achieved such an unhealthy goal for my body, I still couldn’t stop. It was no longer satisfying to lose weight, but instead, I was a failure if I didn’t.
It was a form of perfectionism, in a way. In the same way so many students fear failure, I feared being fat. Of course, my idea of ‘fat’ was seen as ridiculous by the general population. But all the same, I had a constant goal in mind and could not accept anything less.
I no longer even saw being skinny as ‘beautiful.’ At my lowest weight, I did not look in the mirror and like what I saw any more than I did before my weight loss. In fact, I thought the women who were most radiant were the ones with curves and confidence. The reality was, I was not losing weight to fit the societal ideal: I was losing weight because I had to. The feeling of emptiness in my stomach was addicting. Refusing food was a triumph. My body’s weakness was a sign of strength; I could withstand all the torture I put myself through and still survive.
But there eventually came a point when I feared stepping on the scale because I knew the numbers were too low.
The day I finally did, I cried.
That was when I realized that if I didn’t stop losing weight, I would die. And I realized I didn’t want that. Nor did I want to be fat. But I finally decided that gaining weight would be better than death.
I would not mark that point as where I began to recover. But rather, that was when I realized I needed to regain control in order for me to live and function while preventing confrontation about my illness. I gained small amounts of weight, hating myself ever more. Orthorexia consumed me, as eating healthy food was my only justification for eating. It would not be until two years down the line that I would seriously begin to recover.
So was being anorexic my choice?
It was my choice to diet, count, and restrict.
But I did not choose to become obsessed. Watching the numbers on the scale fall, and calculating how much I ate over and over again gave me a sense of calm I couldn’t resist.
I did not choose the anxiety. I irrationally feared that my parents had put butter in my vegetables, or that eating an extra hundred calories would make me gain a pound.
I did not choose the depression. There was just a continuous mantra running in my head saying, “You are fat. You are pathetic. You are worthless.”
Anorexia nervosa was not my choice.
My circumstances made me, as a thirteen year old girl, hate my body so much that I wanted to make it disappear. My genetics caused that desire to turn into an obsession. My society and family believed that losing weight was an accomplishment, so no one chose to stop me. And with that, anorexia took over my mind.
My illness was not beautiful and it did not display my strength. Rather, it was miserable, terrifying, and cold. And it was beyond my control.
But recovery was my choice. Choosing to fight against my own mind to love my body was courage. Perhaps recovering was just as terrifying, but I slowly regained the sense of control over myself that I had formerly lost. And from my fight, I emerged as a much stronger and more beautiful person. Because of that, I can say that recovering was the best decision I’ve ever made.
Stephanie Bertolo is an Arts & Science student at McMaster University. A strong advocate for youth health and wellness, she is a founding member of the Young Canadians Roundtable on Health, a volunteer at McMaster’s Children’s Hospital, and a subcommittee member of COPE: a student mental health initiative. Other than studying and volunteering, she spends her time baking, spending hours in used bookstores and coffee shops, and finding herself on enthralling adventures. For three years, she suffered from anorexia and orthorexia nervosa, and is still coming to terms with life as someone who has ‘recovered’.