I know, I know. How do you throw up your food and not know you’re bulimic?
I guess the only answer is this: Everyone was doing it. It was the norm.
I went to a prestigious performing arts college where looks were a measure of success, and weight could mean the difference between a passing or failing grade.
Seriously: We had to participate in “weigh-ins.”
Every couple of months, instead of going to our normal classes, we would all parade to the giant, all-important, BMI-telling, Percent Body Fat-reading scale.
We would stand in a line, and, one-by-one, we would step nervously onto that scale, hoping the numbers would be lower than they were last time. The scale would push out a little slip of paper with all the dreaded information.
We would then sign it, fold it, and stick it in a cubby for our teachers to peruse. If we had not met our assigned weight goal, we risked a drop in our letter grade.
Not surprisingly, the days leading up to these weigh-ins were spent in aggressive exercise and meal restrictions. One could walk into the gym and see my fellow performers and me, already the thinnest people at my school, killing ourselves on the treadmills and ellipticals.
Just a few hundred more calories, just a couple more hours, and maybe, maybe we could reach that oh-so-elusive perfection we wanted.
After the weigh-in, however, came the celebration. Another weigh-in would not occur for a couple more months. We could finally eat that brownie. We could finally get ice cream in the cafeteria. Pizza was no longer off-limits.
And, of course, we couldn’t eat just one brownie or one scoop of ice cream or one piece of pizza. It became a binge for the ages.
The starving artists could finally eat, and we did so with reckless abandon, gorging ourselves because, for this short amount of time, we could.
This process of restricting and binging gave birth to a new monster: the guilt complex. After a binge, no matter how delicious or nourishing the food was to our bodies, guilt would settle in. We had worked so hard to lose weight, and now maybe we’ve just thrown it all away on a batch of cookies. How dare we lose control like that?
We anxiously grasped for a chance to redeem ourselves for this momentary weakness, and to our sick brains, the only immediate solution was to purge the food, to throw it up.
Eventually, from this weigh-in inspired cycle, my own binging and purging routine became more frequent. Now, instead of throwing up once a month, I threw up once a week, then twice a week, then once a day, sometimes twice a day.
The binge served to comfort and fill me, the purge served to ease the guilt of binging. The whole process made me feel as if I had some control in my life, when, in actuality, the disorder was controlling me.
I knew from high school health class that my behavior might not be the most wholesome. But I looked around me and saw a culture where everyone treated their bodies this way, and I figured it was simply what must be done.
Even after my two best friends were placed on suicide watch and sent to rehab, even when I witnessed the darkest consequences eating disorders can have, I couldn’t acknowledge that I was also sick. I didn’t want to kill myself, and I wasn’t starving myself, so maybe my disorder was simply a habit that I could indulge and then break if I felt it getting out of hand.
My junior year, I got a boyfriend whose favorite part of my body was my tiny waist. I was told that I needed to lose weight if I went into television. I began obsessively watching documentaries on eating disorders, admiring the featured girls for their slender frames and “self-discipline.”
By the time I entered my senior year of college, I weighed less than I did in junior high. I had reached the point where the only food I could eat without fear was spinach.
Sandwiches were scary because of the bread, fruits were scary because of the sugar, colorful vegetables felt too indulgent, and meat was the most terrifying of all.
One night I ate a small bowl of chili, immediately purged it into the toilet, and then, feeling weaker and more lost than I had ever felt in my life, I lay down on the bathroom floor and sobbed. In a rush, I was overwhelmed by how defeated I felt, how much I hated myself, how bleak the future seemed.
After a solid cry, I sat up. There, on that floor, I had the revelation that I needed to ask for help. I had never revealed the extent of my disorder to anyone. People had guessed that my weight loss was not healthy, but nobody knew how often I binged and purged, how chained I was to my bulimia.
I called one of my sorority sisters and asked if I could come over. She sat me down on her couch and listened as I cried and, for the first time, confessed my brokenness.
With her encouragement, I joined an online support group. She asked me to call her any time I felt afraid of food or any time I was afraid that I might throw up.
I made several appointments with our school’s psychologist, but I ended up canceling all of them. I was ashamed. Ashamed that I’d let my sickness get so far. Ashamed that I might not be able to overcome it on my own.
I began a slow road to recovery, with many ups and downs, good days and bad. There were times when I’d resort to old habits, but there were also stronger times when I knew my health was worth fighting for.
It is scary to me that I, a bright, positive, intelligent young college girl, could be so easily lost in an eating disorder’s grasp. But, scarier than this, is the knowledge that so many people around me were so sick that I thought I was perfectly fine.
We live in an environment where personal health is being compromised to fit into the “right” dress size, where girls place their self-worth on their thigh gap instead of in their brains. The sooner this mentality is changed, the better off we’ll be.
Years later, fully recovered, I still occasionally feel that binge and purge compulsion nagging at the back of my brain. And even though now I am strong enough to resist it, I wonder if it will ever completely go away.
I dream of the day it does, just as I dream of a day when no girl feels obligated to skip a meal or to kneel in front of a toilet to punish herself.