What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
My experience with eating disorders began as so many do: completely by accident.
I spent the summer before my Senior year in high school on a community service trip in Ecuador that mainly consisted of manual labor, leading to an unintentional 8 pound weight loss in just under 5 weeks.
I got so many compliments when I returned home that I felt determined to keep the weight off, and maybe even lose a few more pounds. My Mom in particular couldn’t stop raving about my new svelte figure, and made sure to mention that I would look even better if I could get down to 125 pounds.
I’m not even sure how it happened, but before I knew it I was on a full-fledged diet. Anxiety rushed in at the very thought of ingesting a whole sandwich, and I would leave parties early just to go home and lift weights before bed.
That winter I joined a gym for the first time, and was transfixed by watching the “CALORIES” tracker on the Elliptical machine climb higher and higher. Under 1,500 calories ingested + 600 calories burned meant everything was OK, and I could breathe easily that night.
I ignored what rapidly became an overwhelming amount of concern from those in my life, lying about how much weight I had actually lost, and binging the night before a doctor’s appointment in hopes that eating a full baguette would trick the scale into showing my mother that I was just another healthy teenager.
It wasn’t until my first semester in college, when I was living abroad in London, that I finally cracked.
I was 98 pounds, deeply depressed, and utterly terrified by the fact that exiting high school hadn’t removed the awful feeling in my gut that lingered no matter how much I tried to ignore it.
Fortunately, as a born and bred New York City Jew, I was raised believing that therapy is not only accepted, but encouraged. So that October I finally got up the courage to call my parents, fess up, and get help.
Fast forward to the spring of my Freshman year, when large quantities of alcohol convinced drunk-me to eat back all 40 pounds in just one semester. I would consume massive quantities of junk food at 11 PM Saturday night, and then run 2-4 hours on the elliptical Sunday afternoon in attempt to burn it off. I was stuck in a deeply unhealthy cycle rooted in my inability to heal mentally despite the fact that I had gained back all of the weight (and then some).
Unfortunately, rather than going to my therapist or friends I sought out a new way to handle my binging habit: bulimia. I truly felt as if I had discovered an amazing gift that would solve all of my problems. Why deny yourself when you can have your cake and eat it too… and then throw it up. Anorexia was terrible, full of deprivation and sad salads, but Bulimia -- well Bulimia seemed downright fun.
Regrettably for my health, my new bi-weekly binge/purge habit went far less noticed than my formerly emaciated figure had. I never threw up after normal meals, and was finally back to a healthy BMI. I ate healthy (at least for a college student) and went to the gym 5x a week for 40 minutes of cardio, so why would anyone suspect that a couple of times a week I made myself throw up?
And no matter how many times I told myself I would stop, this cycle followed me all throughout college, and even into my post-collegiate life. I may have been “an adult” now, able to make smart choices about my body, but deep down I was eerily aware that nothing had changed.
Then finally, something did.
In the winter of 2012 I decided that as my New Years Resolution I would trade one weekly cardio session for a group workout class, with the goal of ridding my arms of unwanted flab. If I’m honest with myself, my previous reason for not trying these classes was because there is no way to know how many calories you’re burning while in them, unlike when using a cardio machine. I mean, how could I feel good about my workout without knowing how many calories I had burned? Thankfully, my resolution delivered me to Zumba.
Now for those of you who might not know, Zumba is a dance-based workout craze that’s mainly populated by two kinds of people: 1) Incredibly talented women sexily moving their hips in S-motions for 45 minutes, and 2) Spastic “dancers” flailing their bodies around the room while trying not to hit anyone. I am in the latter group.
My first Zumba class mainly consisted of me trying to mimic dance moves from music videos I saw on TRL in 2002 while my brain moved 100 miles a minute in attempts to understand the choreography. I was hooked.
After a few weeks of Zumba under my belt, I decided to try my hand at Cross Training, or UXF as New York Sports Club lovingly calls their Boot Camp-esque classes. I spent much of my first session just trying not to get injured as I struggled to handle what felt like eight hours of weight-lifting, lunges, and planks. I awoke the next morning and honestly considered calling in sick due to my near inability to walk to my front door.
But, somehow I convinced myself to go back, and week after week it got a little easier to not die during those grueling 45 minutes. (Side note: I still want to die during those 45 minutes, just less so than I used to).
A few months into my new exercise routine I realized that it had been a while since my last binge. I thought about going to the grocery store to purchase a disgusting array of “guilty” items, but for the first time in several years, I stopped myself. All I could think about was what the women in my Zumba classes—so many of whom I had become friendly with—would say.
Frankly the idea of them seeing my with my finger down my throat upset me more than the idea of my family walking in on me. The women (and sometimes men!) in my classes, are so wonderful and full of life. We come in all shapes and sizes, and dance like maniacs without a care for appearance, or what a calorie count on a machine is telling us about our self worth. Thinking of them helped inspire me to take a deep breath, and walk away from the option to binge.
I also thought about the men and women in my UXF classes. Ask anyone and they’ll agree: That there’s no place for “skinny” in boot camp. Those regular attendees are strong, not super skinny, and proud to be so.
For the first time in my life I realized that I cared more about being toned and fit than looking like the skeletons I see marching in Fashion Week. And I knew I wasn’t going to get strong while continuing to binge and purge.
Through that thinking I also began to see food as fuel rather than an enemy hell bent on ruining my life. How could I get through an intense hour-long UXF class if I’d only eaten 100 calories all morning? I needed oatmeal AND a banana AND a scoop of peanut butter (a food I had previously sworn off) to power through class.
In no way am I demon free, and I know that my relationship with food will always be a struggle I have to deal with. There are going to be days where I hate myself for what I’ve eaten. But that’s okay.
It’s been over two years since the last time I made myself throw up, and I can’t imagine ever going back to that way of life. I’m going to keep going to class, and let the incredible instructors remind me that exercise is part of an overall healthy lifestyle, not just a way to hate yourself less. I owe them everything for teaching me that lesson.