My battle with orthorexia nervosa (an eating disorder or mental disorder characterized by an extreme or excessive preoccupation with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy) began almost two years ago. It started as an innocent interest in losing weight and getting healthy and in shape enough to compete on my college’s crew team and maybe along the way look better in a swimsuit. The summer after my freshman year I successfully lost thirty pounds and left for school feeling more confident than ever. I had no idea that maintaining my new weight would be the hardest challenge I would have to face.
What no one tells you when you finish losing weight is that your problems don’t just disappear once you see a certain number on your scale. I spent the majority of the fall semester of my sophomore year thinking of ways in which I could make myself look even better. My eating disorder spiraled out of control as I pushed myself to look as perfect as possible. I mastered the art of avoiding meals and invitations to any event where I would have to be confronted with an unplanned meal or an unsafe food. There were moments that I reveled in it. I loved being the girl that people looked up to. Every day people would tell me that they were in awe of my dedication and will power. Little did they know they were simply pumping the gas into my car and filling the air in my tires.
Unlike some other people with eating disorders, my goal was never to be skinny. I wanted to have bulging biceps and defined obliques and rock hard quads. I thought that nothing was wrong with me because I knew that thigh gaps and visible ribcages weren’t my goal. I thought I was better than everyone else because I had outsmarted them.
It didn’t matter because I still had the same paralyzing fear of gaining weight, something you need to do in order to gain muscle. Losing weight left me smaller and without much muscle on me and while this was not a look I was content with, I was not willing to gain weight in order to give it up. So instead, I was stuck in a limbo of hating everything I saw in a mirror but without the courage and strength to make a change. Rather than take a step out of my comfort zone and eat spontaneously at the dining hall with my friends, I sat alone in my room eating the same handful of almonds because carbs after 5 p.m. were unthinkable to me.
After months of torture, I realized that I’d had enough. While this realization came in waves (anyone who’s had an eating disorder knows how comfortable they are and despite being harmful can be terrifying to let go of), there was one day that I knew that I couldn’t continue to live like this. I sat at a table with my friends as they made comments about their appearance and what they wanted to change. A teammate of mine commented on her stomach and how it was too large. I was instantly irritated. “What the hell is she talking about? She looks great. Yeah she doesn’t have a six-pack but who cares.” I thought about how mad I was that she would think so negatively of herself when she had no right to. It took a minute but it finally clicked: if I’m so disgusted with someone making negative comments about their own body, why do I do it to myself every day?
Recovering isn’t easy, but learning to take a step outside of myself and my disorder helped me and projecting it onto others helped me realize how flawed my behavior was. I would never let someone else sit in their room and miss out on a meal with their friends or Thanksgiving dinner with their family just because they were obsessed with looking a certain way. And now I do my best to make sure that I don’t miss out on any more memories either.