And now, for something completely different
But in some ways, the most significant choices one makes in life are done for reasons that are not all that dramatic, not earth-shaking at all; often enough, the choices we make are, for better or for worse, made by default.
- Marya Hornbacher
I was 15, and had just started my sophomore year at a new school – a preparatory boarding school about an hour and a half away from home in central Connecticut. That was the year everything changed.
I didn’t really want to go to boarding school. I wanted to get in, but I didn’t want to go. My older brother David was amazingly brilliant and had gone to a different prep school himself a couple years earlier, and I was just an envious, bratty teenager who wanted to prove to my parents that I was as smart as him. But then I did get in, and that was enough – I didn’t actually want to leave home yet. I wasn’t ready.
Shockingly, I found that at 15 I didn’t always get to make my own decisions, and that August I found myself in a weird new place and what felt like very far from home, and I was miserable. No, not just miserable. Depressed. I had suffered from depression since I was 12, but nothing like this – not the kind where just getting out of bed was a struggle, where I stopped caring about anything, where all the things that made me me were just gone. Everything was out of control, not just for me, but for the whole world – September 11 had just happened and nothing seemed safe anymore. And I didn’t want to deal. So I burrowed deeper into my sheets, started skipping classes, and stopped going to meals.
I had always been a chubby kid. Puberty was pretty mean to me – I had C cup breasts by the time I was in in fourth grade (#awkward) and the rest of me filled out as well, a bit too much. I was quite suddenly a size 16 in eighth grade, with frizzy hair and bad acne and a vivid scar on my forehead from an accident a couple years earlier. I had never really known what it felt like to be comfortable in the space that I occupied. I certainly never considered myself beautiful.
Thanks to skipping meals and my depression obliterating any sense of hunger I had, I started losing weight. At first, I was thrilled simply because what had always come quite hard to me was suddenly easy. And then, as more weight kept falling off, I found a solution for the overwhelming feelings I had been trying to ignore. As the world around me became uncontrollable, I discovered how to compartmentalize all of that away. I became obsessed with how little I could eat and how low I could go.
I don’t really believe that if I hadn’t gone to boarding school that year, I would never have become anorexic. I think there probably would have always been a trigger. I had all the (stereotypical) warning signs – white girl, living in an upper middle class neighborhood, overachiever, complicated family issues, a genetic history of mental health problems, and low body image. But fall 2001 concocted the perfect storm, with just the right conditions for the monster that was probably always lurking somewhere inside me to come out. And come out she did.
I spent the next seven years in and out of hospitals, treatment centers, outpatient programs, and therapy sessions. Every time I thought I had things under control (ha, the irony!), I’d start feeling overwhelmed, and I’d go back to my dark little world where the only things that mattered were the numbers on the scale, the calories and fat grams in anything that passed my lips, and the tips, tricks, and magazine cut-outs of thin models that filled the pages of my secret “thinspiration” journals I kept under my bed (this was way before Tumblr.) I was a goddamn walking Lifetime movie. But as I ran my hands over my hip bones as I laid in bed at night, marveled as my jean size got smaller and smaller every time I went shopping, and received loads of wide-eyed comments about how great I looked (yes, this is a thing, even when you’re clearly underweight), I’ll admit it – I felt beautiful. And that was a feeling that was very hard to give up. So I didn't, until I was 21.
Seven years of an eating disorder does terrible things to your body. When I started eating normally again, my metabolism had been in starvation mode for so long that it didn’t know how to get out of it, and it only remembered how to hold on to everything I ate as if it didn’t know if or when my next meal would come. And the nightmare I had when I was starving myself, that if I stopped I would gain all the weight back and go back to being the fat girl…well, that came true. It is just plain dumb how easy it was to gain weight after I had spent a third of my life trying to lose it. In the years that followed, my thyroid would play games of chicken where sometimes it was normal and I’d lose some weight without changing any of my eating habits, and then other times I’d gain 5 pounds just from looking at food. A couple years later, I was diagnosed with PCOS, which, among other fun things, has obesity as a symptom - cool, right? On top of it all, my bones had been weakened from the years of starving myself to the point where I developed osteopenia, and that combined with my weight meant I would find myself with inexplicable stress fractures in my feet, literally just from walking around the city. And the list goes on: my immune system is weakened, I started getting acne again, my hair began thinning, and if my periods decide to show up, they last basically until it's time for my next one. It’s as if my body saw its opportunity and decided, it's time for some payback, bitch.
Today, I still struggle to feel beautiful. Some days I look at my body like it’s something that doesn’t belong to me, like this dreadful appendage that’s attached to me, that I’ve let down and has let me down right back. Something that takes up way too much space and I don’t know if anyone can see past, because sometimes I can’t.
Don’t get me wrong. My eating disorder is far behind me. It’s been ten years since my last treatment center, one where I finally started seeing myself as more than a body that is somehow my enemy. Most days, I am grateful for it and how despite everything, it is a survivor. And I’m grateful for the things that make me feel beautiful and experience beauty outside of myself – spending time with friends and family who love me unconditionally, taking walks to the park with my dog, and yes, of course, foundation, mascara, highlighter, blush, shimmer eye shadow, and a bold AF lip.
And I’m confident. I love my sense of humor, my passion, my integrity, my loyalty, my love for animals, my drive to succeed. Even with my body image issues, I have finally reached a place in my life I thought at times I would never get to – a place where I really, truly love myself. Not just in the hokey way of dumb inspirational quotes written in bad handwriting fonts across photos of sunsets or whatever. But in the I’m a bad-ass bitch, nasty woman, DGAF, hear me roar type of way. Where I know I’m too good for all the shit I put myself through in the past.
But to make a very long story, well, long, my relationship with beauty is pretty fucking complicated. And that’s going to be a big part of what this blog is about. So get ready. I hope you like it.