Trigger warning: the following piece contains a discussion of specific eating disorder behaviors and may be triggering for those in early recovery or still struggling with an active eating disorder.
When I was in the throes of my eating disorder I loved women’s magazines. Especially fitness magazines.
My favorite stories were the “weight loss success stories:” the “before and after” anecdotes. I would feverishly flip through the magazine until I found the “before and after” section and stare at the photos. The larger woman in the “before” photo and her beaming, smaller self in the “after” photo. I would proudly think to myself, “I am an after photo. I am a weight loss success story.”
About halfway through my senior year of high school, I went on my first real diet. I severely restricted my calorie intake. I started working out obsessively. What started out as getting healthier and losing a few pounds gradually morphed into an eating disorder. I lost a third of my body weight in about six months. The reaction from my friends and family was startlingly positive. People told me how beautiful I looked.
People gushed about how they wished they had my discipline.
As the descent into the depths of my eating disorder continued, I discovered pro-ana communities on LiveJournal.
Pro-ana communities are Internet groups that believe anorexia is a lifestyle choice, not a disease. The people, mostly women, in these groups support each other’s eating disorders by sharing tips about how to restrict calories or how to hide eating disorders or how to keep from passing out at the gym when you haven’t eaten in days.
They share thinspiration, images of dangerously thin women they want to look like.
Members post their “daily stats,” their weigh-ins, their measurements, and other “achievements” like my collarbones are getting more defined every day.
I perused these groups as a silent observer for a long time before finally getting the courage to make my first post.
When I did make my first post it was a quick summary of my stats: starting weight, current weight, and goal weight. People began to comment calling me a thinspiration because I managed to lose so much weight so quickly. They lauded my commitment to my eating disorder and told me I was an amazing success story.
I deeply identified as being a weight loss success story, with being an “after” photo in a magazine spread. And I received so much praise, online and in person, for being an “after” photo that I failed to see anything wrong with the eating disorder behaviors that allowed me to be an “after” photo.
Society’s obsession with “weight loss success stories” and “before and after” photos ignores the very real, very dangerous cost that hurts those that consume the content. Recent studies show that up to 75% of women in the United States report disordered eating behaviors.
Though not all these women have eating disorders, they all report having very conflicted relationships to food and their weight.
Many women severely restrict their calorie intake. It’s common for women’s magazines to suggest 1200 calorie diets, which is just above starvation levels. Many women engage in mild to severe forms of exercise bulimia, going to the gym for hours each day to “make up” for the food they’ve consumed during the day.
When women engage in both severe calorie restriction and exercise bulimia they can severely damage their health.
Ten years after my eating disorder began, long after I thought I had “recovered,” I found myself engaging in severe calorie restriction and exercise bulimia as an amateur athlete. I competed in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and was training to compete in amateur Muay Thai and Boxing. I was working out 3-4 hours per day, 6-7 days per week. I was eating a max of 1500 calories a day, more often around 1200 calories a day, so I could make weight for competitions.
I started to get sick.
I had persistent, debilitating GI issues. My thyroid had slowed to the point where I had hypothyroidism. My hormones were completely imbalanced. I was tired all the time. My muscles started to give way halfway through workouts. I became prone to muscle tears because I wasn’t taking in enough protein to keep my muscles healthy.
At the time, my doctors thought all my symptoms were all due to my recent diagnosis of endometriosis. This was partially true, but in retrospect, all my symptoms are common to eating disorders.
But I wasn’t telling anyone about my eating disorder behaviors because I didn’t believe I had an eating disorder.
I was just committed to my health. I was a clean eater. I was disciplined. I never got thin enough for anyone to be concerned. I continued to get praise.
I was killing myself to be a “success story,” to be an “after” photo.
Today I want to claim a different kind of “after” photo.
The picture on the left is me right before I went into recovery. The picture on the right is me today. Since I started blogging about my recovery I have been terrified to share pictures of myself pre-recovery.
Mostly because I don’t want people to tell me I looked better then than I do now.
In the comments of previous articles, I’ve published with current photos of me people have made comments about how fat and ugly I am now. It’s been suggested that I was better off with my eating disorder because at least I’d be thin and pretty.
I am scared that similar comments will be made when people see what I used to look like, because that version of me is more socially acceptable, regardless of how sick I was.
In spite of all this, I believe it’s really important to claim this “after” photo. In this “after” photo I am healthy and strong. I am happy and mostly at peace. I believe these are the goals society should value.
So this is my “before and after.” I believe that I am a “success story.”