I never thought I had an eating disorder because I always believed I was fat. I can remember being told as a child to watch my weight, not to eat too much – not because this was unhealthy behaviour, but so that I could preserve my tiny frame. What I didn’t know was that eating disorders come in different forms, and just because I wasn’t visibly under- or overweight, I wasn’t necessarily healthy.
My relationship with food was always a good one, growing up. Both my parents cooked and I was surrounded by a love for food and all the adventure it had to offer. I would proudly serve homemade meals at family dinners and boast of my take on different recipes. When we traveled as a family, we all bonded over the food-related experiences each destination offered. My family loved food and I loved it too.
Sometime after childhood, I realized that food could be an enemy. Movies, TV shows, magazines, books, my classmates, everyone seemed to be afraid of food. Calories had to be counted, meals carefully considered or skipped, the message was clear: skinny and pretty were mutually exclusive.
The first time I ever worried about my eating habits was when my after school routine turned into rushing home from school to the comfort of the kitchen. Each weekday for months at a time, I would begin the walk home with a snack in hand or stopping to buy one on my way. Homework had to wait until I was sitting in my favourite chair with something to eat.
I had discovered something very dangerous. My neglected feelings of grief, angst, and depression could be silenced if I fed them – stuffed them down with chocolate bars.
I ate alone.
Toaster waffles were my go-to, usually followed by half a package of Oreos or bag of chips. I ate leftover Halloween candy until I felt sick. Food was my escape from feelings I had long given up on understanding; it was the answer to my grief’s appetite.
What stopped me from binge-eating and made my school uniform fit again? Knowing that I needed to stop if I was ever going to be pretty – skinny – again.
As much as I craved food in excess when I was feeling down, I could stay up by avoiding food altogether, convinced that skinny led to happy. People would notice when I lost weight, compliment me on it, tell me how they were simultaneously jealous of and happy for me. And they meant this as complimentary – right or wrong. Nobody commented on my body when I gained weight but they felt free to let me know when I was looking thinner, sure that this was a necessary, good thing to point out.
Being small was a defining characteristic of my being. Because I was petite, I got to do the pretty, acrobatic parts in my cheer routines. Being short meant I was cute, pretty, worthy, and as long as I remained tiny, I remained desirable and valuable. The problem was that being short wasn’t enough, I had to be skinny too. I entered into a love-hate relationship with food, scared that if I enjoyed it, I would go over the deep end again.
My desire to eat disappeared entirely when I got to university. As my depression took greater hold of my life, I had no drive to go to class, to socialize, to eat, to shower, to get out of bed at all.
One night in my dorm room, I woke from a 48-hour marathon of nap/snooze ping-pong against myself. I hadn’t eaten once. I managed to get to the bathroom but on my way back to my bedroom, my vision started narrowing. Lucky enough to miss the corner of my bed, I collapsed onto the hard floor. I came to and found a large bump on my head from where I landed on it.
When I moved back home after struggling through one semester, everyone noticed that I had lost weight. I knew this because they all told me how great I looked, how thin and cute! I kept the weight off for a while, gaining some back simply by starting to eat again. Without another episode of bingeing I could maintain my figure – for a while.
I finally had a more comfortable relationship with food again when I moved in with my grandparents a couple years later. Being vegetarian had led me to explore all new cuisines and I loved cooking again. Then I started getting sick every other week with no allergy to explain my symptoms. Not knowing what food or drink may affect me next put restrictions on my diet and took the fun out of eating. I was sick on a regular basis for over a year and lost a lot of weight.
The compliments came back. I had never felt worse about or more distant from my relationship with food but everyone would joke that I was so lucky and they wished they could be sick like that for a week if they could lose weight!
Knowing that I struggled with my jealousy over friends’ seeming ease in maintaining their slim figures, and that thinness is so glorified, I understand that they meant these things as genuine compliments. We are socialized to praise and admire the beautiful – as society has defined it.
As with any other challenge I have faced, getting to love food again has taken time and work. Food and I are still working through our differences. I can’t eat the portions that someone my size should and I have to remind myself to snack so that I eat at all. One thing that has changed for the better, though, is how I see myself. Finding the capacity for empathy and self-love has eased my anxiety about my body. I began talking to myself the way I talk to my friends, encouragingly and with kindness. The voice in my head was on my side and no longer craved food for comfort nor wanted to starve out anxiety.
Sometimes it’s still hard to reconcile my self-worth with all the messages in the media telling me how necessary my self-improvement is. With time, I’ve learned to love my body for all that it does for me. I have to remember that I would rather be my happiest self than my skinniest self.
I want to let anyone who envied their friend’s body, who compared them-self to photo-shopped magazine covers, who binged, or purged, or neglected to eat at all, to know that we were all comparing ourselves too. And if you’re still struggling for self-acceptance, I’m so happy and proud that you’re here fighting. It’s hard to grow up knowing that when people tell you to be yourself, they often mean “be who we want your self to be”. Remember that you are stronger than the challenges you face.
Skinny is not magic. You are worthy. Be kind to yourself.
Meet Kendall Holness,
A 21-year old bi woman from Mississauga.
“I’m passionate about reading, writing, singing, and advocating for human and animal rights. My writing is honest and mostly autobiographical because it has always served as a coping mechanism for me and I hope that this transparency resonates with and reassures others that they are not alone”
She states, “preserve my tiny frame” as if her body is meant to be aesthetically pleasing for others like you are on constant display. Our bodies are seen as a commodity and we are constantly judged by our appearance.
It takes courage and bravery to be vulnerable and talk about your own personal experiences of an eating disorder. Kendall points out how eating disorders come in different forms and just because you aren’t visibly under or overweight does not necessarily mean you are “healthy.”
National Eating Disorder Information Centre Hotline 1-866-633-4220
Canadian Mental Health Association Hotline 1-866-531-2600