It’s estimated that as many as 10% of women suffer from an eating disorder. I’ve got a secret for you: I know how that feels, because I used to be one of them.
I began feeling insecure about my body at the end of fifth grade, when some boys in class voted me “ugliest girl.” These same guys snorted and oinked when they saw me. When I got to seventh grade, the disgust I felt toward my body was so overwhelming it would bring me to tears. I was writing lots of stories I’d share with my friends and getting high scores in school, but nothing made me feel worthy. Because the novels I was writing weren’t published, I wasn’t a real writer. Because I didn’t get the highest score on every test, it showed I really wasn’t that smart. Because I couldn’t get a boyfriend, and because I could never be popular no matter how much I tried, it only showed that I must be too ugly. The fifth grade boys had been right.
When I looked up my height and weight with the BMI index, it said I was at a healthy weight. I’d compare myself to girls in magazines and movies and thought that couldn’t be right. Those girls were so achingly perfect. So thin. I had gained weight that year, but instead of realizing it was a normal part of puberty and my body was changing, I was convinced this meant I was fat. This must be the reason why I couldn’t get a boy to love me, and why I didn’t fit in.
The majority of eating disorders start in high school or college, but in seventh grade I became anorexic. Typically I would have a hot chocolate for breakfast to make myself feel full, then have some sort of salad for lunch. I made myself skip dinner, and that was the hardest part. My stomach would hurt for hours, until bedtime. Then it would melt away into a light, pure feeling that felt like a reward for my suffering.
I read about girls eating as little as an apple a day and admired what I saw as their “strength.” I was even impressed with people who could bring themselves to throw up. It was a tempting idea because I wouldn’t have to be hungry all the time, but I hated the sensation of throwing up so much that I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
People noticed I started losing weight, and instead of asking me if I were getting enough to eat, they complimented me on how good I looked. That egged me on. My waist got so small I could about get two hands around it. I’d lie in bed and enjoy the feel of my jutting ribs and concave stomach.
Photo: Danica as a middle schooler.
I’d like to say that all this stopped because I got a sudden revelation or realized what I was doing was a mistake. But after a few months I just got too hungry. I started eating dinner again. I didn’t even eat much, but my body said, “Hooray, I remember food!” By eating small dinners I gained everything back and more. I was back to a doctor-approved weight and, of course, that meant people stopped complimenting me, because a healthy weight meant weighing too much.
At first I was devastated, but then I gradually began to see the light about my experience. The idea that You-Have-To-Be-Thin-To-Be-Worth-Something is so pervasive in our society, from the bony figures we see in magazines to the snarky comments people make on the Internet about how “fat” a healthy-looking celebrity is. When so many young people think “thinness” is their number one priority — over developing themselves as people with kind hearts and smart, open minds; over actually being happy and accepting themselves — we have a real issue on our hands.
My eating disorder never got as bad as it does for some women and men, who might suffer for years and experience hair loss and tooth decay or even death. But it doesn’t have to get that bad to be a problem. I now recognize the danger in chasing after an airbrushed ideal that doesn’t exist.
Eating real, healthy meals again not only helped my body, it cleared my head. I realized the people who mattered would like me for me, not for a body type. And I realized how shallow the obsession of weight is. I’m not saying people who are concerned about their weight are shallow; I’m saying the forces that make you think you have to be skinny are shallow.
And I’ve got a secret for you: starving myself didn’t get me a boyfriend or bring me love. It didn’t make me popular. It definitely didn’t make me happy, and it didn’t show the mean people of the world that they needed to stop being mean. I was paying too much attention to what I thought other people thought about me to let me be myself. To let myself be happy. There can be a difference between being thin and being healthy, and I learned the importance of health. Part of health is accepting yourself. If you love yourself, you will find the ability to be happy.
It’s no secret that many people are hurting themselves physically, though actions like starving themselves, and emotionally, through low self-esteem. And it’s no secret that it needs to stop. This New Year do you really need to lose 10 more pounds? Or are you — cue Bruno Mars — amazing just the way you are? I truly believe we need to find our worth in our hearts, not in our weight. Are you with me?
Half Of Us
Take a quiz and see what you know about eating disorders.
Check out HalfofUs.org for ways to confront self-esteem and body image issues.