I am four. I look down at my stomach as I get ready for the shower.
“Mama, am I fat?” I ask in Dutch. The answer wouldn’t be good or bad. I’m just curious.
“No, you’re mollig,” she says – chubby. “But if you aren’t careful, you could be fat one day.” The word doesn’t sting in Dutch. We are a frank people. Bodies just are what they are.
I am seven. Mom and I are shopping in Kohl’s and I see a shirt that my friend Jessie owns. I want one. My mother looks at the shirt.
“Sara, you know how Jessie’s clothes are tight against her stomach?” she asks. I nod. Jessie is slender and does gymnastics. All her clothes are a size Small.
“Tight shirts look good on some people, and not on others. I’m sorry, sweetie. Let’s go look at some other clothes.”
I don’t want to disagree with my mom, and I don’t want anyone to look at my stomach at school. I follow her to a different aisle.
I am ten. I tell my parents I want to lose weight, so my dad and I go on Atkins together. We have a weight chart on the wall to plot our progress. I weigh 127 pounds. My doctor tells me that if I stay at this weight as I grow, I will be healthy later – not borderline overweight, which I am now. I tell her that’s the plan, but I end up gaining back what I lost.
I am fourteen. I wear all my shirts in a Men’s XL so the boy I like won’t notice I’m a size 14. I only eat breakfast three days a week.
I am sixteen. I have my first boyfriend and I feel beautiful. I ask him if there is anything I could do that would make him like me more. He says I could lose some weight, and I cry. I stop bringing lunch to school.
I am seventeen. My boyfriend and I have just broken up. I go to my guidance counselor’s office and sit in the waiting room when I see a bowl of mints.
“I’ll kill myself if I take one,” I hear in my head.
The thought hits me like a bucket of cold water in the face. I am suddenly snapped out of my body, and for the first time see how severe my behavior has become. My guidance counselor walks out of her office.
“Sara? Are you ready?” she asks.
I nod and walk into her room.
“What’s going on?” she asks.
I tell her everything – not about the break up, but about the behaviors that I am only later able to call an eating disorder. She calls my mother to come talk with us. I go home and I stay out of school for a week. The first time I have to eat breakfast in front of my mother, I cry. It takes me an hour.
I start seeing a circle of doctors – a therapist, a nutritionist, and my pediatrician. Together with my mother, they form a group of women who keep me safe and make sure I am healthy. When I think about them, I imagine four angels, floating in a ring above my head.
I begin recovery. After about six months, I am eating regular amounts again. After about a year and a half, I finally start to see myself as beautiful.
I had what is now called EDNOS – Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, a term that wasn’t on the radar when I first started recovery. I would starve myself during the school week and binge on the weekends. In all that time, through all those years, I was never what some people would call “thin.” At my lowest weight, I was still a few pounds above the ‘healthy weight range’.
People don’t realize that eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. When I tell a briefer version of this story, I just say I had “an eating disorder,” and most people assume I was bulimic. I don’t tell them that what I had was closer to anorexia so I don’t have to hear my least favorite question, the one that I asked myself so many times in my head:
If you had an eating disorder, why are you still fat?
(The only person to ever ask me this question out loud is my ex-boyfriend.)
It’s taken me a long time to feel beautiful, especially as my body has changed. I started a relationship, a new medication, and college all around the same time, and ended up gaining almost 35 pounds over the course of my freshman year. I grew stretch marks all over my stomach, which I hated looking at as I showered and changed. A symbol of my failure. A disfigurement on what, in hindsight, has always been a beautiful body.
Getting healthy in mind, body, and spirit – without relapsing – is a difficult road. Almost three and a half years since the day in my guidance counselor’s office, I’m finally there; eating well, exercising, and wonderfully happy. But I’m still “big.” I’m still overweight.
A large part of recovery is accepting that your body just is a certain way, and loving it as it is. I have always been big – tall, broad, with muscular legs and some squish in the middle – and it’s possible that that’s the way my body is just meant to be. As I continue to live this newer, healthy lifestyle, I may lose weight. I may not. It shouldn’t matter, but in our society, it does. It means that I am less likely to be hired for a job, or to be paid the same as my peers. It means that it is harder for me to find clothes that are both pretty and affordable. It means that strangers make judgments about my lifestyle, and sometimes even my character.
That’s not what I want for my children. I want them to feel valuable and worthy, regardless of their size. But it takes a long time for a society to change. So that change needs to start with us, sharing our stories with each other.
I want to put a face, and a story, to the plus-sized store you drive by, or the 200-pound person struggling on the treadmill at your gym. I want you to know that it is possible to exercise every day, to run three times a week, to eat according to the Mayo Clinic guidelines, and still be overweight. I want you to understand – not just intellectually, but subconsciously – that being a size 18 doesn’t make me lazy, or selfish, or stupid.
Once upon a time, only three and a half years ago, I would not be able to say those things. But I’m not ashamed of who I am anymore. I’m finally where I was when I was four years old again: unashamed of my body. Comfortable with who I am.
If you think you or a friend may suffer from an eating disorder, please seek help. You can start at http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/information-referral-helpline