Some say that people who are prone to eating disorders are like loaded guns. It’s like they are born with weapons of mass destruction inside of them, silently laying in wait. The ammunition is always there, but it takes the right chain of events to pull the trigger.
Looking back, the shot heard round my world to start the revolution of my disordered eating sounds downright stupid. It was a comment about my ankles.
I was 12, going on 13. I was set to depart for my eighth grade dance, and my mother was taking pictures of me wearing a new sage green dress with a flower print, huarache sandals that I thought were really cool, and a corsage. If you looked at the photos my mom took, you might cry at how completely geeky yet blindly hopeful I look in these photos.
An Ancient cousin was in attendance. He was not actually ancient, he was in college. But it seemed that way to me. College was foreign: I had no idea what a major was. We didn’t really speak, not out of rudeness, more because we just orbited in different planets. But as he idly observed my mom taking photos, he opened his mouth and entered my solar system with these words: “Wow, you have pretty thick ankles.”
Now. If you ever needed evidence that your words, even the stupidest and most forgettable ones, can have a lasting and profound effect, here it is. Because this comment, which he likely had forgotten within five minutes, changed everything for me.
Who knows why he even opened his mouth and said anything. Who knows what standard he was using to judge my ankles upon.
Imagine, if you will, my response as a movie montage. Memories of every body-shame moment in my short life thus far flashed before me: when I was six years old and my BFF observed that I had a harder time putting on a seatbelt because I had a bigger belly. Seeing another friend in her bikini at age 8 or 9, her belly firm and taut and tanned, and feeling even at that age that I looked pale, frumpy, and fat next to her. In the 6th grade, a boy on the bus declaring that I had "thunder thighs", and my shame, delayed because I had to wait until I got home to ask my mother what it meant. Even just a month before the ankle incident, an older male family friend stating how my legs were like "an R. Crumb girl", equally as embarrassing to discover at a later point that the women drawn by said cartoonist had huge thighs and highly sexualized presence.
Up until this very moment, I had always previously been able to "shake it off", to feel terrible for a few moments but then enjoy my pasta with butter for dinner with gusto and without regret. I had even been a girl who was playful with food at times.
But I was a loaded gun.
I had the odds working against me. Not only was I a teenage girl, but there were hereditary and personality aspects that made me prone to disordered eating, too: a family history of disordered eating. Disordered eating and food restriction in full force in my household. A tendency toward anxiety and self-criticism. A deep fear of rejection. Insecurity. Throw in puberty, a changing body, the transition of starting high school, and all of the body-shaming moments that had come before it, and that comment about my ankles was merely the straw that broke the camel's back. Or pulled the trigger.
While it was terrible to hear that my ankles were fat, it was also a relief: I knew what was wrong with me, and I could fix it.
A day or two, I started exercising. First, I tried doing various ankle and lower leg stretches to slim my calves.
Within weeks, I learned that you can't just lose weight from one part of the body, so to be safe, I added other exercises to my regimen, keeping track of the exercises I completed on a sheet of paper with hatch marks like a prisoner marking days. If I lost count of a set of push-ups or situps, I had to do five extra. Within a matter of weeks I simply did not feel right if I didn't complete my exercises.
Between my workout and a trip to visit relatives in the south, where the food was weird so I didn't eat much, I lost a considerable amount of weight.
For losing weight, I was congratulated--and fed.
When I got back home, I was hungry; my mother made me a grilled cheese on a Lender’s bagel. Believe it or not...I had never had a grilled cheese before (you don’t have to believe me, but I will tell you about my house’s odd food rules soon).
She buttered the bagel before putting the cheese, and griddled it in a buttered pan. She put a plate over the pan to retain the heat and make the cheese gorgeously gooey and melty. It was basically the best thing I’d ever eaten, and I ate it like a starving soldier. She made me a second. I hadn’t eaten all week, and though I was hungry my stomach had also shrunk, so these two sandwiches made me completely full. I liked the feeling. There is a Swedish proverb that says that cookies are made from butter and love. Well, this grilled cheese was made of butter, love, and cheese. It felt like eating a warm hug.
People commented on how good I looked over the next few weeks, since I had lost weight, but on a steady diet of grilled cheese on bagels, I gained the weight back. The compliments stopped.
This was when I first started dieting. I also amped up my workout, making it a 1.5 hour routine that had to be done daily. I would cancel plans with friends, skip homework, so that it could happen. As you can imagine, on a diet and working out and being a teenager, this wasn't sustainable. It was not long after my first diet that my first binge episode came along. Not long after that, my first purge. It snowballed quickly and deeply into a full-fledged eating disorder.
Even though I don't think that the comment about my ankles was appropriate, I have never been angry about it. The fact is that I was a loaded gun; the situation simply provided the atmosphere for me to pull the trigger. And it is wonderful that I am now able to emerge from the muck, and pick back up with the world after many years under the spell of disordered eating.
I feel like there isn't necessarily a moral or quick clean-up for this post, but I think it is important to be able to look back on the past with compassion. In some ways, it really doesn't matter how my eating disorder developed--I mean, it happened, and that's that. But in others, I think there are valuable lessons to be learned to that history does not repeat itself: lessons for how to conduct myself with others, the resolve to raise a child (if I ever have one) in a food-safe and friendly environment, and knowledge of the deep and profound effect that words can have on another human being. You never know when someone may be "loaded" and your words unleash an unproductive and harmful bullet into their life.