Content/trigger warning: This post may be difficult or triggering to read it if you are struggling with your relationship with food or your body and contains mentions of disordered eating.
I grew up skinny, most of my family did. But I didn’t know how abnormal it was for me to be so skinny until a specific moment in the 5th grade. I loved my 5th grade teacher, but I still remember — 2 decades later — being at an ice cream social with teachers and classmates and hearing her tell me:
I wish I could eat that much ice cream and stay as skinny as you!
I remember feeling immediately embarrassed that I was eating so much ice cream, especially because I was apparently so skinny that no one expected me to eat this much ice cream. This moment also contributed to an unhealthy mentality I think I adopted later, wherein I felt a need to prove myself as a “skinny girl who can really eat!” but I’ll get to that later.
A few years later, during my freshman year of high school, people would make small jokes about my being skinny. The word “anorexic” would get tossed around nonchalantly. But I never took any of that seriously until we went on a field trip. We had a brunch buffet at the beginning of the trip, and I remember happily digging into a big stack of pancakes (I love breakfast food!) and looking up to see surprise on my friends’ faces. “Huh, I didn’t know you could eat so much,” they said to me, the same people who ate lunch with me every single school day. “Yeah, of course, I love pancakes,” I’d respond. I didn’t really take to heart that anyone was surprised by how much I ate, but I can’t confidently say that I didn’t eat MORE just to prove a point, to quiet any kind of doubt anyone in that restaurant might have had that I was skinny because I didn’t eat. I certainly felt obligated to finish the food on my plate.
Despite how much I loved pancakes, they did require me to drink a lot of water, and since I didn’t want to miss the play we were watching on this trip, I made sure to take a trip to the bathroom before we left the restaurant. Suddenly, there was a suggestion that someone should come with me to the bathroom to make sure I didn’t vomit the very large meal we had all just shared. It seemed like a joke until I found myself going to the bathroom with my friend, her standing at the door but not going into a stall herself, listening to make sure I wasn’t throwing up. As someone who had never even considered purposely throwing up (because I really hate vomiting so so so much) and also who feels uncomfortable when I feel like someone is listening to me pee, I felt so deeply embarrassed on several different levels. Why did my friends subject me to this humiliation? Did they actually think I was bulimic? If my closest friends at school felt this way, did everyone else at school think it, too? I’m not even sure I knew what bulimia was at this point in my life, but I quickly learned during that mortifying trip to the bathroom.
That summer, I went to the sleepaway camp I loved, but still I look back at that last summer with some sadness because of the day I was pulled out of one of our end-of-week dances, away from my friends and an event I looked forward to every week and every year, and was asked to report to the nurse’s office. When I arrived, she was already crying and wiping away tears, maybe from whatever had happened with the last camper she was dealing with, but in an already heightened emotional state. She began, “Hi Starr. You know, your body is perfectly good just the way it is.” I was completely flummoxed. Why was this woman talking about my body? She was going on for a while about how actually, most people would kill to have my body! and that I should believe that I’m beautiful before I interrupted her. “Why are you saying this to me, what are you talking about??” As it turns out, camp staff had caught wind of a rumor that I was anorexic. It didn’t matter that every day I loudly and brashly ate all 3 meals in the cafeteria with my friends. Somebody had decided, whether in jest or in earnest, to tell other people I was anorexic, and someone who had heard this took it seriously and told a camp counselor. That was why I was sitting in a crying nurse’s office instead of dancing with my friends. I recall staring at the puffy-eyed nurse, slack-jawed. “I’m not anorexic, I eat more than everyone else in the dining halls?!” She was surprised to hear that. Really? I didn’t hate my body? No, I was forced to assure her, I don’t hate my body. Should I? Who said I did? I spent another few minutes desperately trying to comfort this grown woman so that I could return to my friends and my life. I couldn’t believe that this rumor had been taken at face value and escalated to this degree without any kind of shallow investigation like, “Have we ever seen Starr eat in the cafeteria?” I remember being really offended that all the work I did to be the “skinny girl who can really eat!” was for nothing, that people genuinely thought I was anorexic. I was even scared that they had called my parents about it, or that I’d have to be pulled out again and again to talk to more people. Luckily none of that happened, but I think about it a lot, that this rumor was spread about me and people so readily believed it despite the evidence to the contrary.
I didn’t think this incidents had affected me that much but I realize looking back that I spent the years after aggressively cultivating my persona as “skinny girl who can really eat!” at any cost. I became unhealthily committed to playing this part, my efforts to be a cool girl consisting primarily of pointedly eating junk food while being vocal about how little I exercised, unlike the girls who were eating salad and counting calories and putting in work at the gym. I was a skinny girl who can really eat!
But everything catches up one way or another. I had my [in]famous potato chip spiral, which was the first time I had put on weight in a short amount of time. (Well well well, if it isn’t the consequences of my actions, those actions being stress-eating a family-size bag of sour cream & onion potato chips in a single sitting.) I hadn’t realized until then how much of my identity I had ascribed to being a Skinny Girl, and how unsettled I was by that identity being threatened. I remember having to realize again how much I became fixated on this part of my identity when I attempted Whole30 and struggled almost as much with not weighing myself as I did with giving up grains and legumes and sugar and everything else. I had been mindlessly stepping on a scale multiple times a day and not realized how much that had become a part of my routine.
I wish I could end this with like… and now I have a healthy relationship with my body and with food!
I’m still working on it. I’m trying to accept my body the way it is, stop eating when I am satiated and eat when I’m hungry. I’m trying to exercise for fitness reasons and not aesthetic reasons. I’m trying to not use language about people’s bodies and how much they eat so that I don’t inadvertently become part of someone else’s spiral.
I haven’t told many people about these stories, because they aren’t as serious as many other people’s struggles with their eating or their weight, and honestly I didn’t think they affected me that much. It’s just me kind of working through my feelings about the line that connects these little stories, and a reminder that most people have something about food or their bodies, even people who you think shouldn’t be worrying about them at all.