My eating disorder began with a bathing suit.
As much as I love advocating online for others with eating disorders, I hate telling my own story. My story makes me feel self-conscious, namely because it sounds stupid to say “it started with a bathing suit.”
But I’m not going to lie: a bikini is where it all began for me. A bikini is the reason I struggle with food, may always struggle with food and have yet to beat my struggles with food.
Here are the who, what, when, where and why of how orthorexia and compensatory-exercise bulimia snuck their way into my life, and took over my mind, body and spirit.
When I was a freshman in high school, I got my first “real” (i.e. non-middle school) boyfriend. At the same time, I took my first school trip to Disney World, which meant swimming in a pool with 100+ of my closest classmates. To me, this occasion was my “debut” as a woman: a chance to show off my summer glow-up before high school. So, naturally, I needed to buy and wear a bikini for the first time.
Combined with the raging hormones and angst of my teen years, it was the perfect storm. I developed an unhealthy obsession with getting flat abs before our class trip. The way I imagined it, I would only need to restrict myself for a month or so — until it was time to put on that bikini and make a splash in Orlando.
If only my journey through diet culture had been so short-lived….
My self-esteem issues continually worsened as so-called friends made comments like, “Guys don’t like you because you’re intimidating.” I depended on my boyfriend for continual reassurance, and got angry and snappish when he couldn’t provide the love I was seeking — love I sought in all the wrong places.
Soon after I started exercising and dieting, I discovered Blogilates. Founded by Cassey Ho (who has since admitted to struggling with orthorexia herself), Blogilates is a YouTube channel and lifestyle guide dedicated to high-intensity Pilates interval workouts.
Cassey, who was training for a bikini competition at the time I discovered her videos, shared the meal plan she used to “slim down” and “tone her abs” before the competition. On the meal plan, the only seasonings allowed were a squeeze of lemon. The only proteins allowed were bland chicken or fish — tofu, if you were vegan. All vegetables needed to be steamed, not baked or fried. Most importantly, white carbs must be avoided — at all costs!
The Blogilates diet plan wasn’t sustainable or realistic, yet I beat myself up when I couldn’t stick to it. (And while what I said was true — that Cassey admitted to orthorexic patterns — she continues to promote low-carb diets and juice cleanses on her channel today.)
Becoming frustrated, I needed a new fitness guru to turn to. On Pinterest, I started to pin new workouts and diet plans like crazy, still looking for The One. I had whole boards dedicated to #fitspo and #thinspo, in addition to exercises for every part of the body. Finally, I found Tone It Up: a YouTube fitness channel run by trainers Katrina Scott and Karena Dawn.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am still a follower of Tone It Up today. It has its problems — sayings like “eat lean, clean and green” and body transformation photos come to mind — but the girls also promote self-love, self-care and body positivity on their fitness journey. Now that I’m further along on my recovery journey, I can be a conscious consumer of fitness content and discern what’s diet culture messaging and what isn’t.
However, at the time I first discovered Tone It Up, the channel lacked the nuances of the present-day TIU — and I lacked the insight to filter out the BS. K&K’s most popular selling point bore the name Bikini Series and implied that women could “spot-tone” their least favorite body parts (even if they couldn’t “spot-lose” weight).
I worked along to the TIU girls every day for months, using their videos to tone up while I performed cardio to their specifications. I claimed to love running at the time, going on three-to-five mile runs every day on my dad’s treadmill. Sometimes, I ran until my chest literally hurt, or until I got dizziness, nausea or even diarrhea from pushing myself too hard. (Newsflash: that isn’t normal, no matter what I told myself at the time.)
During that time, my diet-du-jour was substituting “healthy” ingredients for “unhealthy ones:” protein powders for flour in brownies, avocados for butter in muffins and so on. Unsurprisingly, I developed a black and white view of food. I imagined a color-coding system in my head as I inspected the contents of our fridge: green meant good, red meant bad. But to me, there was no such thing as a yellow light. There was no in-between.
Finally, over Christmas break, my body had its revenge for the months of torture I had put it through.
I began missing periods for the first time in my life; even on birth control pills, my cycle had always been super regular. My body felt constantly fatigued, to the point where I could no longer keep up at dance class.
In addition to nightly dance classes, I was forcing myself to exercise by doing 30-60 minutes of toning, plus 60 minutes or more of running, multiple times per week. To some, that might sound like a “healthy lifestyle” — but I knew it wasn’t healthy when my body began to fall apart.
Over Christmas break, I ceased working out so often once my grandparents came to visit. The minute I allowed my body to rest, everything began to hurt. I experienced such severe chest and back pains that I could barely breathe or sleep at night. I started having frightening anxiety attacks, worse than any I’d ever experienced due to my Generalized Anxiety Disorder, that kept me up at all hours.
Finally, my neck and shoulders became so tense from improperly lifting weights that I bit the bullet and made a doctor’s appointment. My doctor merely told me to keep up the good work running, and suggested I take some painkillers for the pain. Deep down, I knew what my body needed was rest — but I was fighting it, because I feared that giving up my rituals of obsessive exercise and dieting would mean a spiral into uncontrollable weight gain and fear.
Reluctantly, I embarked on an indefinite rest period, vowing to maintain my weight through caloric restriction alone. I became obsessed with numbers, tracking everything I ate in MyFitnessPal (the oppressor of ED recovery warriors the world over) and constantly saying “no” to my body’s cravings.
Even as I was listening to my body and giving it the rest it deserved, I couldn’t fully relinquish control of my own accord. The only time I could listen to my cravings was on predetermined cheat days — and on those cheat days, I didn’t regain any of that control. I completely lost it.
That spring, I gained nearly 12 lbs of weight I’d lost back, primarily from binge eating. When I went to parties, I’d tell myself I could have one brownie, then end up eating the whole platter. When there was a pizza on the table, I ate as many slices as I could stomach without barfing — not because I wanted to, but because my body felt that deprived.
The day after I binged, I nearly always hated myself, to the point where I forced myself to exercise extra hard — even when my aches and pains were flaring up. Except, I felt so fatigued from the overeating (and undernourishing) that I barely had the energy to get through my workout at the end of the night, or even to get up in time to take the school bus to class in the mornings.
I started to fight with my friends and family members. I hated whenever someone brought up food, weight or dieting at the lunch table. I thought my mom “just didn’t understand” why I was so tired all the time, blaming it on the normal stress undergone by all American teenagers about getting into college and the likes.
At last, I reached my breaking point. I tried on the junior prom dress I’d bought in Arkansas a few months prior, the one my aunt had bought me for my birthday the summer before. And it didn’t fit anymore. My sleek size 2 had expanded into a size 4.
I burst into tears as I ran to the scale and confirmed the weight gain I’d feared for so long. I collapsed onto my bed and started to sob.
The moment I did, I thought to myself, Why am I doing this to myself?
I’m exhausted, I finally allowed myself to admit. I don’t want to hate myself anymore. I don’t want a number to define me. I just want to go to prom and enjoy it with my friends!
Recovery to Present
That small launched a journey into recovery that has driven me to make enormous changes in my life. I took the NEDA eating disorder screening test and discovered I was at high risk of anorexia nervosa. I temporarily disconnected from fitness channels like Blogilates and Tone It Up, and instead watched Cambria Joy’s YouTube video on dealing with BED and Summer Innanen’s free workshops for improving body image.
I also bought tons of books about transforming my relationship with food. One of them, Dr. Michelle May’s Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat, I credit for my recovery to this very day. Through that book, I discovered intuitive eating — and after a long, troubling journey, I haven’t looked back. Not even once.
That isn’t to say I haven’t had my relapses, slips and struggles. I’ve stumbled on the road to recovery more than once — and by no means do I consider myself fully recovered yet. Still, it’s amazing to think that my journey toward recovery may never have happened if not for that prom dress….
Just as it’s incredible to think that my whole journey — my entire eating disorder from 9th grade until my present-day life as a college grad — may never have happened if not for a bathing suit.