by Lianna Johnstone
***Trigger warning (Body Image)
“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
I always felt different from the other girls around me. I grew up in a middle class, predominantly white neighborhood in Seattle and attended schools where the majority of my peers came from white upper-middle class families. My mom enrolled me in modern dance classes beginning in preschool; often times I was the only person of color in each class.
In second grade, I was invited to join a professional youth modern dance company. I happily accepted. I was maybe one of three kids of color in the company of 30 plus. Dancing was my passion and allowed me to express myself through movement. I loved learning all the new choreography and traveling with my dance company.
Then, in 4th grade, I began to hit puberty. While many of the other girls in the dance company were still lanky-limbed and growing upwards, I was growing outwards.
As many other dancers know, there is extreme pressure to remain thin which was not my body type. My body type was meant to be curvy and muscular. In my dance company, many choreographers matched the small kids with the older and bigger kids so that lifts could be incorporated into the dance. When you were a “medium” kid caught being the age of a small kid, and having the body of a big kid, no choreographer chose you for their piece.
Each concert, I would be in three performance pieces while other kids my age were in five. This hurt my body image a lot. Costume fitting during this period also did not help me to learn to love my body. Some parents who would come in and help with the fittings referred to me as the “chunky kid” and would have to resize things for me or even go out and buy new sizes for me. I dreaded these fittings.
It wasn’t until the last two- years of performing with this dance company, in 7th and 8th grade, that I developed my eating disorder (ED). When I started, I didn’t think that it would harm me. I thought I was becoming “healthier.” I soon fell prey to my scale and become obsessed with my weight as a value of my entire being.
High school came around and I joined the cross country team. I enjoyed being one of the skinniest and among the fastest girls in my schools division. I was obsessed with food and exercise to the point of organizing my schedule and social events around it.
It was a way for me to “control” my life and became an activity that I almost enjoyed: the calorie counting and having people always comment about how “great” I looked. This preoccupation helped me forget the uglier side of ED. The crazy binges, the hair loss, the huge bruises I got on my back and hips from sleeping, the lack of energy, the moodiness, the depression and anxiety, and the huge fights I would have with my mom.
By the end of sophomore year, ED turned into cycles of restricting, binging, and purging. It was an absolute nightmare. I maintained my cheery outlook in class and in public, but behind the scenes at home I had hit rock bottom. I would fight my mom every chance I got, and became so scared of how others perceived my body that I would threaten to throw myself out the car if I had “messed up” and not followed my exact plan for the day.
My mom tried to get me to go to outpatient therapy and to see a dietician, but I oftentimes would refuse to see my therapist. My dietician suggested I try “mindful eating,” which anyone with ED cannot do because they have lost all perception of when they are full or hungry.
Winter of my Junior year, things got so bad that I refused to go to school for two-weeks. My mom couldn’t take care of me anymore and I didn’t know if I wanted to live anymore. In January, she checked me into an inpatient rehabilitation center in Arizona for over two months. I left without telling the majority of my friends or family. I was so numb and depleted at that point by ED that I allowed what was left of myself to be flown down to Arizona.
Going to inpatient treatment saved my life. In inpatient treatment, all control was taken away from me. I could not go to the bathroom by myself or flush the toilet by myself. Someone had to watch me eat every bite of food that touched my lips. In the beginning, I could not even lie on my stomach because I could be secretly “exercising.”
I attended group therapies and individual therapies where I worked to deconstruct my behaviors, why I did them, and how to change them into being more positive and constructive. I began the long journey of how to eat and feel hungry and full again. I relearned my passions for reading and creating art, that I had forgotten with ED. I regained joy, love, and faith in life. I also regained energy my body and mind began to replenish themselves.
When I left in the spring, I still had a long pathway to go to recover fully, but I had regained my spark and excitement for life. Being home in a house where I had freedom and no one to monitor me was challenging, but through trial and error and help from a dietician and therapist I relearned how to live in the “real world.” I restarted school and gradually started to reconnect with the friends that I had left behind so suddenly in January. I lost many good friends while in treatment, but the friends that did stick by me are the strongest friendships I still have today.
The end of this March will be the 4-year anniversary of leaving ED rehab. Although, I still have health problems related to my ED, they are improving. I wish I could say that I have completely healed and am completely ED free. But, when I get stressed sometimes I will revert to ED behaviors. The difference now, is that I know how to correct them and that I have more grace for myself in dealing when I struggle. I have come out of this experience stronger and healthier with a new zeal for life, and for this I am eternally grateful.
The main theme of this year’s National Eating Disorders Association’s week of awareness is Silence. Looking back, I do wish that people had encouraged me to get help. I am not sure that I would have listened, but it never occurred to me that I could be helped until my mom brought me to rehab.
Besides the media and our culture’s unhealthy obsession with “thinness,” the silence and stigma that surround eating disorders has led to “20 million women and 10 million men [that will] suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life (including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS)”. Only 1 out of 10 of those suffering from an eating disorder will receive treatment.
National Eating Disorders Association website resources for getting help: http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/find-help-support