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How Redefining 'Pretty' Helped Me Recover From Anorexia

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The concept of “pretty” has puzzled me for some time. They say beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and yet it seemed that somehow everyone had agreed on what it meant to be pretty.

I was led to believe that if one was pretty they would be successful, liked and most importantly, valued. I had been inundated all my life with these messages. I found myself comparing my physique to others despite being told all my life that having a mind of my own was more important. I subscribed to the idea of “pretty” that had been told to me so many times by so many people.

My self-worth was tied up in being the prettiest girl in the room. For me, that meant competing with every girl to be the thinnest. Every day was a battle to look better — to be better — than every girl in every room. I wanted my bones to wear my skin like a shirt a few sizes too small.

My search for beauty, or value rather, became tied up in numbers. As the number on the scale went down, my desire to be seen as pretty only grew. The mental calculator was always running. Counting calories. Measuring inches. Subtracting pounds. Calculating my self-worth. I was chasing after an unattainable goal, looking for my self-worth in the approval of others. However, my methods were working. Family, friends, and others would tell me I looked great — they liked the changes I was making to my appearance. Their compliments encouraged me and told me my ranking among others was improving.

Pretty meant loose shirts, thigh gaps, skipped meal, and a body breaking itself down. Pretty meant a brain that couldn’t focus on anything but the numbers that haunted me. Pretty meant a heart that couldn’t beat enough to keep me standing. The cost of “pretty” was an eating disorder and a mind plagued by the perceived judgments others were making about me. Pretty was thin and thin was value and value was worth. My self-worth could be measured in teaspoons.

What I thought was “pretty” was really an illness in disguise, a sickness dressed up in pretty clothes laced with compliments. While it may have provided me with the approval from others I thought I needed to feel worthy of life, anorexia left me a shell of the person I had once been. I was facing hard statistics, like how anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. I realized my conception of what pretty was had to change.

Now I believe I am beautiful. My beauty comes not from a number on a scale or a ranking made by others or myself, but from my confidence in who I am and the strength I know I have inside of me.

The definition of pretty I held to be true is common, and it needs to change. In our weight-conscious culture, we must strive to expand and diversify what it means to be “pretty.” Through my process of recovery I have come to accept myself and now believe that all bodies are beautiful. That is not to say that I do not have days where my old ideas come to mind. On those days I must remind myself where I’ve been and how far I’ve come, but also that recovery is not a straight line. Healthy is the goal and that comes in many forms and looks different for everyone. Weight and size and calories are all just numbers that do not define us.

We, all of us, are pretty.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

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Dear Anorexia, I'm Not Going to Let You Hold Me Back Again

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Dear Anorexia,

It’s been a year and a half, but somehow I still find myself thinking of you. Because even though you’ve left me, you are affecting so many other people. People who don’t deserve to have you in their lives. You treat them horribly. You make them question if they like themselves and make them feel worthless. You take up years of their lives – even when they think they are free of you, you show up as an afterthought whenever they have a large meal or catch a glimpse of themselves in the mirror.

When I first met you, I was in sixth grade, and I hated how I looked. I wanted to look like the actresses on television and the models in the magazines. It started with my hair – too short, too frizzy, too unflattering. Then it moved to my nose, my shape, my stomach, my upper arms, and my thighs. And I accepted you into my life without fully understanding the implications of doing so. When I found myself obsessing over food and overexercising, weighing myself and taking constant measurements, researching and looking for signs to confirm that I wasn’t alone, I knew that I was in for it. You weren’t just a “teenage phase.” And although my therapy helped in the short term (postponing your prominent return for five years), you were always that voice making me feel guilty when I ate too much junk food or thought I looked OK. Eventually, I couldn’t distinguish your voice from my own.

When you returned, I became scared. You weren’t in full force yet, and I ran to my parents and doctors and nutritionists before you had the chance. But after a few months passed and I had “recovered,” I realized that I had stayed relatively the same weight. After looking through old pictures and considering my circumstances, I set out to prove to you that I could do better. And I guess you would call it a “success.” But that success came with caveats – my parents were terrified, I lost my family’s trust, I felt distant from my closest friends, I felt that I had no one to talk to except for you, I was cold all of the time, I was dizzy and exhausted from exercising without food, and most of all I was unhappy.

Why did I let you do this to me? When I was encouraged to recover from friends and family (and eventually from myself), it took months to get back to where I was. And it took even longer to get to a healthy mindset. There are many things that trigger your voice even now – talk about calories or weight, seeing a bad picture, listening to an old song or learning about you in my classes. And you think that you still have a right to stick to all of these men and women who hate you. Don’t you have anything better to do?

I know that I can’t just forget about you, and my experiences are valuable to share with others who are struggling. And so I keep fighting. Others still cringe when I bring you up in person because you’re such a taboo. You kill so many. I was one of the lucky ones.

I am not going to allow you to pull me backward. I know that there are more tough times ahead, but I have the knowledge to face them without harming myself. I am my own best friend, and you have no place here anymore. So feel free to stick around, but you won’t receive anything from me except for a long and persistent fight.

You tried to latch on and become part of me. Then you tried to take away who I was. That time is over. I don’t know how many moments I have left, and so I’m living each day to the best of my ability. So that I can get closer to knowing with full certainty who I am. And to know that you are an illness that holds no power over me.

Sincerely,

Rachel

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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When I Saw My Anorexia Diagnosis in Writing for the First Time

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“Promise me,” my mom asked six years ago. “Promise me you’ll never do this again.”

I nodded. “Of course. It was nothing, no big deal,” I said.

Six years later…

“You broke your promise,” my mom said.

I looked at her. “What promise?”

“You know which one. When you said you would never do this again.”

“Oh.” I didn’t know what to say because she was right. I had broken my promise. I had gone back to restriction.

Sophomore year of college, I became obsessed with losing weight. I severely restricted my calorie intake and exercised compulsively. My parents found my food diary and dragged me to therapy. Two therapists later, I was “cured.” We never discussed my eating issues. I glossed over the whole thing, convincing myself it was nothing.

It was almost as if it never happened.

Flash forward six years. I’m checking my patient portal for an upcoming nutritionist appointment and I click on my own medical status. And there I saw it.

Diagnosis – Anorexia.

There it was, in black and white. Anorexia. I was shocked seeing it there on the screen.

And that’s when I started to realize there was no going back. I can’t pretend this isn’t happening, that this isn’t serious. Anorexia. It’s right there on my medical record. It’s a part of my life now and it’s terrifying.

Why? Because as I have been increasing my intake in treatment and taking a break from exercise, there is a part of me waiting for it all to be over. Then I can go back. A new diet. A new cardio regiment. Fewer calories. Weigh-ins. No snacks. Hungry. Empty. Numb.

Not this time. I have to want more, strive for more. Anorexia has reduced me to just a number, but I have to believe I am worth more than this.

I have to move forward.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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When I Learned to Stop Minimizing the Mental Health Struggles of Others

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In my experience, it seems like having a mental illness can do one of two things. You might become a more gentle and supportive person who uses their experiences to be more understanding or you might become harsher and resentful that others have not felt your pain or lived through your trauma. You can either grow or you can pull away.

I refuse to let depression, anxiety and anorexia turn me into a person I don’t want to be. For a long time, I let it shape how I treated others. I was spiteful. I was angry. I was harsh. My friends had never been through the things I had been through. They all had things so easy. Their families were together, they didn’t struggle the same ways I did. They had no concept of mental illness aside from what they saw me go through. I was lost. What did I do to deserve these things? Why did I pull the short straw? When I heard about the struggles of others, I minimized them because they weren’t as bad as mine, as though I was somehow the judge of that.

One day I woke up tired of being that person. I realized it was not my experiences, my illnesses or my past that made me act this way. It was me.

I realized I don’t want to take part in the “sadness Olympics,” where jaded people gather to measure people’s struggle and pain as though they are the authority on it. Just because you have survived terrible things doesn’t make other people’s pain less valid. It’s impossible to compare. Yes, I have an anxiety disorder, but it doesn’t mean my friend isn’t incredibly nervous for her exam. Yes, I’ve been through anorexia, but it doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t struggle with his body image. Yes, I have depression but it doesn’t mean someone else isn’t allowed to be sad or empty or upset. We all have different tolerance levels for pain, including emotional pain.

Comparing your struggles is like comparing sleep. You slept three hours last night and your friend slept five. She got more sleep than you, yet you’re both tired. You can’t determine who’s more tired based off the hours of sleep you both got, because it depends on the person. Bottom line is both of you are tired. You just can’t compare. The same thing goes for sadness, stress, anger.

It can be so frustrating to listen to people complain about problems you deem silly or small. You wish your problems were as minor as that. Yet, problems are problems. In their lives, these things might be major. Something small to you could be the worst thing someone else has ever gone through. We all deserve support.

The idea that not all problems are deserving of attention stops people from seeking treatment. I’ve had countless people talk to me saying things like, “I don’t have an eating disorder and it’s not as bad as things were for you but…” and go on to express something valid and deserving of help. We don’t need to qualify our struggles by saying they aren’t as bad as the struggles of others. Struggles are struggles. It doesn’t matter if someone has had it “worse.”

Do not let illness rob you of your sweetness. Do not let the world take away your soft heart and leave you hardened. Do no let yourself become jaded and cynical and hateful.

Use your pain. Use it to grow. Use it to change. Use it to adapt. Use it to make art. Use it to help people. Use it to heal people. Use it. Use it. Use it.

If you don’t let your pain push you forward, it will hold you back.
You can’t avoid pain. You can’t avoid the terrible pieces of your illness. You can’t control the fact you have a mental illness. But you can control how it shapes you. You can control how you treat others in turn.

My battles with mental Illness have made me a better person. I’m kinder now. I’m more supportive. I’m more helpful, more understanding, a better friend. I’m a better version of myself. Hard times change you, but I decided to make it be for the better.

When it comes to mental illness, you don’t choose it — it chooses you. You do get to choose what you do with it. Choose to grow, rather than to pull away. Choose to be gentle and supportive rather than harsh.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Why I Started Being Vocal About My Anorexia

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“Look at how skinny she is,” I heard a woman say in Starbucks, referring to a young lady in line. “She has to be anorexic.”

Her friend turned toward her, her face displaying confusion and pity. “I just don’t get why they don’t just eat,” she said. They both looked at each other, shrugged, and continued onto another conversation.

This is one of many conversations and comments I have heard regarding the eating disorder that is anorexia nervosa. More often than not, people are confused as to why someone would deny themselves the pleasure of eating food or how they could possibly enjoy starving. I wanted so desperately to jump into their conversation and explain to them just how complex this eating disorder is. I wanted to explain to them that anorexia is filled with “rules” that do not make sense to someone that is not struggling, but to someone with anorexia, it is logical. I wanted to explain to them that anorexia has a loud internal voice that can consume someone’s rational self. I wanted them to leave Starbucks knowing more about anorexia than when they entered.

But I bit my tongue, got my grande black coffee and went about my day.

Eating disorders, and in my experience, specifically anorexia nervosa, are often misunderstood. The amount of hurtful comments or incorrect information I have heard about the topic is enough to write several books. Oftentimes, I would get fed up and burst. I would rant about how hurtful someone’s comments about the illness were or I would inform them that to “just eat” isn’t as easy as it sounds. For me, this outburst of information was immediately followed by regret. There was always someone that would ask: “What makes you think you know so much?” I would dance around the subject of my struggles with the illness like a world-class ballerina and eventually, the subject would be dropped.

Before I went into treatment, I took a vow of silence when it came to being vocal about my struggles. I always told myself that my comments weren’t needed and that people did not care about how I was actually doing. So, I bit my tongue and silently battled with my eating disorder. The truth is, I did not want to be known as “that anorexic girl,” and didn’t want my eating disorder to be the topic of conversation when I left the room. I didn’t want to be pitied, I didn’t want any attention brought to me. I preferred to be invisible.

I struggled with anorexia for three years prior to being medically diagnosed in November 2014. A year later, I entered treatment the day after Christmas. Through the month and a half of treatment, I slowly began to realize that I am not meant to be invisible. My voice matters and my own struggles with this disease could help someone else. I left treatment with the motivation to inspire others. I pushed my feelings of wanting to be invisible aside and answered honestly when people asked where I went for a month and a half. No more dancing around the subject — I was putting a voice to my struggles.

Another hospitalization later, I am still continuing to remind myself that being visible is OK. I do not pretend that I am always doing OK in this recovery process, because some days I am not. Recovery is an option that I have to choose every morning, every hour, every meal. And sometimes, recovery looks like a daunting mountain that I am too tired to climb, so I do not choose it. But, I know that I can always start again tomorrow. Being vocal about my struggles is not always easy. It can get uncomfortable and awkward, but I also know that hiding in the shadows can only get you so far. If I can show someone that recovery is within reach or inform someone about how multilayered anorexia is, then all the uncomfortable feelings were worth it.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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When Loved Ones Hope Recovery Will Make You 'Like You Used to Be'

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My junior year of high school, I earned a nickname on the cross-country team: Little ray of sunshine. “You’re so optimistic all the time!” my teammates would say. “How is it so easy for you to be happy?”

Descriptions like this weren’t novel for me. According to my parents, from the moment I learned to speak, “joy” was my default mode. I’d toddle around noticing the world, naming things with indiscriminate delight. “Squirrel!” I’d cry. “Dirt! Bagel! Sidewalk!”

“That’s Emily,” people would say. “Radiant. Curious. Bubbling with joy.”

I think about this most Tuesdays while I sit in the waiting room of Yale Student Health. I wonder how many of these adjectives still apply. There are plenty of things to notice here: the hum of the water machine, the typos on the “Safe Sex” poster, the smell of disinfectant so strong it makes you forget Earth has things like grass and dirt and squirrels. I stopped noticing months ago. Now, I nod to the receptionist, who knows me by name. I sit. I wait. I’m here to relearn one of life’s basics: how to eat.

I’m in recovery from anorexia. A year and a half into treatment, I’m still getting used to saying this phrase. I’m ashamed of how small and selfish it makes me seem. Malnutrition causes half of worldwide deaths in children under five. Yet many mornings, I look in the mirror and can’t stand my body. I need a team of therapists and doctors and nutritionists to help make myself eat.

Anyone who has faced an eating disorder has heard a version of this phrase: “to recover from anorexia, I must learn to accept myself.” But here’s the problem. Anorexia threatens everything I’ve always claimed as my identity. I’m strong: I’ve climbed mountains, survived salmonella in rural East Africa and experienced the daily trials of my brother’s disability alongside him. I have dreams: to fight climate change, to write, to love, to have children. I am selfless and caring and kind. This Emily does not belong in a nutritionist’s waiting room. This self is so much larger than an eating disorder. Yet here I sit. Who am I?

“I just want you to be happy and healthy,” my parents have said. “Like you used to be.”

This comment comes from good intentions. They’ve watched this illness ravage their daughter for years, stripping away body and spirit. They want to remind me there was life before anorexia—I once was joyful and this capacity still lives inside me. But this comment makes me feel trapped. It assumes a dichotomy. The “real” Emily is happy. Anorexia is a false self, a gross distortion, an enemy to be eradicated. The truth is, I’m no longer two-years-old. I’m a 1,000 times more complex. Sometimes, I’m happy. Other times, I’m sad or anxious or angry or depressed. Isn’t there room inside “Emily” for all of these things?

Recently, I decided to try an experiment. I began to be honest— to let others hear about my struggles and see me as human. Often, honesty brings huge relief. Saying “anorexia” out loud diminishes the feeling of guilt and secrecy and isolation. But other times, honesty makes me feel ashamed. The word “anorexia” hangs like an icicle in conversation, fragile and cold and untouchable, making me into a person who is weak or selfish or sick. Many times, honesty is a gateway to someone else’s vulnerability.

“I’ve struggled with body image my whole life, but I’ve never felt comfortable talking about it!” my friend confessed. A few rare times, honesty brings exactly what I need to hear. “This is not your fault. This illness does not define you. You are still Emily.”

To recover from anorexia, I must learn to accept the whole of me. Not just the parts I like. Not just the parts that are happy. Recovery does mean only reconnecting with the Emily who noticed and loved the world. This Emily is still alive and real. My parent’s comment is an invitation to remember her. But letting go of anorexia doesn’t mean agreeing life will always match the untainted joy of childhood. Sometimes, I’m sad. Sometimes, I’m angry. All the time, I’m complex. This Emily is equally real. This Emily is human. No part of our self is more right or wrong or true than any other.

When I remember this, I feel less trapped. I feel like there’s a way forward in which health and complexity can go hand in hand. Then, the real work can begin: discovering how all of these parts of me fit into a whole.

Sometimes, a person hears about my struggles in recovery—weekly weight checks and meal plans and heart problems and anxiety about my body. “I never would have guessed. You’re still so happy all the time!” they say. I don’t know how to reply. My point was to convince you I’m not a little ray of sunshine. Instead, you seem to think I shine brighter because of my struggles. Do I?

Happiness isn’t a given. It’s a choice I make daily, a choice I face at every meal. Many times, I win. Other times, I don’t. Everyone faces his or her own version of this choice. Is my happiness more profound because of its contrast with my struggle? Maybe. Does this make my illness justified somehow, a lesson in strength and perseverance? No. It’s not that simple. But questions like these help me think—about strength, about resilience, about what it means to hold pain and joy simultaneously and embrace them as two sides of one whole. They help the illness take its place—a small part in this person I am proud to be.

Recently, my mom texted me: “Your road has been hard. You have permission to be present to the pain and to tell this story. Someday, you’ll tell the story not only of how hard it has been, but also how you got through. So take notice. Notice each choice. Notice each joy. Notice what made the difference. There’s room for it all.”

I’m still trying to figure out how to embrace the pieces of me and make a whole. I do this work every day. When I walk out of Yale Student Health, I go to class. I read poems. I sing in symphonies. I identify new coral species under a microscope. I run. I crunch my boots on fall leaves, notice squirrels and laugh with delight. This looks a lot like being happy. This is a different kind of “happy” than the little ray of sunshine or the two-year-old who named and noticed the world. This joy is new and honest and multilayered and real, like I am. This joy is worth it.

Next Tuesday, I’ll be back in the waiting room.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

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