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What You Can't See About the Smiling Girl in the Picture

Look at that girl in the picture. contributor photo

 She is participating in a Fourth of July talent show at summer camp with her bunkmates. Her slinky textured hair is combed back into a tight bun on the top of her head, hidden by a multicolored hat.

Oh, and her bunk will win. And she will jump up and down feigning excitement because really she doesn’t care about stupid drama competitions and would rather be kicking around a soccer ball. She’s kind of a secret rebel like that. She is young and seems happy based on that wide smile cementing the lower half of her face. But her teeth are a giveaway, impressionable like braces, like her soul. She is molding into the person she thinks she should be — but who exactly is that? No one would know she is hurting, but she is. This young third grader is struggling with anorexia. This young girl is the surprising embodiment of mental illness.

This girl was a younger version of me.

It began on the first day of sleepaway camp. I was beyond consoling and wanted only to be back home. I missed my parents and wasn’t sure who I was at camp without them. But I didn’t know how to tell anyone, to express my emotions. How would I find comfort without my mommy and daddy? At dinner, I scanned the food stations and opted for something small. It just all turned me off, which was odd, because I had never felt that way about food before. After the first day, I panicked in the face of all of the food choices and became known as a “picky eater.” So every day in the summer I consumed less than I usually did. It would impact me by the end of the summer.

One day, I woke up to a crowd of kids and counselors surrounding me, my eyes blinking a few times before coming to. I wasn’t in the comfort of my bed at home. No. I was flat on my back on the hard floor of the camp basketball court, staring into a blinding sun in a big blue sky. Oh shit! After a short trip to the infirmary, it was decided I needed to go to the hospital to get an IV. I was mortified my parents would have to take a three hour car ride to make sure I was OK. I wanted to tell them they didn’t have to — that I was fine — but I had no say in the matter. What if they figured out what caused me to end up in this state?

With only three days left of my first summer away at camp, I had fainted. That little girl in the picture wasn’t just “very active” like the doctor’s said. She was starving. Truth was, she was always hungry, but needed her patterns and rituals much more than she believed she needed food and her body couldn’t keep up. That girl in the picture didn’t have curves or really think she was fat—yet. She just couldn’t eat, because that’s how she dealt with her anxiety. But no one could see her pain.

They could only see the smiling girl in the picture and that was enough to mask her eating disorder for many years.

So warning, the next time you look at a picture of someone on social media, know it is just a snapshot of a moment in time. Maybe they look happy in that instant, but there could be more going on. There is always more than a picture can capture. Don’t be unaware of the glossy game of make-believe that is social media. Peel away the glitz, before you look in from the outside thinking that perfect exists on the screen you are browsing. A picture is just that — a picture. Mental illness is easily masked with a smile like the smiling girl in the picture. So no, I don’t believe the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words.” It’s harder to fake words. Our generation needs to dig deeper. So let’s start digging and using more words.

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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Lead photo via diego_cervo.