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How Feminism Helped Me Heal From an Eating Disorder

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As a psychology major at Villanova University, I was required to take a Psychology of Gender course. On the first day of the semester, the professor, Dr. Katina Sawyer, asked the class who in the room identified as a “feminist,” to which I actually laughed to myself. At the time, I certainly did not consider myself a [loud, bra-burning man-hater]. I never would have believed that, four years later, I would be a doctoral student in social psychology studying barriers to women’s engagement in collective action against sexism, self-objectification and the insidious implications of girls’ endorsement of postfeminist ideology with regard to sexuality, body image and self-esteem.

Growing up, I was always a little bit louder, bossier and more outspoken than most girls my age. I was more concerned with books than boys and cared more about standing out than fitting in. While the adults in my life often remarked that I was “mature” for my age, it was immensely difficult to make friends. Luckily, I was extremely close with my mother, who was my best friend and my own personal cheerleader. She taught me to respect myself and stand up for the things in which I believed. She fostered a profound curiosity about the world around me, consistently reminding me that education was the most powerful tool a woman could have. She encouraged me to be unapologetically confident, bold and independent, and to never settle for less than I deserved. My mom made me feel like I could do and be anything I wanted. Except fat.

In the second grade, my doctors informed my mom that I was in the 98th percentile for weight for my age, and my mother panicked. She told me she was “totally anorectic” in high school, and that it was the happiest time of her life. She assured me she would not let my weight stand in the way of my success. I began seeing a childhood nutritionist weekly, who extolled the virtues of steamed vegetables. On Christmas one year, I told my mom I loved the cookies she had made, and she sent me to the garage to do jumping jacks. Every time I saw her, my grandmother would pinch my thighs and remind me that my cousin was a “size zero.” My uncles would frequently make pig noises as I walked past them and casually suggest I take up running. At our annual trip to Cape May, my aunt lamented that I had “such a pretty face,” though she “couldn’t say the same about the rest of [my] body.” My brother and his friends began calling me “the whale” and made AOL screennames with clever names such as “itsawhale123.” As my body grew, I experienced more and more scrutiny, so, before the age of 10, I learned to equate losing weight with being loved and eating with criticism. When I developed my first major crush in grade six, I stopped eating. I shed weight in a month, and I started losing my hair and regularly passing out. The entire time, my family expressed enthusiastic approval, praising my “willpower” and “womanly” figure. I was 12.

As the crush dissolved, so too did the restricted eating, but the habits eventually returned in high school, where my eating disorder metastasized. I put myself on Weight Watchers and started exercising before school. I drew Xs in green marker on the parts of my body I did not like. Then I began carving them in with bobby pins. During my junior year, though, a boy finally expressed interest in me and the dieting stopped. He made me feel as though my body was acceptable, and I fell for him. Hard. For the first time, I felt special, important and loved, which gave me space to start loving myself. When I left for college, we agreed to stay together and try to make it work long distance.

When my mom visited Villanova for Parents’ Weekend, I could tell something was wrong. She was walking slowly and had tears in her eyes. After smiling through introductions to my new friends, she pulled me aside and told me that she thought she was sick. Really sick. She told me she had been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS, a degenerative neurological condition. And that it was terminal.

The news shook me to my core. I was extremely emotional, refusing to leave my dorm room except for class and rehearsal. My new friends did not know how to support me, so they largely left me on my own. I became entirely dependent on my long-distance boyfriend for emotional support, and because I felt as though I was becoming an emotional burden to him, I sought to overcompensate physically. I once again became obsessive about exercising and “eating clean” in an attempt to make up for my emotional state with a “sexy” body. I am embarrassed to say that I slept with him out of fear that he would leave me.

But he did leave, regardless. The night we broke up, I returned home absolutely hysterical and distraught, and my dad, overwhelmed, threw my cell phone to the ground, smashing it to pieces. I ran to the bathroom and swallowed some pills – I don’t remember how many – before getting in my car and driving around Northern New Jersey. I am grateful to have ended up at an old friend’s house at some point during the night, and his family took care of me until the morning. My family, at a complete loss, brought me to the Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders, where I was officially diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and was admitted for residential treatment. When I told my mom the doctors’ suggestions, she replied, “Do you really think you need that?” Embarrassed and confused, I told her that, no, I didn’t, and we returned home.

I spent the next few months actively trying to gain weight on my own, and I tried my hardest to block out my mother’s paralysis and gradual loss of speech and autonomy. I found support in my yoga studio, where I completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training. I considered taking the following semester off to continue to immerse myself in yoga, but my mom insisted that I continue with my education. I found myself alone and scared once again, and my restrictive tendencies returned. Yoga, which I had taken up as a way to connect with my body and manage my emotions, became another tool for weight loss. Within a year, I had lost weight, my period, my friends and all sense of who I was. I had been accepted a year early to Villanova’s BA/MS program in psychology, so the following year, I concurrently began my Master’s degree, and I found the coursework extremely difficult. I had not seen my friends in months when they threw me a surprise 21st birthday party at my favorite restaurant. I had to be coerced into attending, and I spent half of the night hovered over the toilet with my fingers down my throat. Unable to force myself to vomit, I began taking laxative pills to in an attempt to remove any and all food from my body, a habit which continued for months. When I went home for Thanksgiving that year, after my weight had dropped even more since beginning college, my mom cried about how thin I had become, calling me a “skeleton.” She told me that I had become cold and hard, the shell of the rebel girl I once was.

I replied, “At least I’m finally thin.”

On December 10, 2015, only a few weeks after this conversation, my aunts came to Villanova to tell me that my mom had died overnight. Heartbroken and confused, the only response I had was, “Do I have to go home? I have to take my finals.” Ultimately, I returned to New Jersey for a few days for my mom’s funeral, but I returned to school to take my final exams.

I returned to Villanova lost, scared and depressed. Unable to process the intensity of my grief, I completely shut myself off from my friends and family. The only person I wanted to talk to was my mom. I often missed my classes in favor of staying in my single dorm room all day, but when Villanova was in the final two for the NCAA championship that April, I decided to try to attend a game watch on campus. As I was walking back to my room, my legs gave out. While the other students celebrated Villanova’s NCAA championship, I dragged myself back to my dorm, and when I finally got inside, I realized that I had urinated all over myself. I showered, got into pajamas and laid in bed, when my heart began beating extremely quickly. I thought about who I could call and realized that if I had died in my bed, no one would have found me for days. By some miracle, an old friend of mine happened to send me a message on Facebook in the middle of the night, and she calmed me back down. The next day, after speaking with school officials, I was “strongly encouraged” to leave school to pursue treatment for my eating disorder. I decided to return to the Renfrew Center for another assessment. I was once gained admission for residential treatment, but the cost was exorbitant. They insisted that my home was not a safe place for healing, and, without skipping a beat, my aunt volunteered to let me stay in her home if they agreed to allow me into their daytime partial hospitalization program.

Away from school and surrounded by love and support, I quickly began to gain weight. I was discharged after 10 weeks, my weight and sanity restored. My healing, though, was not the result of a personal triumph but rather due to a collective effort of the women in my life, who insisted that I was not an object to be looked at, but a force to be reckoned with. I connected with my female relatives, including my aunts and my grandmother, who supported me fully. I spent the summer reading feminist literature such as Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth” and Simone De Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex.” I moved back to Philadelphia that August to finish the last year of my master’s degree, where I maintained my weight and began training for a half marathon. I found a new yoga studio that focused on the spiritual aspects of yoga, rather than the physical benefits of the practice. I started dating again, and I eventually found the strength to leave the relationship simply because it did not make me happy. I was accepted to every doctoral program to which I applied and decided on the University of Western Ontario to work with a longtime research hero of mine in the hopes of helping young girls with eating disorders. I made amazing friends with whom I discussed the issues facing women today and got involved with feminist activism. With the help of other strong women, I reclaimed my voice and my life, and I finally felt like my old rebel self.

Though I had anticipated studying eating disorders in graduate school, when I arrived at Western, I realized that I had become more passionate about another topic: (you guessed it) feminism. Feminism helped me reframe my relationship with my body, and I now recognize that, much like the women who took responsibility for my health and happiness, I have a responsibility to the young women in my life to model acceptance, self-compassion and genuine respect for myself. I now frame my relationship with my eating disorder as an insidious form of internalized oppression and thus as an inherently feminist issue. Instead of wasting precious hours of my day obsessing in front of the mirror, I choose to dedicate my time to advocacy, activism and dismantling diet culture and standards of beauty. I prioritize my own experience of the way my body feels instead of others’ opinions of the way it should look. Feminism has also helped connect me with positive role models, such as Dr. Katina Sawyer, my Psychology of Gender professor who ultimately became my master’s thesis advisor, and my current doctoral supervisor Dr. Rachel Calogero, one of the most impressive, kind and eloquent women I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. I now value these women’s opinions of me, as well as my opinion of myself, more highly than the patriarchal expectations society has placed on me.

Ultimately, though, feminism resonates with me because it has connected me with a community of supportive women who consistently help fill some of the hole my mom’s death has left in my heart. I no longer feel alone in the world because I recognize that I am part of something bigger than myself, and serving as a positive role model for young women has become my highest value. My mom’s absence still weighs on me daily, but I like to believe that she would be immensely proud of the woman I have become. Even if I am now a little heavier than she would view as acceptable, I no longer view her eating disorder as my destiny. I refuse to pass this down to my daughters or the next generation of women. The chain stops here. I’m rewriting herstory and there will be a different ending. My body, my choice.

This post originally appeared on We Are Alive.

Image via Getty

Originally published: June 16, 2019
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