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What I Wish I’d Known as a Kid With Anorexia Nervosa

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Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

It was the same question, every time. My friends asked it in curiosity, my parents in frustration, my doctors in disapproval.

“Can’t you just eat?”

I’d long since learned to say nothing in return.

Ever since Tara,* I knew that “anorexic” was a “bad” word.

Tara came to our school in third grade. She was something of a novelty — a strange, alien creature the likes of which we had never seen before. Her gaunt, sallow face and jutting bones stood in stark contrast to our rosy cheeks and robust bodies.

“Sick,” the bullies called her. “Disgusting.”


One afternoon, I worked up the courage to ask my teacher, Mrs. Baker, what it meant.

Anorexia is when girls starve themselves because they want to look like models,” she snapped, peering down at me over her spectacles. “Now, don’t you go getting any ideas, OK? You’re beautiful just the way you are.”

Every time the word came up in conversation after that, a hushed silence would fill the room. Sometimes the teachers would share a secretive, nervous look. Always, they would clumsily change the subject, desperate to distract us from the terrible legacy of the sad little girls who starved for beauty.

Naturally, I thought the whole business was very silly. What “fool” would voluntarily starve themselves to be skinny? I held these girls, these anorexics, in nothing but contempt.

Never in a million years would I have believed that, in just a few short years, I would become one of them.

It was such a little thing. Such a tiny, innocent thing. But it nearly killed me.

I never wanted to be a fashion model. I never starved myself on purpose. It was just a little diet to drop some weight. After all, I was a chubby girl. I’d always been a chubby girl.

Surely there was no harm in skipping dessert?

But, as it turned out, there was harm. Cutting out sweets turned into banning all processed foods, which turned into subsisting on a meager diet of raw vegetables and lean chicken breast. My beautiful, strong body withered away into nothing, revealing bones that should never be seen, and I was powerless to stop it.

I was slowly dying, and all they could say was;

“Can’t you just eat?”

I didn’t understand. I wanted to eat, I really did. But the fear, the terrible, gut-wrenching terror that rushed through my veins, freezing my blood and stopping my heart was too much to bear. I felt a fear akin to that of death whenever I even looked at a plate of food, and I had no idea why.

It was a curse, but not everyone saw it as such. To my peers, I was a success story.

People came to me, congratulating me on my weight loss, incessantly begging me to tell them my “secret.” I, of course, said nothing. I didn’t have a weight loss secret. I had a deadly curse I couldn’t explain, not even to myself.

Soon enough, when my cheeks became hollow and grey, my hair fell out and my body became too angular and sharp for comfort, their envy turned to pity and the questions began:

“Can’t you just eat?”

“But why do you want to be skinny?”

“Why do you want to be a model?”

And, of course, the oh-so-reassuring line I first heard from the mouth of Mrs. Baker: “You’re beautiful just the way you are.”

I wanted to scream at everyone who said this to me. No, I was not beautiful. I was dying. And, for the love of God, why did everyone think I was starving myself on purpose?

Who would do such a thing?

Certainly not me.

So, what was wrong with me?

Every visit to every therapist was exactly the same.

I would sit down in the waiting room, my mother stiff and unforgiving beside me, my seat bones rubbing painfully against the chair, even through layers of cushioning.

The woman (it was always a woman) would call my name and we’d walk into her office — a brightly lit interrogation room full of lies.

At first, she was gentle. Annoyingly so, but still gentle — not condescending and interrogating like she was later. She would tell me I was beautiful, that I didn’t need to starve myself, that everything was going to be OK.


I never said a word. She was talking nonsense. I didn’t give a fig about her wishy-washy self-love exercises. I wanted to know why I couldn’t eat. I wanted to know what was wrong with me. Here and there, I’d heard doctors whisper “anorexia” into each other’s ears, but they were obviously wrong.

“Anorexia is when girls starve themselves because they want to look like models.”

Anorexia is a silly little girl.

Anorexia is an insult.

Anorexia is a bad word.

It wasn’t me. I never wanted to be a fashion model, I never starved myself on purpose. I wasn’t anorexic. I couldn’t be.

“Can’t you just eat?”

No. But that’s not what they wanted to hear — not my friends and certainly not the therapists, so I kept quiet throughout the interrogation. I continued withering away to bone and continued wondering why I was such a freak that not even the doctors could tell me what was wrong with me.

Time passed, life went on. People forgot about my bony frame; they became used to it. I flew under the radar, deteriorating further every day, malnutrition turning my brain to mush, but to all eyes just a silly child who had dreams of thinness and beauty.

Occasionally, I again wondered what was wrong with me, as the therapists told me I was beautiful just the way I was and everyone parroted that same old “Can’t you just eat?” at me, but starvation had killed any curiosity left in me, so I did nothing.

I resigned myself to eating lettuce and chicken breast, and never knowing what it was that separated me from the other girls, what it was that made my brain think my food was going to kill me. Never knowing why I couldn’t simply eat.

Looking back today, it was so obvious.

I had anorexia. Of course I did. But anorexia isn’t a silly little girl; it isn’t starving yourself on purpose. It isn’t a bad word. It’s an illness hardwired into my brain.

Every time I hear someone use the word “anorexic” as an insult to describe girls like Tara, I wish I could go back in time and stop people like Mrs. Baker from hushing the room at the sound of the word. Because it shouldn’t be a taboo. It doesn’t have the power to send a room of preteen girls dropping dead at the sight of a thin celebrity.

When people treat anorexia as the “supermodel’s disease,” the result of teenage vanity, they make it that much harder for those living with anorexia to recover. Because we don’t choose this. We don’t. No one has so much willpower, so much self-hate, that they can overrule their most basic survival instincts and starve themselves near to death. We do it because we feel we have to. Because the alternative is unthinkable. Because the anxiety, the guilt, the raw, animal terror is unbearable.

If we lived in a world where people recognized anorexia for what it truly is, maybe I’d have recovered sooner. Maybe I’d never have gone on that teeny little diet in the first place.

Maybe “Can’t you just eat?” wouldn’t have needed an answer.

*Name has been changed.

Photo by Kat Stokes on Unsplash

Originally published: December 17, 2018
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