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An Open Letter to Women's Health Magazines

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I remember the first time I really looked at one of you, standing in the CVS line, clutching my disposable razors and gummy vitamins. I read your headlines, boldly lining the model’s sculpted abdominal muscles. Here is what I learned in ten seconds: My salad topping choices could be ruining my salad’s nutritional quality, there’s a seed I’ve never heard of that speeds up your metabolism, and there are 12 recently discovered benefits of eating avocados. Fearful that I would continue naively choosing the wrong salad toppings forever, I bought you. We shared the couch. In one hour of reading I learned more about food than I’d ever known; I felt smart and informed. The world was full of secrets, but you promised you had the answers. I vowed to never add croutons to my salads again.

I wondered how I’d survived years of poisoning my body with caffeine and artificial food coloring. You taught me about the dangers of granola bars, fruit juice and low-fat alternatives. Together we began a journey to find my perfect health. We looked for it together — in your pages, in kickboxing classes, in cartons of cottage cheese. You came to me when my life was in shambles and empowered me to take control of something tangible. I was utterly lost, but you told me I could be perfect, and perfection would bring me happiness. We would do it together. 

Quinoa is better than brown rice, you said. Be cautious of grapes; they’re the sugariest fruit. Celery has negative calories, snack on it often. “The foods that will give you the hair you’ve always wanted.” Careful though, you said, too much olive oil can add extra calories. Too many almonds can result in a higher BMI. Cut them out, just in case. Kate Hudson swore the reason she wasn’t losing weight last year was because she was constantly snacking on cashews. Silly Kate! I cut out cashews immediately.

I’m a student with a 4.0 GPA; I’m excellent at taking directions. I followed your rules flawlessly. Everyone was noticing the changes. Those first few months we spent together, you gave me everything. I was your perfect student. I was perfect.

Remember those issues about how to not overindulge during the holidays? I stood aside my sister in our childhood kitchen while she served everyone her famous Christmas pudding recipe. My family sat together dipping their spoons into tiny clouds of marshmallows and cream. I don’t remember anything from that day more than I remember the pride I felt, staring into my empty bowl. My family’s bowls were full of sweet delicacies, but mine was full of power. 

To take up the time between monthly issues, I started reading nutrition books. I read that dairy throws off your body’s natural pH levels. Eating animal protein leads to cancer. Gluten leads to gut inflammation. Eliminate. Eliminate. Eliminate. Stick to your rice, beans and vegetables, and you’ll always be safe from disease. You will be pure. Never white rice, though, because it increases your risk of diabetes. Not too many beans, though, because they contain lectin which increases inflammation. Not nightshade vegetables, though, because they contain alkaloids which cause stress. I would clean myself of all my toxins. Through eating, I would become pure, like snow.

Remember the first time I spit out my food? You told me Europeans were thinner because they stop eating once they are 80 percent full. Worried I’d crossed the precious line, I carefully chewed the piece of sushi in my mouth, counting slowly. Regret. Regret. Regret. My friends sat around me lost in conversation. I sat lost in a series of calculations: How many calories had I had at lunch? How many did I have left to spare today? I chewed slower, thinking only of the handful of nuts I shouldn’t have had after lunch, and vowed that I would not swallow. I excused myself, went to the restroom and spit the $22 tuna roll into the toilet. I’d read the heavy metals in fish are linked to heart disease anyways. You were proud.

On a bed of your pages, I laid in our new cage. I couldn’t get out, but at least nothing could get in. If I never ate unsafe foods, I would never get sick. If I stayed thin, the world would be too scared to touch me. If no one could touch me, I could never feel pain. I went on disintegrating under iron bars. Safe and light, like snow.

Remember the first time my hair fell out? I tied my hair up on top of my head and watched my father’s heart break open onto the floor of the hotel lobby where we were standing. A 60-year-old man sees his baby daughter’s scalp for the first time since her infancy. I flipped through your pages, desperate for your never-failing guidance. You told me to shampoo with apple-cider vinegar.

When I realized I’d developed orthorexia nervosa, an obsessive-compulsive disorder rooted in an unhealthy obsession with healthy food, I told no one. Silent, like a 1950s housewife stays close to her cheating husband. You’d betrayed me, but you were all I had. Your rules were the stitches barely holding me together. I picked them out slowly, watching everything we’d built fall to pieces. We suffered through those last few months, both of us aware of what was coming. My quest for eternal health would kill me. I would have to let you go.

Dear women’s health magazines. Dear my beloved brown rice and heads of purple cabbage. Dear my precious seeds and super-food powders. Dear my perfect self. The time has come. I thought I had a wondrous future. I thought if I prioritized my health, all other aspects of my life would fall into place flawlessly. I didn’t know I’d develop paralyzing food fears or that I may never have children. I didn’t know my skin would turn to cellophane. I didn’t know my knees would shake on the stairs. My beloved book of knowledge, I am tired. I am tired.

So I’m abandoning my pursuit for perfection to begin recollecting my flaws. I want to wear them proudly like a string of pearls, sharing them with others and gushing over theirs. I’m unlearning you, stitching myself back together with mismatched, imperfect threads. I learned how suffocatingly lonely it is to be perfect, to dedicate yourself to achieving something that doesn’t exist. There is no perfection! There is no control! We’re leaves in the wind with little say in where we will be blown. And when we get where we’re going, when we land in fields of daisies, we don’t chose when winter will come to melt us into the ground. It’s terrifying, but I’m trying. I’m trying. I’m letting you go, my perfect self. I’m shedding you to give into my beautiful fears, to give into what I cannot control. I’m submitting to the wind just like everyone else.

We’re falling, powerless, honest, like snow.

If you or a loved one needs help please call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Originally published: April 20, 2015
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