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What This Photo Shows About Being a Teenage Boy With an Eating Disorder

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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.

My narrow shoulders look shrunken half a size, obscured by my blue rain jacket. My new skinny jeans are the smallest size the store had, and even then, my hips have a little breathing room. It’s not too noticeable, but my coffee brown eyes are a bit sunken in, with very faint black lines. My “chicken legs” are disproportionate, with a glob of muscles bulging out on the top of either thigh. My wiry arms hang awkwardly at my sides. I am shaking in the chilly wind that is a hallmark of the D.C. winter and early spring. Despite the damp coldness in the air and my preoccupations with not having my usual running and biking routes at my disposal, I am in my happy place.

Washington, D.C., was always a getaway for me growing up. My mom’s side of the family resided in the quiet suburbs on the Maryland side. My grandmother could blabber for hours when someone asked her about my mom’s childhood. She was a woman of great pride and strength, quietly battling an alcoholic husband for decades while raising four kids and keeping the house. My aunt, Nancy, was one of the most beautiful people I have ever met. She had wavy brown hair, soft eyes and a smile so warm that I couldn’t help but feel happy to see her even when I was miserable. She too had her struggles. She also battled alcoholism, loneliness and memories of a broken childhood.

Each year, as we made the seven-hour drive or a short one-hour flight, I teemed with excited at the prospect of taking the Metro train into Union Station, of walking along the National Mall, visiting the Smithsonian, seeing relatives that were much warmer and friendlier than my dad’s side of the family. D.C. was an escape from the constant anxiety and struggle that was my childhood and teenage years. My mother noticed this. Without saying why, she would arrange early morning flights to Baltimore for just her and me sometimes.

In this picture, I am 15. Standing in front of the Washington Monument, my wavy brown hair just grazing my shoulder blades, the smile on my face is genuine. I am relieved to have a break from the excruciating exercise routine I assigned myself as well as the perpetual calorie counter clicking in my head. I was on vacation, so I figured that I could indulge a little. I knew that once back in Charlotte, I would force myself to work out twice as much and weigh myself three times a day instead of two, eat salads or not much at all, but it was worth it.

During my early teenage years, I got a rush of euphoria when people looked me up and down and remarked, “you’re so skinny.” I thought this was a compliment. Now, at 22, I realize it was less a comment filled with envy or adoration for my body, but more a comment derived from worry and fear for my well-being. Looking at this picture now, I realize just how much my beauty standards have changed.

When my mom snapped this still of me, I couldn’t look in the mirror unless I was drunk, I couldn’t eat a big meal or dessert without feeling worthless and greedy, and I certainly couldn’t go 12 hours without exercising. I thought that beauty was paper-thin. I felt that beauty was superficial and cosmetic and that the only thing that mattered when it came to your likability was your weight. As I have grown and matured, I have realized just how deep beauty goes, and that one’s worth is not solely defined by how many hours they can jog on the treadmill.

Today, it saddens me looking at the boy looking back at me. I no longer have to escape to D.C. to love myself and to treat my body with respect. I no longer live in fear of being fat and ugly and unlovable, for the most part. I feel regret that it took hundreds of dollars and a thousand-mile round trip for me to be able to look into a mirror and whisper, “I love you,” even though it felt at the time like I was yelling. I honestly couldn’t tell you the last time that I weighed myself or Googled a BMI calculator. I am filled with love and pride in my body as I remember my life back then and the progress that I have fought so hard to make these last seven years to know that I am worthy, I am lovable and that I am beautiful, inside and out. It hasn’t been smooth progress, but it has been well worth it. Through years of therapy, a short stint in outpatient rehab and a brief encounter with a support group, I have rediscovered what makes my body perfect and unique. Only I am me, and only I have this body. This temple belongs to me, and the responsibility to keep my temple sacred relies solely on me.

When I was a teenager, I hated myself. Now, happily married and just starting a career that I have dreamed of having for the better half of a decade, I haven’t been back to D.C. since that day. My maternal grandmother and my aunt, who I both loved dearly, have now passed. The voice inside my head that told me I had to run away or escape to be myself is now gone too. D.C. once served as my happy place, a place where I could be whoever I wanted to be and still feel love is no longer needed. It took many years of internal conflict and torment, but I am now in a place, surrounded by people, where I know I can always be who I am meant to be and that I don’t have to starve myself to feel beautiful.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

Image via contributor

Originally published: October 14, 2020
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