Before reading this piece, I feel that it is important to introduce the content of this photo essay. Trigger warnings include: eating disorders, unhealthy weight loss and unhealthy body image. I am not a registered healthcare professional; what I am about to share is simply what I have learned over the course of my struggle with an eating disorder and my recovery journey. The photos featured are meals that I made for myself this semester while eating intuitively; I didn’t count my calories or measure my food. I simply ate when I was hungry and ate what I wanted. This essay is meant to be a celebration of food. For years, I was scared of food and viewed it as my enemy. But food is meant to be celebrated. It keeps us alive and it’s meant to be a source of pleasure, memories and so much more. It is not meant to be tracked, weighed or stressed over.
I’ve had a disordered relationship with food for as long as I can remember.
As a child, I was pretty large compared to most kids. I was tall and held on to weight more than other children my age. I felt uncomfortable in my own body; it seemed like every other girl my age was so thin. I felt like I didn’t belong both physically and socially, and I would go on to spend years of my life taking extreme measures in an attempt to shrink myself so I could physically fit in. In my mind, if I could fit in physically, I would fit in socially as well. The two were mutually exclusive. I genuinely thought that I was not worth loving because I wasn’t a size 0.
Growing up, I played a lot of sports. Being one of the slower members on the team didn’t stop me from having fun, at least at the beginning. After a while, it got old being one of the last people to finish our basketball conditioning workouts. Every time our coach had us line up, my heart would sink to my stomach. I wasn’t necessarily the last person to finish but I sure felt like I was. The coach screaming at me to be faster, better, in my head was screaming at me: you would be better if you lost weight, you will never be good enough at the size you are. That is something I told myself every day for most of my life. Because I was so self conscious about my size, I would take anything that anyone said to me about my performance as something that had to do with my weight. In reality, most of the time it probably wasn’t. Nevertheless, exercise, especially in a group or school setting, became an anxiety inducing experience and led to a very negative relationship with exercise for years to come.
Starting in elementary school, I have distinct memories of wanting to be “healthier,” cutting out all “bad” foods in an attempt to take up as little space in this world as possible. I had convinced myself – no, diet culture had convinced me – that the only way to be healthy was to be as thin as humanly possible. So I truly thought that by restricting myself I would automatically become healthy. What I didn’t realize was that I began to assign moral values to food. Carbs are bad, vegetables are good, etc. And eating desserts meant that I didn’t have the willpower to stay thin and be the type of beautiful that society expected me to be.
There are extremely dangerous messages being advertised everywhere, everyday, that are harming young, growing girls. If the only “beautiful” women that I saw on TV and in movies were a size zero, of course that became my default standard of beauty.
Later, in elementary school and middle school, I would have times where I would obsess over eating absolutely no dessert or anything that the media deemed “not healthy.” Then, after a short while, the cravings became too intense to bear and I wound binge eat. I ate anything I could get my hands on in an attempt to fill my emotional need to feel like I was enough for society, to feel like the beautiful person that I am. I would eat a whole bag of chips and not even remember eating it. Food became my medication. It was always there when I needed it. I would sneak food and hide it around the house so my parents wouldn’t know what I was eating.
These cycles are actually quite common (I would like to point out that just because they are common does not mean that they are healthy – they are not healthy). It is commonly referred to as the “restrict and binge” cycle. When someone feels “fat,” sad, powerless, etc., they either cut out food groups or restrict overall food intake in an attempt to take control of those feelings. This restriction then leads to intense hunger and an unhealthy obsession over food that usually leads to binge eating. Then, after a binge, they feel guilty and ashamed that they let themselves lose control, so they restrict again. The cycle continues over and over again.
I dieted on and off for many years but I distinctly remember my first official fad diet. The summer between 8th grade and high school, I embarked on the 21 Day Fix. I was determined to get the body of my dreams, to get rid of every ounce of fat on my stomach. I was going to be in high school and I wanted to feel pretty. I wanted to feel like I was enough for someone to love. After all, I didn’t look a certain way so why would I have been worthy of the same kind of romantic love others my age were beginning to experience? The 21 Day Fix advertised getting my dream body in just 21 days. Who wouldn’t want that? I had different color coded containers, each one a different size, for different food groups that my meals had to fit into. If it didn’t fit into the container, I was not supposed to eat it. I stuck to the diet to the extreme. I attended a tennis camp during those 21 days, and the coaches would hand out starbursts to everyone at lunch time. I wouldn’t take one. Let that sink in for a moment. I wouldn’t let myself eat one starburst because I was so determined to be skinny. The 21 days passed. I was tired and undernourished. I did lose some weight but when I looked at myself in the mirror, I looked essentially the same. I was so incredibly discouraged. I remember binging for days after.
I didn’t learn this lesson at the time, but fad diets are not sustainable. You physically cannot make extreme changes to your body in such short amounts of time. Sustainable, healthy weight loss takes time, patience and lifestyle choices that should be maintainable for the rest of your life. There are no shortcuts. The advertised “skinny” coffee/tea/gummies are all a lie. You will not lose weight from taking any of those advertised diet pills. All those products do is make you have diarrhea. Diet culture is a multi-billion dollar industry, profiting off of our insecurities. They have so much power and influence because we as a society have given it to them. We think that everything in our lives will fall into place if we just had a six pack. I learned this the hard way: if you hate yourself when you are “overweight,” you are still going to hate yourself when you are thin.
“I wouldn’t let myself eat one starburst because I was so determined to be skinny.”
For the first few years of high school, I continued the same restricting and binging patterns. One of my very close friends in high school said it best: “You either eat really, really clean, or really, really bad.” Both she and I didn’t realize that my behavior was disordered. Every day I was so focused on food. I was always thinking about it. Either thinking about how I shouldn’t have eaten that cookie earlier, or obsessing over what I would eat later in the day. When I turned 16 and had a car, that provided new sources of binging. I would go get food after school, eat shamefully in my car and hide the wrappers in a dumpster so no one would know what I had eaten.
But the first few years of high school were not just filled with darkness. I was finally coming out of my shell. For the first time in my life, I also was learning how to love myself. I started to grow happier and more confident. But with learning how to love myself at the size I was came some more intense binges. It was a different type of binge; it was me eating whatever I wanted to the extreme because I was trying to love myself and wanted to eat, so I did. It was more of a screw you to the world. “You’re telling me that I shouldn’t eat to fit your beauty standards, so I will eat whatever I want!” While my relationship with my body was slowly beginning to heal, my relationship with food was circling the drain.
Spring of my junior year of high school was when my relationship with food hit rock bottom. I didn’t realize how much weight I had gained until I made a video for a class and I didn’t recognize myself. The binging had gotten more out of control than it ever had before. I decided right then that I wanted to make a change. I wanted to be healthy, for real this time. I was equipped with more knowledge than I had before. I knew I had to make consistent changes over a long period of time. I didn’t have to cut out any foods that I loved, I just had to eat them in moderation.
There are very safe and healthy ways to maintain a slight calorie deficit. Unfortunately, I took it to the extreme, not knowing it was the extreme. I downloaded the app LoseIt! which allows you to set a weight loss goal and track your calories for every meal of the day. I placed my goal weight to be in the healthy BMI range (which actually isn’t an accurate predictor of health). I wanted to get there as fast as I could, so I slid the calories allowed per day to be around 1,200. I was very disciplined. I stuck to the restrictions. I was able to because this time the diet was different: I was doing it out of love for myself. Yes, it was unhealthy, but I didn’t know that at the time. I wanted to be able to be as active as my friends were and not get so winded all the time. I wanted to take care of myself and set healthy habits for the rest of my life. Although what I did was very dangerous, the motivation was self-love, not self-hatred like the times I had tried to lose weight before. I had convinced myself that this was healthy. It wasn’t until over a year later that I realized that wasn’t healthy.
Food became a number to me. I would open the fridge and the inside looked like a spreadsheet. Still to this day, I can tell you the number of calories in most foods. I tracked every single piece of food I ate. If I was going out with friends for dinner, I would not eat the entire day because I wanted to eat a lot of fun foods and I didn’t want to go over my calorie limit for the day. Every single day, I would wake up and weigh myself and record it in my app. Bodyweight is a very trivial tracker of progress. It fluctuates a lot, especially for women depending on where we are in our menstrual cycle. So whenever I noticed one of these small fluctuations, I would freak out. My whole self worth began to revolve around what the scale said each morning.
What’s scariest to me about that time in my life was not my behavior. It’s that everyone around me thought that what I was doing was healthy since I was losing weight. Everyone around me was so proud; I was actually making changes in my life that were visible to others. In reality, I was eating the amount of calories recommended for a toddler as a high school student during tennis season. It got so bad that at matches I would feel light headed and sick because I was not letting myself eat. I would cry at night because I was so hungry.
But I still wouldn’t let myself eat. In less than three months, I lost 25 pounds and reached my goal. That is not a safe pace to lose weight. While I was the most active I had ever been and in the best shape of my life, my relationship with food was at its lowest point. But even after I lost the weight, I still had the same insecurities. My concern with how I looked and making sure I didn’t look “fat” in pictures was at an all time high. That alone goes to show that losing weight is not the key to happiness. If you hate yourself at the size that you are, you will still find things to hate about yourself if you are thin.
Senior year of high school, I still tracked everything I ate, but now at maintenance calories. I gained back about 10 pounds over the course of a year. After the intense weight loss, my body naturally gained weight even eating at caloric maintenance. The human body is not designed to lose weight; it takes the weight loss as a sign that something is wrong. So after a severe caloric deficit period, the human body naturally wants to put more weight back on. During that period of extreme restriction, my body was starving and it went into survival mode after I finally let myself eat again.
In the summer before college, I saw an advertisement at my local gym for discounted personal training sessions. I used to have panic attacks any time I would enter a gym in high school, and this felt like a great opportunity to overcome that fear. For the first time, I loved working out and conditioning. I got in shape and stuck with it. Now I’m the healthiest I have ever been because of it. Working out in public on a regular basis was a huge change for me. Just a month before, I would have laughed if someone told me I would love working out. I don’t train to be skinny or to have abs. I train for strength and out of self love. And my body can tell. When you exercise doing something that you don’t enjoy, it is scientifically proven that your body releases negative endorphins during it, so finding movement that you truly enjoy is a key to a healthy lifestyle. There is no right or wrong way to exercise. Exercising out of self love is a much different experience than exercising out of hatred for yourself. Being able to exercise is a gift, yet so many people view it as a chore when it doesn’t have to be.
“I would cry at night because I was so hungry.”
My freshman year of college, I trained consistently and was in a healthy caloric deficit to lose the 10 pounds that I had gained back after the initial loss. My relationship with food was improving, but I still had binging episodes. I still was hyper focused on food all the time. I still had a genuine fear of gaining back the weight. I even had nightmares about it. I gained a new confidence that I had never had before, but there is a dark side to training. I started to fall back into old habits, thinking that I was only in shape and strong if I had visible abs, or that people wouldn’t respect me unless I looked like a fitness influencer. In reality, a lot of female fitness influencers are so thin that they don’t even get their period. But, yet again, diet culture views them as the only picture of health. Healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes; weight is not necessarily an indicator of health.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a reality check. My issues with food came to the forefront: there were no other distractions. I was terrified of gaining weight. Shortly after we were sent home in April, the University of Michigan sent a mental health survey for students to take, and my results indicated that I had a severely disordered relationship with food.
That news hit me hard. All those years, I never knew I had an eating disorder. I realized how my whole life had been controlled by food. I decided right then: no more. I couldn’t let myself live like this anymore. It terrified me. I thought if I stopped tracking what I ate, I would instantly gain all the weight back and go back to the dark, unhealthy, self-loathing state I was in in highschool. Giving myself unconditional permission to eat whatever I wanted and to allow myself to trust my hunger signals is one of the hardest things that I have ever done. I know it sounds simple, but it was and is a real struggle every day.
By letting go, I discovered the unimaginable. My seemingly never ending obsession with food started to wither away. By giving myself permission to eat whatever I wanted, my obsession with food no longer had the power to control me. The human brain is wired to react this way; telling ourselves we can’t have something makes us want it even more, which explains the intense cravings and binge urges that many people experience.
I stopped tracking, stopped weighing myself and gradually stopped binging. I ate to take care of myself by eating nutrient dense foods and lots of fun stuff, too. Ultimately, COVID-19 was the push I needed to start eating intuitively. All that time alone in my house forced me to face the binging head on. I was hungry for something more than food. I began to experience a much deeper form of self-love. I slowly started to trust myself again. Throughout this journey, I have realized that my body type, no matter how much weight I lose, will not be a size zero. And that’s okay! Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and how we look is mostly genetic. I love myself and all of my curves.
Now, I am strong and in the best shape of my life. I haven’t weighed myself in over a year. I haven’t tracked anything I have eaten in 9 months. I haven’t binged in a year. And ironically, after rejecting diet culture and loving myself at whatever size and letting go of tracking, I am the smallest I have ever been (I do not care about this but I wanted to mention it as more proof how diet culture is a sham). I am still in recovery and have back slides. But progress is not linear. I will have a complicated relationship with food for the rest of my life. I am currently living like I never have before: with freedom. I no longer wake up and obsess over food for the whole day. I have gained late night pizza outings with friends and zero guilt. I can enjoy delicious food on holidays with family and do so much more. In 25 years, you are not going to look back and remember what you ate, you are going to remember the memories of spending time with your loved ones.
I still keep a scale in my apartment on campus just to remind myself of the power that I hold over it, just like it used to hold over me. Eating disorders are a very sensitive topic and one that people are very hesitant to talk about. That’s why I wanted to share my story. If this helps one person, the vulnerability will be worth it. Please love and nourish your body today. You only get one. Be gentle.
For anyone out there who needs to hear this: “No matter what you ate yesterday, you deserve to eat today.”
Senior Photography Editor Julia Schachinger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.