Up until a few months ago, I kept a scale underneath my bed. I weighed myself only when I was certain I was alone, though I couldn’t go a day without knowing the number. At night, I would wait until my roommates fell asleep before dragging the instrument out from where I’d hid it, anxious that the squeak of rubber against wood would wake them. Realistically, I knew none of them would have thought twice about the fact that I checked my weight. In a world where healthy women police their bodies compulsively, that I weighed myself in secret was far more unusual than that I owned a scale. But as I steadied my feet on the glass, waiting for the screen to confirm a figure I already knew, few things seemed more humiliating than being caught obsessing over the amount of space my body claimed.
I didn’t want to be smaller. At least, not consciously. And when the numbers kept falling, I panicked. Alone, at three am, I devoured whole chocolate bars (290 calories), Ensure shakes (350 calories), unaware I’d been fasting all day just to permit that private moment of indulgence. In the last weeks before I entered treatment, I frightened myself. It was disgusting, I thought, the way my hip bones jutted out above my jeans, the little caves behind them where water pooled when I showered. The furrows between my ribs, their sharp edges more prominent than anything I could boast for a chest. Sick. I could look at myself for hours.
The first time I entered treatment, I was thirteen years old. I had never been somewhere so full of narcissism, or so full of self-loathing. From nine to five, we talked about nothing but ourselves, the ex-friends and dysfunctional families that were never as cruel as we made them in our minds. There was something intoxicating about hearing your own insecurities from someone else’s lips. We were supposed to be letting go, we knew, but it was so hard not to fall back on the war stories: fainting, feeding tubes, mornings when the endless cycle of fasting and purging made you too weak to get out of bed. I had never experienced these things—not yet in middle school, I knew my parents took pride in having caught my condition before I could catalogue its damages. But I also envied them, these girls with big eyes and knives for cheekbones who had pushed their bodies to the brink and lived to tell the tale.
Twice a day, on “fresh air” breaks, we took the elevator down two floors to stand outside on the Cambridge sidewalk. I was the only one who didn’t smoke, and I learned to love the smell—a grungy mix of recklessness and maturity that always followed us back inside. At one point in my second week, a new group member—a dark-haired boy in his late teens—questioned this shared addiction. “Why do you smoke? It’s so bad for you,” he asked another patient, a doe-eyed blonde who spoke German and wore Nirvana T-shirts with holes above the hem. “Why do you purge? It’s so bad for you,” she retorted. He asked her for a cigarette. I remember watching her exhale smoke in spidery twists like Lux Lisbon and wondering how sickness could look so wise, so pensive, so pretty.
I saw her again, three years later, in a different treatment facility. Halfway through, she left for the substance abuse unit: she had been fighting heroin addiction. She returned to our unit only at mealtimes, so the nurses could monitor her intake. I admired her from afar, amazed at how one human being could harbor so much pain.
I entered treatment a final time last winter. I had been dropping weight for months, chugging liters of water before doctors’ appointments to cover up the loss. When five pounds became twenty-five, however, it was more difficult to fool the scale. In wool sweaters and metal bracelets, I refilled a 32-oz bottle until I grew nauseous, and a sharp pain near my kidney made me anxious about drinking more. I was, I realized, beyond the point of faking health, and this was somehow more frightening than simply knowing I was sick. By the time the scale blew my cover, I had already called a clinic.
I can count on one hand the number of people who knew I had an eating disorder. Again and again, I told myself I wasn’t ashamed of my condition, railed openly against the notion that mental illness was weakness. Yet alone, waiting for a McCosh nurse to usher me in and take my weight, I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed by what the disorder had made of me.
Eating disorders are often construed as a feminist issue. Many journalists, most notably Naomi Wolf, have interpreted the rise of underweight models and subsequent spike in eating disorder rates in the early 1990s as a backlash against the progress of feminist movements in the 1970s and 80s— an effort by the male-dominated media to put women back in their place by making them as small as possible. I was a feminist. I loathed the feeble, vacant-eyed models and and “health” magazines that made me count calories, check for space between my thighs, attach any measure of self-worth to a number on a scale. I wrote papers on the construction of female weakness as beauty, wrote articles on the tyranny of the diet industry in women’s media. I hated it, and I hated how desperately I clung to it.
Yet more than that, I hated the selfishness of it. The way it made me dwell for hours on what I’d eaten for breakfast, agonizing over whether I’d ingested a quarter-cup too much cereal or over-measured the six ounces of soymilk I’d poured into it. I canceled plans with friends to eat in secret, where I could shamelessly gorge on simple carbohydrates after a day of aspartame. I hated the pleasure I got from scrutinizing my own image in the bathroom mirror, noticing new bones where I didn’t know I had them. I was vain, endlessly, hopelessly obsessed with what I knew intellectually to be a superficial and inconsequential part of my identity.
There is no shame in mental illness. But is there shame in being duped by popular media? By models you know to be airbrushed and diet ads you know to be lies? Is there shame in buying into a system against all your best instincts, in being an educated woman still seduced by images of female pain? And is there shame in internalizing all of this, counting your ribs in the mirror, enamored with your own sickness?
Last spring, I went to a support group for students who had struggled or were currently struggling with eating disorders at Princeton. The conversation was immensely frustrating. As we went around, sharing stories, I found I was the only student who had been in any kind of inpatient treatment, and the only student who had struggled for more than a few years. The prevailing narrative was one all too dominant in tabloids and TV shows: I wanted to be thin. I starved myself (and/or threw up) until I was thin. I realized sickness isn’t worth something as superficial as a totally arbitrary, sexist standard of beauty, so I started eating again.
This understanding of eating disorders is not only incomplete, but also casts those who haven’t recovered as somehow shallow and unenlightened. It’s true that eating disorders are often inextricable from the social context in which they’ve developed; sociologists have drawn clear links between eating disorder rates and the emergence of underweight models in popular media. But if all recovery took was recognizing that there was more to life than physical appearances, anorexia would not have the highest death rate of any mental illness.
I couldn’t tell you what, exactly, it was that eventually let me let go, any more than I could tell you what sparked the disorder in the first place. Part of it, for sure, was abandoning a desire for thinness. But most of it was simply being willing to sit with intense physical and psychological discomfort until what had initially seemed excruciating became tolerable. It meant waking up at seven thirty to eat two meals and a snack before noon; chugging Ensure Plus before bed until you felt so bloated you could hardly move. It meant gas and heat flashes; waking up in the middle of the night soaked with sweat because your metabolism is confused to the point that you eat over 3,000 calories a day and still lose weight. It meant peeing in front of strangers because you can’t be trusted in the bathroom alone.
Dialectical behavioral therapy divides the mind into three parts. There is a rational component (“rational mind”), an emotional component (“emotional mind”), and a state in between the two, called “wise mind,” which blends elements of both. For years, I thought about my disorder only in rational terms, frustrated and perplexed as to why I held on so tightly to behaviors and beliefs I knew to be damaging. But if there’s anything I’ve learned about these diseases, it’s that they aren’t rational things. And neither is recovery. In the end, I made it through—and no amount of thinking would have made it easier.