Yet Another StatisticMy Unremarkable Eating Disorder
© Copyright 2021 by Helen Ruhlin
This is a real story about an eating disorder that I experienced as a young adult. While writing about such an experience has now contributed to my recovery and ability to come to terms with my struggles, it is not suitable for everyone to read. Please note that this piece touches on potentially triggering subjects such as body dysmorphia, anorexia, disordered eating, and exercise addiction. If you, like so many of us, relate to my story or know someone who does, please seek help, whatever that looks like for you.
Allow me to save you some emotional buildup and start right in with the bold statement that you’d normally find halfway down the page, at the end of a sappy anecdote, or in the final sentence of a cathartic conclusion: I have, and still do, struggle with my body image. I’m not in love with my physique, not infatuated with my appearance and I don’t think that makes me special. According to Single Care, there are currently over 30 million diagnosed eating disorders in the United States. With stats like that I believe you’d be hard pressed to find any female between the ages of 10 and 40 who hasn’t suffered from some similar form of body dysmorphia or disordered eating.
Like most of us who are able to delay the onslaught of self-confidence issues, I spent my first 16 years of life unconcerned with the person who looked back at me in the mirror. My parents had always insisted on what a beautiful girl I was and that was a strong enough argument for me. I ate pastries, pasta, and candy almost exclusively as a child and drank juice and sugary lemonade with a reckless abandon.
As far as I was concerned, food was not categorically good nor bad, it was simply the gas that fueled my play dates with friends.
I remember always being petite too. Whether it was the year-round athletics or lucky genes that put me in the tenth weight percentile––growing in size felt like a goal, not a fear.
That is until I did start getting bigger. Albeit delayed, I finally “became a woman” by my late sophomore year in high school, and the bodily curves that followed began to impact my performance in sports, particularly track and field. When I was 14, I ran a record-breaking two miles in 11 minutes and 58 seconds.
By age 16, I could hardly break 13 minutes.
“Your body is just different this season, it happens. Your legs have to move more weight around the track than they used to,” I remember my coach saying.
That didn’t fly with me. Overnight I had gone from a blissful existence with zero regard for macros or muscle, to a malleable figure that mutated with each calorie consumed or mile run.
With college came a reversion to the familiar sense of carelessness that I had thrived on growing up. Dining hall waffles became a regular dinner and pizza slices served as side dishes on my plate rather than main courses. I don’t recall using the term “Freshman 15,” but I do remember realizing that my lack of exercise and nutrition was beginning to show. My Friday-night skinny jeans got tighter, I started buckling my bras on the third clasp instead of the first, and my formerly toned biceps slowly lost their definition.
I needed a solution, and fast.
It wasn’t long before I discovered that cutting dinner made the alcohol at parties hit me faster, that skipping breakfast made the lump occupying my lower stomach less distended.
Things that had formerly repulsed me like low-fat Greek yogurt and unsweetened green tea suddenly became part of my daily ritual, a routine I was terrified to stray from. I ate nothing without consulting a nutrition label first and avoided eating out with friends, throwing them my best excuses:
I’d love to grab Chipotle,
already ate at Bartol!” “I’m
a little broke at the moment, I’d
better stay in.”
“My stomach’s actually not feeling too well, maybe next time!”
Then there was the gym. Neatly located but a three minute’s walk from my dorm room, I began working out once, oftentimes twice a day... every day. My mind that once swirled with ideas for short stories and movie plots transformed into a clock and a calculator, only concerned with time elapsed, distance traveled, and calories burned on the elliptical.
The cardio took serious tolls on my body. Walking made my hips ache and menstruation slipped away as if I were 15 again. I went one month, two months, three––eventually six months without a period. I never weighed myself back then. It wasn’t a number I was concerned with reaching, it was a shape. I wanted so badly to be a tinier and tinier version of myself, a space I could both occupy and control. The exercise caused my heart rate to dip dangerously low: somewhere in the 40s during the day and dropping to the 20s at night. Bradycardia. I treated the EKG scans, heart monitors, and blood tests as if they were completely unrelated to the way I was treating my body.
I disregarded concerns from doctors and family with a smile.
If I act like things are okay, everyone will think I am too. Fake it ‘til you make it, right?
I wish I could say there was a moment in which I pulled myself from the death grips of my eating disorder, a defined instant where I turned everything around, but there wasn’t. I returned home from college for an extended winter break that year and unmiraculously fell out of tune with the toxic rhythm of starving myself and over exercising. I began indulging in nightly cake slices with my mom, forwent the gym for leisurely walks in the woods, and ultimately gave in.
And I know how odd that sounds, giving in, but that’s exactly how it felt. I had failed to achieve the one thing I wanted most.
The bit that my family and confidantes seem to want to know at this point, is where it all began. What causes eating disorders? Alas, the rooted sources of insecurities are rarely so cut and dry. It wasn’t a person, or a place, or an event, or even a thing that motivated me to start looking at myself differently.
I had a wonderful upbringing, and a network of people who put me on a pedestal growing up, who made me feel beautiful inside and out. But as a member of Generation Z, I was raised by the television too. I grew up surrounded by round-the-clock media that told me one thing: I was missing something. The magazine photos, commercials, reality series and social media ads were constant reminders that I wasn’t good enough. My short legs, cleft chin, strong shoulders, and hip dips didn’t fit the bill for the 21st century’s definition of beautiful.
By my teen years, I had passively consumed so many unrealistic presentations of the female figure that I hardly recognized the way my thoughts on normal body proportions had shifted––a losing battle from the start. No matter how closely I tried (and still try) to mirror the bodies and faces that epitomize perfection, I will never be satiated. The corporations who represent unattainable body standards in media are in the business of keeping consumers dissatisfied.
I mean, if we all accepted ourselves exactly the way we were, why would we watch TV? Why would we shop at Victoria’s Secret or follow Kylie Jenner on Instagram?
My eating disorder was manufactured by toxic media, the inevitable result of a successful marketing algorithm.
Helen Ruhlin is a 21-year-old writer who recently graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from Simmons University in Boston, MA. Ruhlin is originally from Cornish, ME and has always been incredibly fond of storytelling across a wide range of media from writing and videography, to fine arts, animation, podcasting and just about everything in between. Not necessarily sure of which particular career path she wishes to pursue at this point in time, Ruhlin is currently a seasonal worker on Monhegan Island and plans to travel in a similar fashion for the next year or so while writing about her experiences.