There's this thing that most people don't know about me. I'm extremely body conscious. Along with all other things I worry about, body image is one of those extra things that adds to my complex pile life issues (enter eye roll here). I don't think I ever had a real issue with how I looked until I overheard my father, maybe jokingly, discussing my weight with a friend of his as we were walking to the community swimming pool. I had to be about 13 or so, and about 89 pounds soaking wet. I heard someone whisper that my arms were the size of a mosquito, someone else said something about me being able to hula hoop with a Cheerio. I knew that I was skinny but it never bothered me until I got into my teens. And now I was about to go to the swimming pool and get practically naked in front of people who obviously thought that my thin frame was somehow... wrong? Unhealthy? Ugly? I wasn't sure. I just knew I didn't feel very good about what was about to happen. I didn't go swimming that day. As I got older, I held onto that feeling. I don't know why that moment was the moment that stuck with me. It's a vivid memory as if it happened yesterday. I believe it was at that moment that I became very aware of how much food I was eating, and whether or not I would ever gain weight. When I got dressed, I would layer clothes so that people wouldn't see how small I was (or so I thought), and when people asked me why I was so skinny, I would try to think of something intelligent to say. "I'm anemic, wait... I have a blood disorder that causes me to be small... wait, wait, my mom.... dad? is skinny?" The truth was I wasn't sure. All I knew is that it seemed to matter a whole lot to other people, so it had to be important.
I joined the Army National Guard during my senior year of high school and was told that I was "underweight", which means you're too tall to be this thin, or vice versa. I'm still not sure. I remember standing on the scale and weighing 98 pounds. I was 18 then. One of the soldiers said, "you have to weigh at least 100 pounds." I stood there, wondering what I should do to gain instant weight because they were not about to send me home after everything I did to get here (will tell that story later). The soldier said, "Here, eat these and drink as much water as you can. Don't pee, don't throw up." He hands me a bunch of bananas. It's a good thing I liked bananas. I weighed 101 pounds at the end of that humiliating experience. Throughout boot camp, I was served extra portions at each meal. My drill instructors checked to see if my plate was empty. I was basically forced to eat more food than I normally would. At a time when I felt out of control, I found that refusing to eat was one thing I had control over. Nobody can actually force you to eat. Never in my life had I been forced to eat and I wasn't about to let those people be the first to start... enter Disordered Eating.
"According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-Text Revision), disordered eating is defined as 'a wide range of irregular eating behaviors that do not warrant a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder.'" Click here to learn more about disordered eating and eating disorders.
I continued this habit and found power in being able to control at least one thing in my life. I know it sounds crazy, but it was comforting to know that I had enough willpower to refrain from eating even when I was hungry. At some point, I would get so hungry that I would have to eat any and everything. Due to my limited income and lack of reliable transportation, those binges usually consisted of unhealthy foods. Since I never really gained or lost enough weight to worry anyone, nobody ever said anything. I was able to keep up this unhealthy habit for years... believing that controlling my food intake directly correlated with being able to control other issues in life.
After having children, things only got worse. I was in college by then and people I didn't even know would go out of their way to call me "beanpole" and "sickly looking". They would say, "maybe you will gain weight after you have babies..." by then I had birthed two children. Life became more stressful, and between emotional turmoil and limited funds, I began limiting food more often. I never thought I had an eating disorder because it wasn't something that was discussed in the Black community. I've always heard of white girls with bulimia, and I wasn't purging... so I wasn't sick. And that's what I decided to go with. My story, sticking with it. It wasn't until I started nursing school that an instructor asked me very pointedly, "Are you anorexic?"
"Ma'am?", was the only response I could come up with.
"Are YOU anorexic? Do you look in the mirror and see a fat person?"
Well, we were standing in a group of about 15 students, and I was standing on the scale, I was about 26 years old, probably 105-110 pounds. I had 3 children by this time. I was a grown woman, married, with children, a homeowner... and I was standing there, humiliated. I was definitely aware that I was skinny, never looked in the mirror and saw someone that was fat.
"Ma'am?", I repeated. Why couldn't I think of anything else to say?
"Does this line of questioning upset you?" She asked, just as pointedly. I shook my head 'no'. Inside I was screaming, "YES, YOU HORRIBLE WOMAN!"
"No, ma'am. I'm not anorexic." I managed to mutter. Even though I wasn't sure! I didn't know. Maybe?
"Very well, you can get off the scale. Make sure you eat." She wrote something on her tablet.
"Yes, ma'am." (Snickers could be heard around the room.)
Then there was the matter of PUBLIC EATING. One night my husband and I had a retirement banquet to attend. Eating in public had become my absolute least favorite thing to do. (It still is. I hate how people watch my plate. If I don't eat all of my food, people say, "Well, that's how you stay so skinny." In reality, I just probably didn't like the dish very much. If I do eat all of my food, then I have to hear, "How do you stay so skinny and eat like that?" Sigh. So there IS no winning.) I got dressed and went to the stupid restaurant for the stupid dinner. There was a huge fish tank, and I just watched the fish swim back and forth. My plate came, I ate. I ate it all. That night I wanted to prove to myself (and the stupid people at the table) that I wasn't anorexic. So I ate it all. By the last bite, I realized I should not have eaten it all. I felt terrible. The lady next to me asked me how I stayed so skinny eating like that (enter look of disgust here). I wanted to go to the bathroom or go outside just to get away from the table. The room was getting hot. I needed to breathe. I thought, "If I go to the bathroom, this woman is going to think I'm purging." So I sat there, nearly about to puke and pass out in my now empty plate, praying for the dinner party to end, or for my husband to realize I needed to leave.
I could go on and on, but I'll fast forward to the current time. I am in counseling because, well, I need it. I was talking with my counselor a couple of weeks ago and she suddenly said, "You're losing weight." It was odd because I thought I had been gaining weight. I hadn't stepped on a scale in awhile, so I wasn't even sure if she was right or not. I started to defend myself and she says, "You're anorexic. And you know it." Well, she was kinda right. I'm not exactly anorexic. Over the years I have kinda figured out I have EDNOS or Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. This means that I display characteristics of different types of eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia, but not enough to be diagnosed with one or the other. I haven't seen a psychiatrist (yet) to get a firm diagnosis, but I'm pretty certain and have begun working on ways to recover. To learn more about EDNOS, check the link embedded in the next paragraph.
The terms Eating Disorder or Disordered eating still aren't buzz words in the Black community. I am hard pressed to find someone who looks like me that will actually listen to me when I want to discuss my issues. I get, "I wish I had your problem" or "You can wear anything" or "You just have a fast metabolism", etc. In a culture that uses food to celebrate, mourn, and all things in between, it's difficult to find someone that truly understands where I'm coming from. In case there's anyone out there that's having the same problem I'm having, read this. And know that you're not alone. - Nikky Def