Content Warning: This column explores disordered eating practices in detail. If you believe you struggle with disordered eating or an eating disorder, call or text the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 800-931-2237.
It was a weeknight early in the pandemic, and I was sitting in my apartment, alone, sobbing because one of my favorite shirts no longer fit.
The shirt was a silky, button-up shirt I bought from Kohl’s a lifetime ago. It was my confidence shirt, the one I wore to scholarship interviews and presentations.
And it no longer fit.
My weight gain wasn’t an overnight occurrence. The number on the scale had been going up steadily, with a sharp increase around the end of my freshman year at Franklin College. If I were to track my weight gain on a chart, it would start there, and trend parallel to my growing workload and encounters with new life challenges.
In January, I joined Hannah Adams Ingram to unpack diet culture and its damaging trends after we published a powerful interview with The Rev. Heidi C. Heath, a religious leader working to undo diet culture’s hold on lives and organizations.
I opened up in my reflection with Adams Ingram about a few of my struggles with weight and self-image, starting with the intermittent fasting I tried at the start of this year. It was something I never really wanted to do but a practice I convinced myself would be the way to get my old body back: The costume I wore in high school, small and thin and, as I saw it, more beautiful.
It started simple enough. I went without eating for a full 24 hours, from dinner the night before to dinner the next day, after doing some cursory research on the practice. I repeated this every other day for the two weeks. At the beginning, I felt good—but not great. I subsisted on water and black coffee. By the end of the first week, I was moody, restless and exhausted all at once.
I realize now I felt so terrible because I decided to engage in disordered eating practices, apart from medical advice and to appease my own insecurities. I felt myself falling back into old habits of restricting my eating, something I did a lot in high school but didn’t realize was damaging until I saw the other side, a place where food energizes and empowers. Soon enough, though, I was out of the middle ground to the other extreme, bingeing out of stress and anxiety late into the evening, snacking just to cope with the chaos of living.
I’m off the intermittent fasting, restrictions and overeating now, and have started to reflect more on the younger me I so prized, the size 0 me. Why did I cherish that body, one better suited for a child than for a woman?
Eileen Misluk, director of art therapy at the Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis and a practicing art therapist specializing in eating disorders, said many of the messages around body image, diet restriction, and food can start impacting people—but girls especially—as early as age 10 or 11.
It’s around this time when some girls begin menstruating and experiencing the first signs of puberty, which can include weight gain and hormonal bloating. Pediatricians then might diagnose a girl with obesity and prescribe a diet or exercise routine, which families go on to enforce at home.
It’s dangerous but common thinking, Misluk said, that can lead to pre-teens exhibiting signs of full-fledged eating disorders that follow them through adulthood. And it’s these ideas she now works to unpack as an art therapist, where practices like painting and journaling can help to separate harmful ideas from our own worth.
“When we can use the creative process, it allows us the experience to be outside ourselves,” Misluk said about her work.
While I’ve never done art therapy, I have benefited from counseling and my own self-reflections on image and self-esteem. I’ve had to find ways, as Misluk describes, to separate my assumptions, my fears, and all the internalized messages about my body from what really matters: The truth of my intrinsic worth. My talents. And listening to what my body truly needs when it comes to food, exercise and wellness.
Our culture often projects conflicting messages about the value of appearance over spirit, the value of weight over health and wellness.
“Changing the way we even talk about food matters,” Misluk said. “So, I say I use food as fuel. I use food as nourishment.”
If you’re in a space where you’re questioning your body, the solutions won’t be simple. It requires work and outside help to undo years of harmful thinking.
Start by re-evaluating your goals: What makes your body feel good? What makes you feel healthy, confident? Are you really craving a thinner body, or are you craving a desire that often underlies that—more movement and exercise, for example, or clothes that fit and help you feel confident.
Then, go to the professionals. College is a stressful period and when many eating disorders and disordered eating practices can unfurl, Misluk said. So, visit the Franklin College counseling center and get connected with free, professional help.
And at the end of the night, when it’s just you and the mirror, affirm your worth.
Your body is powerful. Your body is beautiful.
And at the end of it all, your body is yours.