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One spinach smoothie. Two rice cakes with hummus and sliced tomato. One part-skim mozzarella string cheese. Half a cup of applesauce...
The list ran through my head in a repetitive mantra. It was 3:30 p.m., and the list tracked everything I had eaten that day. After four months of foamy lattes and ciabatta rolls in Europe, followed by two more months of more or less constant nibbling on desserts in my sorority house, an unfamiliar layer of fat had accumulated around my stomach, butt, and thighs.
I hated it.
When I arrived home for spring break, I slipped into a dress that I had purchased during my first year of college. The event was only two weeks away; it was a fraternity's Parents Formal, so I was nervous enough about meeting my date's folks that I hadn't given much thought to what I would wear. When I turned to look at myself in the mirror, the dress wasn't quite what I had envisioned. The clingy navy fabric revealed the bulge of my bottom half -- always on the rounder side of the spectrum, but now pushing the limit of what I deemed attractive. Biting my lip, I slid out of the dress and for the first time in months looked at myself in my full-length mirror. Where there used to be bones, there were now bulges.
The possibility of weight gain hadn't occurred to me in December, when I woke up in Prague on the cold morning after my 21st birthday. My best friend and I took turns pulling pieces from a flaky pastry filled with sour yogurt and berries as we roamed the city's serpentine streets, squinting in the dazzling sunlight as occasional snowflakes settled in our hair. The sky darkened as we explored Prague's castle, and we sipped svařák (mulled wine) and crunched on trdelník, a hollow pastry roasted over glowing coals and rolled in nuts and big grains of sugar. We lunched on roast pork, roast duck, bread dumplings, and buttery cabbage, all drowned in creamy sauce. On our way to bars that night, we grabbed kielbasa stuffed with soft cloves of garlic, gleaming with grease. That night, I let a Russian boy buy me beer after beer, not worrying about anything but keeping track of who needed to drink more. It was a liberating trip full of feasting with abandon, in stark contrast to the younger days we spent marveling at the low calorie content of that king of all diet foods, the grapefruit.
The next morning, sitting on the floor in a corner of Tesco, I gingerly swallowed more pastries, a banana, and a liter of water, moaning occasionally and avoiding eye contact with a parent who pulled his young son a little closer as they passed. But even in my hour of hungover agony, I had no calorie-related regrets. I still wake up with a fierce ache in my heart, wishing to be back in Prague and reliving those deliciously adventurous days.
Legitimate weight gain -- the kind where you can't pull your old jeans over your thighs -- is a first for me. I've spent plenty of mornings in front of the mirror, eyeing some skin that threatened to turn flubbery at any moment. The longer I stared, the worse I looked, as if the pounds expanded before my very eyes. My self-scrutiny began in the fourth grade, in a hard plastic chair and the semi-chaotic aftermath of recess. As the kids around me laughed and chattered, I glanced down into my lap as I absent-mindedly swung my legs and felt a wave of shame when I noticed for the very first time the way my thighs spread to touch one another in a pool of pale skin that spilled from the hem of my denim shorts. Long before the term "thigh gap" had entered my vocabulary, I tried to disguise my naturally plump thighs with exercise, dietary changes, and (once, disastrously) plaid pants. I used to join my hands in a circle, touching my thumbs and my middle fingers together, and slide them up my thigh to measure how close I was to my ideal body.
I made the unwanted acquaintance of anorexia and bulimia during the 10th grade. Like two mean girls, the disorders bullied my friends until they passed out in class, became skeletally thin, or shivered uncontrollably even under layers of sweaters. I took my fear of those extreme examples with me to a month-long summer camp before my senior year of high school. Fearful of gaining a premature freshman fifteen from the cafeteria food, I strictly maintained a diet of salads and coffee. I dropped around 10 pounds in just four weeks. Looking back at the photos now, I realize how gaunt I looked, but at the time all I knew was that for the first time in my life, back to school shopping meant trying on clothes that looked so good on my newly slim body.
My first month of college arrived and I dropped weight so quickly that if I put my phone in my pocket, my shorts slid dangerously low. I began to yo-yo, alternately restricting my eating and then taking care to eat extra food when I feared that I was becoming too thin. During winter break of my second year of college, stressed out by a rocky relationship and a draining retail job, I punished myself for my unhappiness by neglecting to eat until I had a low blood sugar induced meltdown at work, sobbing uncontrollably in the stock room after my boss scolded me in front of a customer for some small error. "You're a nice girl," my Chinese coworker, Eric, awkwardly soothed me while he unpacked boxes of clothes. "It's going to be okay." "Thanks," I blubbered, scrubbing the tears from my eyes and stuffing down my lunch (a granola bar). "You're nice too."
Sitting there, feeling my emotions spinning crazily out of my control, I was struck by the lightning bolt notion that I might have an eating disorder. The idea that I might not know my own mind well enough to detect denial formed a dark, scary rabbit hole, and my emotions were sucked into even more anxiety. I had always thought of eating disorders as sustained and long term, rationalizing that I couldn't possibly have an eating disorder myself if my tics only lasted a week or 10 days. The criteria I used to explain away my behavior were as arbitrary as my decision not to drink orange juice for five years (too much sugar, I once thought, imagining teaspoons of sugar turning into inches around my thighs). I now believe that a gray area exists alongside fully developed cases of eating disorders. Although I never went more than a few weeks without being scared back to healthy eating habits, I've caved under my body-image anxieties and punished my body more than once. Eating disorder or not, I have unintentionally saddled myself with some disordered eating habits and negative self-talk.
These days, I'm trying not to limit myself harshly. Almost daily, I remind myself that I'm no longer 17 -- my ideal body needs to change as I grow into my 20s. I can no longer allow myself to define my ideal as a number on the scale or on the tag of my jeans; instead, my ideal should be the result of eating nutritious foods I love and exercise that clears my mind and strengthens my muscles. In the shower after a Pilates workout video on a night last week, I stood under the cascade of warm water, letting it run over my face and down over the curves of my plump new body. It's not unusual for me to talk to myself, but what I said next caught me by surprise. "Okay, body," I whispered through the shower spray. "Let's make a deal. I'll take care of you and feed you and keep you healthy, and you can tone up for me."
It's a deal I plan to keep -- preferably before shorts season is upon us.
Originally posted on Literally, Darling, an online magazine by and for twenty-something women, which features the personal, provocative, awkward, pop-filled and pressing issues of our gender and generation. This is an exact representation of our exaggerated selves.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.