I Never Knew I Had An Eating Disorder — Then I Had A Baby
Editor's Note: This piece includes explicit language about eating disorders.
When I was in high school, I had what I liked to call the System. When I weighed myself in the fitness room of my school and noticed I was gaining weight, I would cut a meal, then eat whatever I wanted for the remaining two meals. Usually, this worked; when it didn't, I would cut another meal, or replace it with Luna bars and bottled water. My theory was that drinking bottled water would make me pee out the unwanted calories. It probably isn't a coincidence that I got a D in human biology.
I continued the System for years, well after high school and into my entry into the work force. If I felt faint or doubled over with hunger pangs, I would eat just enough to tide me over until dinner. I bought so many Luna bars during my teens and early 20s that I probably singlehandedly kept that company in business for years.
The best part about the System was that I could eat whatever I wanted for dinner, so often people would watch me inhale Buffalo wings and ask me how I managed to stay so slim. "I have a System," I'd say, then pedantically describe it in detail, as if it were the Dewey decimal system and I had just gotten my degree in library science. Very few people thought the System was weird. In fact, most people thought it was genius. Some would tell me that they had a System themselves.
When I got pregnant, I knew I could no longer stick to the System. So for the first time in my life, I ate when I was hungry, and I was hungry almost constantly. As a result, I gained about 40 pounds, which I assumed I'd immediately lose after giving birth. After all, I thought, I had a System.
This is, however, not what happened. It's been six months since I had a baby, and I have not lost all of the baby weight. I have tried multiple variations on the System — swapping out Buffalo wings for healthy meals, like a salad or yogurt, even adding exercise — to no avail. The reasons for this are probably manifold — changes in post-baby metabolism, the fact that breastfeeding actually causes many women to retain calories rather than burn them. But I am less interested in the reasons why the System has failed than in why I had a System to begin with. I don't know why it took me having a baby to fully understand this, but I now recognize that the System was an eating disorder, which means I have likely been struggling with an eating disorder for years without realizing it.
To be fair, this was not the first inkling I had ever gotten that my relationship with food was problematic. I'd often come home from school and shovel pasta in my mouth, while my mother harangued me for failing to eat during the day. But on the extensive list of items that she harangued me about, this harangue ranked fairly low. And once, when I told a friend I was considering a career in food criticism, she responded, "Yeah, but wouldn't that require you to actually eat?" At the time I thought she was just being a bitch, but in retrospect I recognize it as both an expression of concern and a legitimate critique of my suitability for such a career path.
It also never occurred to me to speak to my therapist about it, and not because of the stigma or the fear of judgment. I just knew so many people who were in and out of clinics and rehab and mental hospitals that my habit of replacing breakfast and lunch with popcorn and Dasani paled in comparison. This enabled me to basically starve myself for years without attracting much attention.
Having an eating disorder wasn't considered a marker of popularity, or even a direct response to societal pressure to be thin. If you considered yourself an interesting, thoughtful person, it was just something you did, like joining the Gay-Straight Alliance or applying to Brown.
Generally speaking, eating disorders are extremely common: approximately 10 million Americans struggle with eating disorders, according to statistics from the National Eating Disorders Association. (Terrifyingly, only 1 in 3 people who have eating disorders receive treatment.) It's easy for such issues to hide in plain sight because the spectrum for what constitutes a disordered eating habit is fairly broad. "Skipping meals or limiting food may not necessarily, on their own, meet the criteria for an eating disorder," Dr. Rebecca Kennedy, a New York City-based clinical psychologist, tells Romper. "[But] this is not to say that a person needs to meet criteria for an eating disorder to have a problem."
Such disorders are commonly referred to as Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified, which make up 70 percent of all eating disorders. EDNOS also has a higher mortality rate than anorexia nervosa and bulimia, in part because it more frequently goes undiagnosed.
Where I grew up, eating disorders were incredibly common. I attended a private high school in New York City, where two things were considered de rigueur for teenage girls: 1) performative lesbianism at social events, and 2) bulimia, or some variation thereof. My high school boyfriend was friends with the most popular girl in school, and she once told him that during her freshman year, she subsisted on nothing but unbuttered popcorn and semen. When he told me this, I remember thinking it was hilarious, not alarming.
At more than one sleepover, I watched girls take turns going to the bathroom to puke. We'd talk about them when they weren't around and whisper behind our palms that we thought they might have a problem, but never once did it occur to us to bring it up directly with them. Having an eating disorder wasn't considered a marker of popularity, or even a direct response to societal pressure to be thin. If you considered yourself an interesting, thoughtful person, it was just something you did, like joining the Gay-Straight Alliance or applying to Brown.
Because I didn't present as emaciated, and because I was convincingly self-deprecating about my own dietary habits, it didn't occur to me or anyone else to ask why I didn't eat. It was all so incredibly normal.
My eating habits continued long after I entered the workforce, especially when I was chained to my desk and didn't have time to get up and get a sandwich. My coworkers saw my penchant for hoarding Luna bars and eating at my desk as a sign of my protestant work ethic. "Look at Ej," they'd say as I pounded away at my keyboard. "She's so committed to her job." It got so bad that my manager's daily Gchat reminders for me to eat food became something of an inside joke.
I bring this all up not because I wish to dramatize my relationship with food to evoke sympathy; there are many brave people in my life who have been in and out of treatment, who have struggled much worse than I have. I also don't bring it up out of resentment for the people who failed to notice it, or thought it was a source of humor.
I bring it up just to emphasize how incredibly normal this all was. Because I didn't present as emaciated, and because I was convincingly self-deprecating about my own dietary habits, it didn't occur to me or anyone else to ask why I didn't eat. I think that subconsciously, I was able to use various tropes — a grueling work ethic, teenage angst, women's tendency to be self-effacing about their own diets — as a smokescreen for the fact that I had a problem. And because these tropes are commonly accepted or even rewarded, people didn't recognize my issues with food for what they were: issues.
That changed, however, when I got pregnant. During my first trimester, I was unable to eat anything but grilled cheese and tomato soup without feeling nauseous, which led to me putting on quite a bit of weight in the first trimester. It didn't help that my gynecologist told me that my weight gain was "on the high end of the normal spectrum." She told me to "just try to eat fewer carbs and swap out with fruits and vegetables."
To say that my pregnancy weight gain was disturbing to me is an understatement. It consumed me, to the point that I would talk about little else.
I should've been appalled that she was telling a pregnant woman to diet, but my indignation wasn't about that. It was more that I couldn't believe my body was a size that would prompt a health professional to tell me to diet. Didn't she know that I had a System?
To say that my pregnancy weight gain was disturbing to me is an understatement. It consumed me, to the point that I would talk about little else. People would tell me that I looked fine and that my body was only growing to accommodate my baby, but I felt gluttonous and slothful. All I wanted was to be one of those impossibly fit pregnant women who didn’t look like they were pregnant, who would later look like one of those impossibly fit postpartum women who didn’t look like they had given birth. I didn’t understand why that was so difficult.
Still, I comforted myself with the fact that I would likely be restored to my usual size after I gave birth. I was young and healthy, I planned to breastfeed, and the System awaited me, ready to work its magic. There was no reason why I wouldn’t lose the baby weight quickly.
Of course, that is not what happened, and a month after I gave birth, I found myself in a body that I did not recognize or understand. At first, people were polite and reassuring. “You’ve lost some weight, but you don’t quite look like yourself yet,” my mother would tell me. “Give it time. It’ll happen eventually.” The implication was clear: my old “self” had been a thin person, and regardless of how I had maintained that state, I was expected to revert back to it. But there was an implicit deadline for that transition, and as the months passed and the extra pounds continued to stubbornly cling to my body, people started saying “give it time” less and less often. They had given me time, and I had failed. Or rather, the System had failed me.
I believe women should be allowed to be comfortable in their own bodies and definitely not shamed for them, but that does not mean that I am comfortable in mine.
My feelings about motherhood, food, and body image are incredibly complex and layered, a mandala of neuroses. I love my son, but I resent him for altering my body into something I do not like or recognize; I understand that our societal conception of post-baby bodies is unattainable, but I strive to attain it regardless. I am grateful to my family and friends for supporting me during new motherhood, but I am angry at them for not recognizing that I had an issue before I became a mother. I believe women should be allowed to be comfortable in their own bodies and definitely not shamed for them, but that does not mean that I am comfortable in mine.
I feel guilty about the frequency, intensity, and obsessive nature of these thoughts, because they make me feel vain and selfish. But I feel even more guilty that they are detracting from what I believe would otherwise be a pretty joyful experience of new motherhood.
I want to be able to say that I am happy with my body, and that I will never go back to the System again. But that would be disingenuous, and if anyone is reading this who has also grappled with a fear and hatred of their own body, I don’t think you will be served by disingenuousness. I think you will best be served by the truth.
I don’t want my kid to grow up in a world where an illness like an eating disorder is written off as angst or workaholism or the inevitable result of reading too many celebrity magazines. I want him to see it for what it is: not a personality quirk, not a phase, and not a System, but a sickness.
The truth is that I am unhappy with my body, that I desperately want to be thin again, and that I am unwell, and have probably been unwell for a long time. Changing this will be difficult; it will require hitting the reset button on a lot of my beliefs and expectations. But that is fine. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past six months, it’s that motherhood is all about recalibrating your expectations, rewiring your brain so your default hopes and beliefs and views of the world are replaced with new ones.
I don’t want my kid to grow up in a world where an illness like an eating disorder is written off as angst or workaholism or the inevitable result of reading too many celebrity magazines. I want him to do what I and everyone else in my life failed to do and see my years of self-imposed starvation for what it is: not a personality quirk, not a phase, and not a System, but a sickness.
If you struggle with an eating disorder, please seek professional help. You can also call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.