While most girls were prepping for prom, doodling their crush’s name in their notebooks and hanging out at the mall, I was dreading what size my prom dress would be, doodling in my notebook about how many calories/days/weeks it would take to be a size 3, and the only hangouts I would frequent were the gym or a bathroom—the two spaces where I could hide out and get out insane amounts of stress in the form of either sweat or vomit.
Hello, my name is Robbie, and I am a black girl with an eating disorder.
In fact, “up to 30 million people of all ages and genders [and, might I add, races] suffer from an eating disorder [anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder] in the U.S,” according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
I was one of those 30 million, and I’m so grateful that after 14 excruciating years, my body not only forgave me but gave me a second incredibly RAD chance. May my story and my truth inspire you to see your body, food, fitness and overall health through a different lens—whether you have (or think you have) an eating disorder or not.
To begin, how does one get an eating disorder? This is a question that countless researchers have been trying to answer for years. Over those 14 years, I constantly asked myself, “How did this happen to me?” Unfortunately, this is not a one-size-fits-all answer. However, for me, I strongly believe that it was the byproduct of two things gone wrong in my adolescent years. One was semibiological, the other environmental.
First up, the biological. Disciplined, goal-oriented, dedicated, organized: These are characteristics that many of us “go-getters” possess. However, once these qualities transform into perfectionism, danger is near. In fact, most researchers say that perfectionism and eating disorders are more related than we think. Because perfectionists tend to be overly critical of their performance and have an excessive need for approval, they are greatly concerned about making mistakes.
Cue Robbie, 4.0 student, head cheerleader, soccer all-star, class clown, homecoming queen, etc. High achiever, some might say—but perfectionist was actually more like it. And therein lies the issue. Being a high achiever and being a perfectionist are two totally different things. One is driven by goals, the latter is driven by the fear of failure. The fear of being fat, disliked, not perfect, failing in general—this is where my seemingly positive characteristics went wrong.
However, beyond my teenage goals being led by perfectionism, a huge gray area in my childhood was my overall idea about food. Here is the environmental. I was always a “healthy” (as they say in the South) size. I played sports, ate as much as my peers, and yet my thighs always rubbed together and my belly poked out.
No big deal. My mother constantly told me that I was beautiful, and I believed her. She was an amazing cook and I wasn’t a picky eater, so I ate what I was fed. In fact, most of the time I ate it all. Which was the norm, since good grades and holidays were always congratulated with food. I became accustomed to these high-calorie celebrations—well, unless of course it was Weight Watchers season.
See, my mom was an on-again, off-again member, and while she never made me go on this infamous diet with her, I would end up doing so merely by association. Pizza nights would yo-yo from the pizza parlor to frozen, cheese-dotted crackers called Smart Ones. Everything came down to “points.” Apple: 1 point. Candy bar: 5-plus points. The object of the game was not to go over your points. I was a kid; I liked games. In fact, I was great at winning them. So over time, food, like sports and good grades, became something I could control and excel in.
So as my “healthy” size peaked in the eighth grade, so did the teasing and my success at the food-manipulation game. I was able to stay well under my points most days and felt incredibly accomplished because of it. Weight began to drop rapidly and the teasing lessened. This was a win-win situation. So by summer I decided that I was going to really master this food game. I committed to eating less and less, all while exercising more and more.
In fact, by the time the ninth grade started, I was completely unrecognizable to most. Especially myself. Teasing was now replaced with constant praise, titles, popularity and double takes. No way I could eat my favorite foods, like cookie-dough ice cream, peanut butter and pizza, now. I liked my new life and would do anything to maintain it. So when words like “malnutrition,” “anorexia” and “bulimia” made their way through my high school’s rumor circuit, denial became my preferred persona.
This denial persisted for many years; however, 14 years past this food-manipulation game, I decided to call things off with “Ed” for good. See, Ed was the personified label I learned to give my “Eating Disorder” during rehab. It came from one of the countless books I read, titled, Life Without Ed: How One Woman Declared Independence From Her Eating Disorder and How You Can Too (by Jenni Schaefer).
I was good and grown by now and fed up with who I had become. Seeing this addiction as something that was separate from who I was and who I wanted to be brought so much hope to the recovery process. Just like with a bad ex, I had to break up and break out. I couldn’t go to the places where Ed hung out, I couldn’t call on him when I had a bad day and I certainly couldn’t believe the lies he told me about myself: “You’ll never make it without me” was the most popular one.
However, like all long-lasting relationships, it’s never really over overnight. I had to consistently, daily, hourly, sometimes minute-to-minute, encourage myself to think new thoughts. And to be honest, I still do. In part 2, I will explain how I do it.