Maria was the person that my Mom paid to make me fat. It was three years ago, my senior year of high school—supposedly the best time of my life. I didn’t understand why my mother and a dietician had paired up against me. Each of them kept on trying to get me to eat these satanic balls of baked evil called Muddy Buddies. They were as appetizing as the name sounded. Even reading their recipe—peanut butter, honey, powdered sugar, and chocolate—made me want to lace up my sneakers and go to the gym. Of course, at that point I was only allowed to go on leisurely walks.
A few weeks earlier, two middle-aged teachers clutching Weight Watchers frozen lunches approached me in the hallway. I was confused—was I about to find out that I failed a test in both of their classes? Did my AP scores not get sent to NYU? Finally, one of them said: “Jillian, we noticed that you’ve been losing a lot of weight recently.” My stomach dropped- they knew. They knew why I ate the same thing in class every day. They saw me counting gum calories in my phone. They heard me bragging to my friends about the low calorie cookie recipe I had made the night before. They were going to take away the one small piece of control that I had over my stressful, exhausting high school life. I stared at them, waiting to be dragged into the nurse’s office. But instead, they simply looked at each other and grinned like they were about to receive some kind of prophecy: “How do you do it?”
The following Wednesday in the school cafeteria, my best friend casually mentioned how much she weighed while she was eating a PB and J. I was appalled- not only by the carbs and the empty jelly calories, but by the offhand tone that she used. It was sacrilegious. Sarah didn’t seem to appreciate the holiness that was the three- or if you were really lucky, two- numbers on the scale. There was no “casual” when it came to body measurements. I adjusted my legs—my butt bones were digging into the seat—took an appropriately dramatic breath, and said my numbers out loud. I knew I had won. The other girls at the lunch table looked at me in what I thought at the time was envy. I was at least ten pounds lighter and five inches taller than everyone else. An outsider might have said that their eyes were filled with concern, but I knew in my sixteen-year-old wisdom that they were jealous of my superior self-control.
That Saturday a random fifty-year-old woman approached me in the mall and told me that I should model. From my current perspective, I would think that she was paying me a compliment. After all, she wasn’t even from one of those photo booths where I could pay the low, low price of five hundred dollars for ten headshots. The twenty pounds lighter me, however, was too quick for her. I was at the far sexier, smarter weight where my brain matter was deteriorating. I was smart—I knew that she was really trying to remind me of how fat I was. Obviously, she had seen the latest episode of America’s Next Top Model. She knew that I would have to lose at least thirty pounds if I wanted hipbones that jutted out as beautifully as Saleisha’s.
7:00 AM: ½ cup oatmeal, 2 TB cocoa powder, 1 TB stevia
9:30 AM: 2 sticks of gum
11 am: protein bar
1 pm: 1 individual bag of veggie chips, 1 hummus cup
4 pm: air popped popcorn with a spray of Pam
Exercise: 60 Minutes of Spin Class
7 pm: chickpea, spinach, and tomato soup
9 pm: two scoops protein powder
Eating disorders, like anorexia, are all about routine. Luckily for me, so is high school. Thanks to the hallowed halls of Fairfield Warde, I was able to have a set meal plan every day. After all, I couldn’t have an extra snack in between AP Environmental Science and AP Literature if there wasn’t one in my backpack! I was smart. Besides, being the executive producer of my school’s news station, president of a club, writing college essays, and singing in two different choirs kept my mind off of something as insignificant as what I ate.
I was one of those lucky people who didn’t care about food. Why would I ever consider pizza alluring when I had my plastic baggie of edamame to keep me company? Who in their right mind would ever want a sip of lemonade when they could have a cup of black coffee? Yet for some incomprehensible reason I would occasionally find my hands reaching for a giant chocolate bar in CVS. Luckily, I had my iPhone to keep me in check. Before I could make a week ruining decision, I would type “Ghirardelli” into my FitnessTracker app. Was 400 calories worth it? Not in my book. I’d take a sip of tea and forget all about my stupid desire for something that was off the schedule.
While growing up I saw my sister, who is six years older than me, date tens of gorgeous men. I eagerly looked forward to the moment when I, too, would be able to bring the most popular guy in school to junior prom. I dreamt of two boys fighting over who would take me to the basketball game. Yet, somehow, that day never came. Maybe it was the fact that I loved Harry Potter too much, or that I adored French fries and hated running. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Chelsea could eat whatever she wanted and I was asked, “Should you really be eating that?” when I reached for my third Oreo. Whatever it was, family members stopped asking if I had a boyfriend when we visited for Christmas. Instead, I would sit and listen as Chelsea recanted the tale of a wealthy twenty something bringing her to his vacation house in the Hamptons. My carefully prepared anecdote about singing in the town hall with my choir went unsaid. By the time my sister was sixteen, she had already gone to clubs with men who thought she was thirty. By the time I was sixteen I hadn’t even kissed a boy. Clearly, I started counting calories the summer before my senior year because I wanted to be healthy. Really, I just wanted a way to fill up all the free time.
A few months later I was starting to have cravings that were on par with a third trimester pregnant woman. Luckily, I had two hundred pages bookmarked in my Safari browser for those occasions. The websites were mostly about cupcakes. Of course, my obsession was completely normal—girls like cupcakes, right? Obviously, it made sense that I would stare at Cake Boss screenshots until two in the morning. If I wasn’t satisfied with those sites, which sometimes happened, I would move onto my secret bodybuilders. Rick the Ripped’s website satisfied all of my carnal desires. I would gloss over the pictures of his chiseled abs and instead obsess over his “gaining days” blog posts. Fun fact: men who are trying to put on muscle can down dumpsters full of whatever food they want. For hours I would stare, fascinated, at the whole pizzas, ice cream sundaes, and boxes of Oreos that these guys could manage to eat. I fantasized about doing the same. Of course, the capacity of my stomach had grown so small that I couldn’t have stomached two pieces of pizza, let alone the snack of a 300 pound Mr. Universe.
Other nights, I would lurk in the corners of Tumblr.com, where girls proudly posted detailed lists of their calorie intakes. Certain hashtags had the best results:
#thinspo, #thinspiration, , #binge, # ednos, #calorie, #workout, #fitspo, #fitspiration, #ana
I went on Tumblr every day for a week, but surprisingly found myself getting upset. These girls were hard-core. They could manage to skip meals for days and were strong enough to consider weakness a whole apple. In short, I was ashamed. I was failing at being anorexic.
The thing about going on vacation in Jamaica is that you know you’re going to be wearing a swimsuit at some point. For my sixteen-year-old sister and her best friend, Robyn—both part-time models—this was a time to shine. For ten-year-old me, it was a time to languish in my stylish neon blue butterfly tankini. That’s right, one of those swimsuits with a skirt.
“Look honey, celebrities!” gasped an elderly woman over the sound of a drum band. Oh so subtly, she seized her husband’s arm and stared at my sister and her friend as they passed by in their barely noticeable string bikinis. The two smiled to themselves and pretended not to notice. After all, it wasn’t that big of a deal to them. Earlier that day, two men had slammed their golf carts into each other as Chelsea walked by in some particularly tiny denim shorts. The night before, our waiter had serenaded Robyn as she left the dinner table to go to the bathroom. He forgot to get me the crayons that I asked for.
In fifth grade I was part of a regular carpool of girls who were taken to and from our Girl Scout meetings. Mrs. Bogannam was the coolest mom who volunteered—she didn’t have a minivan. One Thursday, my best friends and I were eating Thin Mints in the back seat. Right before the car pulled into my driveway, my stick thin friend Angie asked Mrs. Bogannam what a plus sized model was. Without a beat, the supposed motherly figure turned to us and chirped, “Well, Jillian would be a great example of a plus sized model!” She turned and smiled at me like I had just received the greatest compliment I could ever hope to get.
My senior year I told my mom that I wanted to go to my pediatrician. I’d noticed that—despite my recent weight loss and glowing health—I hadn’t gotten my period for a couple of months. I was concerned about the functionality of my nether regions—I was about to go to college, after all. What could possibly be wrong with me? Only crazy track stars and anorexic girls lost their periods. And don’t think that I thought I could have been pregnant. I had as much of a chance of being with child as the Virgin Mary—minus the holy intervention element. Little did I know that my parents had been planning a similar doctor’s visit for me for a while. Neither of them knew how to bring up the subject of a potential eating disorder with a daughter who had become so moody they were afraid to speak to her. Luckily for them, their daughter still had an ounce of concern left for her own health.
I convinced myself going into college that I was healthier than I had been the previous year. After all, my legs no longer resembled arms. Plus, I was actually putting dressing on my salad. Just to prove how fit I really was, I even took a personal training course and became a certified Spinning instructor. If someone questioned my health, I could thrust my certifications in their face like the High Priest of Physical Vigor had signed them. Of course I was totally healthy! How else could I lead a roomful of sweaty college girls through an hour of Beyoncé based cardio? Clearly, I had reached the pinnacle of physical and mental health. Plus, I barely had to gain any weight! Thanks to my meticulous schedule of cardio and weight training, I could eat more and still look the same. In fact, I became so healthy that both my job and my hobby was exercise.
It always feels odd sitting in a waiting room when you’re not physically sick. Everyone around you is sniffling, coughing, and dripping—while you seem totally fine. Boston University’s Student Health Services is no exception. I sat with my legs crossed, wondering how I could make myself look like I was coming down with a light cold. I furrowed my brow and sighed deeply- but not too deeply, because the guy next to me was coughing up something that sounded seriously disgusting. I almost felt relieved when a nurse came in to let me know that the doctor would see me now.
You haven’t known true embarrassment until you’ve met eyes with a hot guy, fantasized about him pushing you into a supply closet, and then remembered that you’re carrying a cup of your own pee. I went through that ritual every week—not necessarily with a cute guy, but with someone. Someone would see me doing my walk of shame from the bathroom to the lab drop off station, holding a small container of urine. They must have wondered why my pee was being tested. I prayed that they thought I was addicted to something cool like cocaine. In actuality, my parents wouldn’t pay my tuition unless they had a weekly assurance that my weight was steady. This explains the fun Thursday weigh-ins with cute male grad students and the pee cup. Every week a lab assistant would put my bodily fluids into some kind of machine to make sure that my ketones were fine. If you’ve never had an eating disorder, you might not know that your body can use your fat for energy, instead of sugar and carbs. Ketones are usually seen in the urine of people who are starving—or, in my case, “trying to be healthy.”
Measurements defined me throughout my eating disorder. They were my safety net. I might have been doing horribly on the math portion of the SAT, but I was the grand master of calories burned, hours exercised, and pounds lost. Yet, ever since I was diagnosed with anorexia I was told that I had to stop making my life about numbers. This was pretty difficult, considering I had to strip down at Student Health Services once a week and have all of my bodily functions measured. As a result, I made all of the nurses at BU—even the hot grad students—help me step onto the scale backwards so that I wouldn’t see the numbers pop up. Even though I knew that gaining weight was important, I also knew that if I saw the numbers creeping up on the scale I would be tempted to stop.
A year and a half later, I stood staring at the scale in my parents’ bathroom. I had already walked past it ten times, checking it out like it was the cute bad boy I used to have an affair with. What was the harm in simply going over to get a closer look? Yet somehow, before I even knew what I was doing, I was naked and on top of it. I stood, enjoying the breeze and the thrill of rebellion… until I saw my weight appear on the screen. In front of me was a number that was higher than the goal my nutritionist had set for me at our first appointment. I weighed more than I had before my anorexia even began. How did I not realize that I had gotten so fat? How could I let myself get so lazy? My former weight had been so disgusting to me, and yet here I was, an even bigger embodiment of failure. What kind of guy was going to like me now? I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror, let alone think that I was worth anything.
7 AM: Oatmeal with peanut butter, cocoa powder, banana
Exercise: 30 minutes elliptical. 30 minutes upper and lower body weights
10 AM: 2 scoops Protein powder
1 PM: Salad with hummus, beans, cucumbers, roasted veggies. Fruit salad.
4 pm: Cinnamon pita chips
7 pm: Salad with oranges, almonds, tofu, apples. French fries
11 pm: Chocolate Cheerios with banana and peanut butter.
I was sitting in the dining hall last week, eating my salad and fries. Per usual, I was eavesdropping on the people next to me. One conversation between two girls wearing sports jerseys caught my interest:
“But you told Mom that you would.”
I shifted a little closer towards their table and pretended to skip a track on my iPod. Slowly I circled my head in their direction, faking a crick in my neck.
“I’m not going to.”
What could they possibly be talking about? A switch from a dance major to medicine? Tutoring sessions? An arranged marriage?
“You didn’t have your mid morning snack. Or lunch. Or your afternoon snack. You need dinner, a milkshake, and some peanut butter… now.”
The facade of my subtle staring had completely vanished. It didn’t matter—one of the girls was staring at her untouched plate like it was a former friend who had betrayed her. She was calculating calories and converting them into pounds, realizing that if she followed whatever meal plan her dietician put her on she wasn’t going to fit into the dress that she had just bought last week. She was so proud of that dress- it was two sizes smaller than anything she could have worn a year ago. She was thinking about how full she was going to feel once she ate her allotted calories. She was thinking about how ironic it was that her problem was fixating on food, yet she had to write down everything she ate and bring it to a dietician once a week. She was wondering how she could stop thinking about how much she weighed when she had to leave class early once a week to do just that. And she was trying to stop the voice in the back of her brain from telling her that everyone was trying to sabotage her- that they were just jealous of how pretty she had become. Didn’t she remember that stranger who had stopped her in the middle of a party to tell her that she looks like Amanda Seyfried? People would never tell her that if her thighs couldn’t fit into her pants. What if she had to buy new jeans? That would be the sign of failure, of losing complete control and….
“I’m getting you food, and you’re going to SIT there, and EAT it when I come back!” the concerned sister said as she shoved in her chair. She stood up, heading like a soldier into battle towards the ice cream bar. Slowly, the other girl withered in her seat. She didn’t see how everyone around her was staring. She was just looking at her thighs, wondering how much bigger they would have to get before everyone would leave her alone. She wanted to know if she could really do this.
I had to stop myself from getting up and giving her a hug, from telling her that yes, it’s terrifying when you gain twenty pounds. Your body will move differently. You’ll look in the mirror and hate yourself sometimes. You’ll feel like you’ve lost all control, because if you can’t control your weight, then what else can you do? Hell, I still have days when I don’t look in the mirror. I never wear jeans because I don’t want to admit that I need to buy a size up.
I knew that no one could comfort the girl in the dining hall. For a few weeks she wouldn’t believe anyone who told her that she had a problem. Slowly, however, she would wonder why she was feeling so moody all the time. She would ask herself what the fun of not getting her period was if she still had crazy mood swings. Eventually she would desperately want to have just one day when food wasn’t consuming her thoughts. Only then would she give in and go to all of the specialists that her parents could hopefully afford. Soon, she would feel guilty that she spent so much time holding onto a problem that, deep down, she still thought was a solution.
As I wrap up my sophomore year in college, I’d guess that I’m still at my medically advised goal weight. Sometimes I feel like I’ve let myself slip, rather than finally allowed my body to settle at its natural weight. I still have my old jeans in my closet because I don’t want to admit that it’s unsafe for me to ever fit into them again. Whenever I find myself staring at them for more than a minute, I have to remind myself of what my pediatrician told me after I’d stopped getting my period: “You’re destroying your body.” I stared at her, convinced that she was reading the wrong chart. It took me a long time to register that I fit the description of the sick girl she was talking about: “You have to eat more. You’ve already done some serious damage. Since your menstrual cycle has been off for so long, you might not be able to have children. Jillian, if you keep losing weight at this rate, you could die.”
Eating disorders are all about fear. I don’t look at my butt in the mirror because I’m afraid of seeing ripples of cellulite I avoid going shopping with my friends because I’m afraid of admitting that I’m a size large. However, fear is also a part of recovery—I don’t try and fit into my old jeans because I’m afraid that one day I’ll have to tell a man I love that we can’t have children together. Sure, I don’t have the kind of body that guys crash golf carts over, but that means that I get to spend my time doing improv and writing sketches with my friends. Yet if I’m being honest with myself, I’m not sure what I would do if somebody told me, “Should you be eating that?” My nutritionist once told me that the effects of eating disorders last forever. My case is no exception.