Fighting for Perfection: My Battle With Eating Disorders as a Teenage Girl

It was a sunny Friday afternoon in the middle of March and most kids my age were throwing their book bags in the corner, laughing with their friends, and busily concocting plans for the weekend. I pushed open the front door to my house, threw my book bag in the corner, and plopped myself down on the kitchen table with my head in my hands. I could see my thighs spreading out on the chair. Look at all that cellulite. They’re huge. I stood up and made my way to the pantry, looking for a way to dull the pain I felt inside. Oreos. Tortilla chips. Chocolate chips. Peanut butter. Cereal. I grabbed it all and positioned myself over the sink. I chewed some Oreos and spit them out, making sure not to swallow a crumb or it might end up on my already oversized thighs.

My stomach growled and I made a promise to myself that I could have a few pieces of cereal and that was it for the rest of the night. A few pieces of cereal turned into a handful which turned into a couple Oreos which turned into a box of Oreos and a bag of tortilla chips and half a jar of peanut butter and so on. I couldn’t stop until I thought I was going to explode. My brain was spinning from the sugar high and my mouth was dry and dehydrated. Then I panicked. I HAD to get rid of this food. It was NOT staying in my body and adding to the disgusting fat and contribute to making me the ugliest, most unlovable girl in the world. I sat down by the toilet with a gallon of water and drank a sip and then stuck my finger down my throat. I coughed, but couldn’t gag. I looked for household objects to shove down my throat. Silverware, straws, my hairbrush. Nothing would make the sickening amount of food I ate come back up.

I fell to the bathroom floor hitting it with my fists and screaming. Grabbing the skin and “fat” on my 105 pound body, I screamed, “Anne, you are so fucking fat, you disgust me! Look at yourself! You’re nothing and you’re nothing to anyone. I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.” I grabbed one of the knives I used to shove down my throat and held it an inch away from my wrist. After a few minutes of working up all the courage I could muster, I dropped the knife and hugged my knees into my chest, rocking myself back and forth in my own arms. Following what seemed to be an eternity, I heard the front door open again and my mother’s cheerful voice, “Hi sweetie! I’m home!” I quickly gathered up the items littering the bathroom floor and shoved them under the sink. Wiping the tears away from my eyes, I brushed myself off and transformed once again into the happy, successful, and confident teenager that I showed the world. But in reality, I was trapped inside this imaginary image, screaming for someone to notice.

The scenario above would appear to describe some estranged and troubled teenage girl who was perhaps beaten or sexually abused as a child and as a result has been cursed with a load of psychological problems. But in fact, almost the opposite is true. This so-called estranged and troubled teenage girl was me, only a few short years ago.

Eating disorders are prevalent in seven-and-a-half million women in the United States at this very moment in the forms of starving, bingeing and purging, excessive exercise, and more (Lintott 2). It is a growing problem for teenage girls because it is suicide masked as motivation, determination, and a healthy lifestyle. Who in our society will put a girl down for working hard, eating salads, and exercising? No one will condone that behavior because this is seen as exactly what girls should be doing if they want to be successful. But this disease is spreading to girls at a younger and younger age. Studies have shown that sixty percent of girls in sixth grade have been on a diet and eighty percent want to be thinner (Bokram 2). The message is obviously being sent out to girls earlier and earlier. By the time they reach high school, out of the 2.5 million adolescent girls that participate in sports, one to four percent will suffer from an eating disorder (Rhea 3). Many will carry these distorted and unhealthy images of themselves into adulthood. Physical, mental, and social repercussions from the damage done will remain long after the disorder has been diagnosed and treated. Considering this, it may be beneficial to step back and begin to look at the causes of eating disorders in an effort to eliminate them altogether.

Standing in the middle of my living room at seven years old, with my toes pointed and hands high in the air, I heard my best friend, Brittany, explain to our class of imaginary students, “Alright, kids. Today Coach Annie and I are going to teach you guys how to do cartwheels.” Our “gym” was set up in my living room complete with a balance beam of books and a roomy floor for cartwheels and handstands and we were decked out in hot pink leotards and pigtails. Brittany’s tiny and slender body modeled the perfect cartwheel for our imaginary class. Out of no where I burst into tears and ran up the flight of stairs into my room. Brittany followed me and put her arm around me. After asking me what was wrong, I explained that I was fat and gymnastics coaches were never fat. I pointed to the roll of fat on my stomach and told her I was never eating again because I wanted to be pretty and skinny like her. She gave me a confused look but agreed that I was much bigger than she but that it didn’t matter. Brittany consoled me in a matter of moments as it is not difficult to distract a 7-year-olds attention to another subject. But I can still remember feeling that something was not right with me. I was different and not in a good way. As a first grader, I was already showing signs of an eating disorder. And as predicted, only a few years later the problem would spiral out of control.

Causes of eating disorders can usually be pinpointed to a number of different sources. Sometimes problems in the home, sexual assault, divorce, abuse, or a number of other violent sources are at fault. Although many young girls who do exhibit eating disorder behavior have experienced trauma early in life, it is not always the case. I was brought up in a loving, middle class home where there were no problems that could be considered out of the ordinary. In fact, I had one of the most normal and healthy childhoods imaginable. But growing up in the time period that I am, I was and am constantly bombarded with the media’s version of thin beauty. The media has perpetuated an image of female beauty that is unattainable for most average women (Lintott 3).

Girls are susceptible to these images especially during the teen years when an identity has not yet been established. Society and media images often point girls in an unhealthy direction. “Female socialization emphasizes good looks above everything else, and good looks demand what is difficult to achieve in our surplus society, namely a thin body. The pursuit of thinness hence is considered an acceptable and socially desirable goal” (Lintott 2). The message comes to us loud and clear from movies, TV, and magazines. Teen girls today who read magazines like Seventeen and YM can count on flipping through articles devoted to fashion, self-improvement, and beauty (Davis 2). These magazines automatically assume that every girl is flawed and that she needs tips and hints in order to make herself look more like the cover model (Davis 2). Society makes a profit on teen girls’ insecurities and the self-concepts of this generation become worse and worse with each new article (Davis 2).

But society cannot be blamed for every eating disorder. Problems can also stem from the way in which we treat food in the home. As a child, we are given messages like vegetables are “icky” and desserts are “yummy,” or “The Clean Plate Club” sends the message that you should keep eating even when you are full (Bokram 3). Another big issue that we seem to have created is equating food with love (Bokram 3). Separating food from emotions is a big step in creating a healthy relationship with food. Although for some girls and boys, eating disorders have nothing to do with food at all. They stem from the need for control and perfection in their daily life. Women are often led to believe that through heavy dieting practices, they will receive a level of pleasure (Lintott 12).

Keep going. Keep going. Don’t stop. You can never stop or you will be a failure. I repeated over and over to myself in my head as I ran past the 2 mile marker at our home cross country meet. My body had gone numb and the only thing keeping my brain at attention was the constant conversation with myself to keep it up. My stomach was turning. The celery I had eaten that morning had been run off long ago, but I could still feel it collecting on my hips and abdomen. Running past my coach, I could hear his praises. “Anne, your form is remarkable. You are light as a feather! This change is unbelievable! Keep up whatever you are doing!” If only my coach had known that “whatever I was doing” was killing me.

Cross country, as well as cheerleading, gymnastics, and ballet are some of the many sports that have an emphasis on leanness (Rhea 3). The perception is that increased performance often goes hand-in-hand with weight loss (Rhea 5). A study done by Borgen and Corbin in 1987 found that out of the sports that emphasized leanness, 20% of the athletes had eating disorders and from the sports that did not emphasize leanness (weight training), still 10% of the athletes had eating disorders (Rhea 3). Often times the athlete will go to extreme measures during training season to lose weight or make a weight goal by vomiting, laxatives, fasting, diuretics or diet pills (Rhea 3). Although these behaviors cannot be classified as anorexia or bulimia if only practiced a few times, they can lead to the disease quickly. Coaches are partly to blame for this phenomenon because they often encourage their athletes to lose more and more weight. In order to control the disordered eating among female athletes, it is necessary to educate the coach (Rhea 5). He or she acts as an important role model for the high school and college athlete and if they teach a healthy relationship with food, exercise, and body image, the young athlete will pick up these habits as well.

Even though for the most part my mind has recovered from anorexia, my body will pay the price for years to come. My periods have finally become regular at the age of 20 years old, causing me to mature into a woman five years late. My bones missed important years of development and I am at a high risk for developing osteoporosis later in life. I still carry a negative body image around in the back of my head and when stressful situations arise, I often relapse back into old, familiar behaviors. It will always be something I have to deal with. In the past few years, I have begun to regain my social life and mend the relationships that took a backseat to my eating disorder. When eating becomes your main concern and food becomes your best friend and your enemy all in one, it is hard to make any time for others. In my opinion, other people were always trying to make me “fail.” But with help, I was able to understand more about my condition and make a full recovery. I was one of the lucky ones. Unfortunately, I will always suffer the consequences and the years of my life that were lost will never be regained.
Many female anorexics suffer from what is called the Female Athlete Triad (To Squat 2).

When female athletes succumb to the pressures of being thin for their sport, they often develop a number of health concerns that can have serious repercussions later in life. The triad consists of amenorrhea (loss of period), osteoporosis, and disordered eating (To Squat 2). When a girl does not have enough fat on her body, she does not produce enough estrogen (which is stored in fat) to have a monthly period (Bokram 2). Estrogen is also a key component in bone development. If estrogen is not being produced, a girl will start to lose bone mass. Loss of bone does not usually take place until well into the 30’s and 40’s, but for an anorexic, it begins rather quickly. The damage done to the bones is irreversible. In a sense, the female anorexic has stunted her growth and remains in the body of a little boy. She halts the natural development of breasts, hips, abdomen, and hormones (Bokram 2).

Along with physical repercussions, the social life of an anorexic or bulimic will suffer. She pulls away from the people who are trying to get her to eat (i.e. make her fat or make her fail). It is almost impossible to be around “normal” people. Most social functions are out of the question because food is often present and will be too much of a temptation. A person with an eating disorder often withdraws from family and friends and feels very alone. They often consider Ana (anorexia) their only friend and the only “person” who can ever understand their pain. The distorted image she has of herself is so far from reality that she cannot relate to anyone in the real world (Lintott 11).

This pain that young teenage girls are feeling is one of the biggest problems for my generation. We, as women, feel inadequate and ugly if our bodies do not mirror that of a pre-pubescent boy. We envy those whose hard work and determination have landed them an emaciated, unhealthy exterior. We are slowly killing ourselves in the name of aesthetics. It’s time for women to unite together and decide to stop doing this to ourselves and to convince each other that we are all different and beautiful. None of us need to be burdened with unattainable, air-brushed media images. Where is the beauty in a bony, undernourished, obsessed, troubled, waif woman? This obsession is keeping women submissive, weak, and preoccupied. If she is constantly tallying up calories, she cannot be competing with a man for equal treatment. It’s all part of the backlash against feminism. But this fantasy of eliminating eating disorders in America is far from complete. As long as we equate thinness with beauty, we will have eating disorders to deal with. For these disorders have been created in a world that bases the worth of a woman on her physical appearance. An anorexic starves herself to prove her strength and will are far beyond that of normal people (Lintott 16). But this strength and will she demonstrates cannot be held long in a body too fragile to stand (Lintott 16). The rest of the world plays a big role in making women believe their strength is superior by starving themselves.

“When we look at the anorexic girl, admiring her discipline and aestheticism; when we gaze with envy at her when she passes us in the theatre, proudly swishing her narrow hips, it is the triumph of her will we are admiring. But we are all so caught up in this struggle against the flesh that we believe we behold beauty in this evidence of the body’s emaciationâÂ?¦But this vision is an illness we share with the anorexic girl” (Lintott 13).

WORKS CITED

Bokram, Karen, and Christy Casamassima. “How Do You Eat?” Girls’ Life.
Oct/Nov 1994: 46.

This article begins with interesting statistics painting a sad picture of the number of young girls today that are starting to diet. The rest of the article goes on to detail situations in which parents attempt to control their children’s eating patterns that may have sparked this kind of disordered eating behavior. For example, “The Clean Plate Club” encourages children to eat when they are not hungry. It gives suggestions on how to have control over one’s eating in a healthy and happy manner. An interesting example that was used was stop equating food with love. The article states that we often eat in happy situations, but eating in sad situations when one is not hungry will not make any situation better.

Davis, Angela. “The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly: Message in a Bottle.” Fabula.
Dec. 1999: 24.

By taking a detailed look at contemporary girls magazines (i.e. Seventeen and YM), it is evident that the message being sent to teenage girls today is that “thin is in.” The article details a number of situations and article titles that are targeting at girls who wish to lose weight or “better themselves” with self help articles. The article suggests that magazines target young woman and lead them to believe that if you are not anorexically skinny, there is something wrong with you. It also states that this type of behavior has been marketed to teen girls for nearly 50 years, so it is not necessarily a new concept. The article does point out some positive magazines for girls that have taken a progressive step away from concentrating on beauty and self-improvement and getting at issues that should really be of importance and interest like art and poetry that can be found in New Moon.

Lintott, Sheila. “Sublime Hunger: A Consideration of Eating Disorders Beyond Beauty.” Hypatia. Fall 2003: 65.

The article begins with a brief introduction on what life is like with an eating disorder. It goes into great details concerning the thought processes and motives a person with disordered eating may experience in their day to day life. The author goes on to discuss the phenomenon of obsessing over thinness taking place in our country today. Lintott suggests that perhaps women are lead to believe that they can experience the sublime through heavy dieting practices and that it will bring a level of pleasure. Women are also encouraged to believe that if they are perceived as beautiful, a world of opportunities will be at their fingertips. This article is suggesting that women may not only be occupied with thinness, but they are more aware of the benefits and rewards they will receive for being beautiful in the eyes of our society.

Rhea, Deborah, and Kristin L. Wiginton. “Cognitive Mapping: Its Use as an Assessment Tool for Disordered Eating.” Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal. Sept. 1999: 63.

The concentration in this article is on women who are involved in some sort of sport activity and how their chances of developing disordered eating are compared to that of a woman who is not involved in sports. Results were shown for a 20 year old athlete and her perceptions of being thin vs. her athletic performance. The athlete was asked to write her immediate reactions on a piece of paper to phrases like “being thin” and “gaining weight.” The benefits of the cognitive mapping strategy seem to be an alarm to coaches and to parents to watch the young athlete to make sure a possible situation does not occur. The article leans towards the point of view that athletes will be more likely to develop disordered eating in order to enhance their performance as compared to non-athletes.

“To Squat or Not?” Girls’ Life. Oct/Nov 2001: 36.

The article answers an important question from a reader about an athlete who is on a strict diet and has failed to get her monthly period. The reader has questioned why this phenomenon has occurred. The magazine touches on the issue of Female Athlete Triad. There are a series of consequences the body undergoes when it is starved of nutrients and is worked too hard. Loss of menstrual period, weak bones (later in life) and disordered eating from the false notion that being skinny has a positive impact on performance. Sports that are especially prone to the female athlete triad are swimmers, runners, dancers, and skaters. The author gives advice on what a female athlete should do in order to avoid this problem and also if she does happen to miss menstrual cycles.

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