When you have eating problems

‘I remember when you were such a fat kid, but look at you now — you’re gorgeous!’

What do you do with a statement like that? Thank you for reinforcing my insecurities regarding my weight and the pressure to stay thin even though you can’t possibly know that I have these issues?

What do I do when you, a perfectly skinny friend of mine, say, ‘I need to lose a few pounds. I’m so fat’ or ‘I lost ten pounds!’ or ‘I wish I were as thin as you’?

I want to tell you: Don’t. Don’t do it the way I did, because that was not the way to go.

When I was in my early teens, I had eating problems.

(Eating problems, mind you, not an eating disorder — when counselling, providing peer support, or simply having a conversation with someone, it is only right to reflect the other person’s choice of language.)

So, eating problems.

Like many other young people of my age, I had terribly low self-esteem and a poor body image. No one who knows me now will believe it, but I was a fat child. Roly-poly about to explode out of my skin in one photo sort of fat. My parents, bless their hearts, subscribed to the Chinese belief that a chubby child is a blessing, so my brother and I were both overweight examples of that belief in action.

Like many other plump children of that age, I got bullied a fair bit for being so. No wonder I didn’t take kindly to being fat.

And, of course, there were the media messages we’re all familiar with by now, aren’t we? Thin is good, fat is bad. Thin is good, fat is lazy. Thin is good, fat is not what you want to be. I didn’t want to be fat, if only to get people off my back. And maybe to feel okay about myself, too.

It wasn’t until I was thirteen when this desire really kicked in, though. Looking back, I have no idea why it happened then — I’d been gradually losing my baby fat throughout the years, and while not quite slender yet, I was by no means fat.

Whatever the reason, I decided to eat less. Eating less seemed like the quickest, easiest way to lose weight. And it was something that was easily in my control.

So I ate less, and lost some weight. Encouraged, I ate even less, and lost even more weight. Other girls started telling me they wished they were skinny like me. We can see where this is going, can’t we?

Before long, I was down to one real meal a day, and my parents could not understand where all that food they were giving me was going. I couldn’t understand what the problem was, because I genuinely did not feel hungry anymore. Eating was something I had to do to function — but I tried to get by on as little as I possibly could. It seemed like such a time-consuming activity, after a while. I developed all sorts of methods for throwing my food away without anyone knowing how.

All the while this was happening, I didn’t think of myself as fat. I just want to lose a few pounds, I kept telling myself. It’s much easier to gain weight than lose it; if I have a low base weight, all I need to do is maintain it. I don’t have an eating disorder because people with eating disorders think they’re fat, and I don’t think I’m fat. It wasn’t a problem that I kept lowering my target weight — just a little more…

It wasn’t until I was sixteen and looking at a photo of myself when I realised that I had a problem. By this point, I wasn’t losing any more weight and was just ‘maintaining’ it (by making sure to eat less whenever I started gaining a couple). I’d gone out to a friend’s farewell party and had returned happily, thinking that I’d looked great. Flicking through the photos, however, I was taken aback: that skeletal girl was not me. I could make out every part of her collarbone and there were hollows where cheeks should have been. How on earth had I deluded myself into thinking this was attractive? No, really — how?

I’ve spent years since then trying to develop a healthier body image. No more weighing myself three times a day — no weighing myself at all, most of the time, because I freak out whenever my weight goes up or down, these days. Telling myself that my BMI is more important than my weight; that as long as I am eating and exercising well, I’ll be at my optimum, and everyone’s optimum is different.

But when you tell me you wish you could be thinner, it’s hard for me to tell you honestly not to, because I know exactly what it’s like to want this.

And when someone tells me that I look great thin, without thinking how that might have come about, it reinforces all my latent insecurities I try so hard to reject. It makes it hard to want to do things differently, healthily.

Do a good deed and help the people around you develop healthy body images by speaking about it in terms of health, in terms of eating nutritiously and exercising regularly, not in artificial binaries of thin/fat, muscular/flabby. Just because you don’t know about it, doesn’t mean that they’re not struggling with these issues.

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