Exposure to media is not what convinced me I wasn't pretty enough.
I never looked at the pictures in magazines to compare myself to the women I saw. I was really only interested in the shiny watches the models were wearing, or if I would get a perfume-sample to rub on my wrist. Looking back, I can safely say that the insecurities I had about my body by the time I was fourteen started developing thanks to aunts, cousins, uncles, and my mother.
Actually, I don’t really blame anyone. I am not seeking some teleological answer for the body issues I experienced. Statistically speaking, it’s not uncommon for children with emotional turmoil to develop mental health issues in adulthood. And then there are the statistics for young women developing eating disorders. With the luck of the genetic draw and my early life experiences in Russia, I must embrace being part of these statistics.
The true culprit?
Illogical lessons taught at an early age, which eventually created unhealthy thought patterns. To grow up in a big Greek family is to be known and discussed by every one of those family members. Are you eating too much? Too little? Why do you only play with boys? Why can’t you get along with the girls? Eh, you should get your hands dirty in the mud while you’re so young! Oh, my goodness, you are filthy! How could you give your mother this much laundry to do? With so many opinions to listen to, and none properly filtered by my mother or father, I started to feel like I could never do the right thing. Initially, I was a bookworm and only cared about my body enough to ensure it was in working condition to climb trees, carry around dirt, and ride on tire swings.
My first encounter with the concept of an eating disorder was while I was reading an unofficial Spice Girls biography and learning that Geri Halliwell used bulimia as a way to keep weight off when she was a young model. Being eight at the time, I had no idea what that word meant, but I was perplexed by the description. I was taking in new information and just re-reading it over and over to make sense of it. And I couldn’t. The only time I ever threw up was when I was sick, and that felt horrible, so why would anyone choose to do that?
By the time I turned nine, the message that my body was meant to be worthy of admiration became pervasive. Someone in my family would make a comment about my “growing womanly hips,” or my future ability to give birth to “nice, healthy Greek boys.” Every time, I was completely taken aback: Why were my changing body parts so important to others? I don’t think I have control over this. Please stop talking about them.
I had an uncle who would smack my butt whenever I would walk by. I responded with a puzzled look, he’d add “to help it grow nice and big!” Another uncle, when asked how my hair looked after I dyed it, said “it’s nice, but you have to get rid of that tummy if you really want to make a change.” Meanwhile, my mother was sure to remind me how I wouldn’t be “able to eat like this forever” whenever I ate pasta in the evening. It’s not like I had access to decadent food either. My mother didn’t cook and wasn’t great about shopping for healthy options.
At this point, I was between twelve and thirteen. I weighed less than 100 lbs at 5 ft tall (43.4 kg, 153 cm).
Culturally this was normal. In Russia and within my Greek family, girls were raised in a manner which made them attractive to boys. You would fail as a parent if your girl was not obedient and didn’t look like she cared to get married. Naturally, this meant my mother would pay for belly-dancing classes even though she balked when my piano teacher had the audacity to ask to be paid. If that doesn’t seem natural, or normal to you, know I didn’t find it that way either and was therefore considered a rebel. I would never say that dancing isn’t wonderful, it’s more a problem that my mother never asked me what I wanted, but instead focused on shaping my body as a way to obtain the approval of others.
As my hormones changed, conflicting and uncomfortable messages from adults continued, creating clashes and confusion, as well as a distortion in understanding the purpose of my body.
Somewhere in the middle of all of this, I moved countries. Away from my mother and towards a father whose family was not looking forward to getting to know me. This is what proved to be the most fertile soil to make matters worse. I wanted to be accepted and loved, and as it became clearer that wasn’t going to happen, I started to take the anger and disappointment out on my body. After all, I had been consistently taught that it was the best tool to obtain love from others.
Life in my father's home was a horrible cycle. Overcompensating for the often lack of food in the USSR, many Russian families in the U.S. cook lavish dinners almost weekly. Every weekend there would be at least one large meal during which I overate, partially to compensate for years of malnourishment and partially because I would offend the cook if I didn’t. And the cook got very angry when offended. She also did not shy away from offering what she thought to be great advice about food. When one evening I jokingly noted that I couldn’t keep eating but wished I could, she responded with: “If you throw up, you can make room for more.”
What. A. Great. Idea.
If I wanted to keep eating, but still desired to stay skinny so that someone would love me, I needed to remove that food from my body, or so I hypothesized. Purging accomplished that, sure, but so would running and doing extensive amounts of sit-ups. I had already started developing anxiety-induced asthma at the time so exercising did not come easily, but I had my Russian tummy-hating uncle visiting often enough that I kept motivated.
On days when I would run I would often have to stop midway through a step. Dizzy and unable to breathe, I would force myself to keep going. I knew I wouldn’t pass out, and if I did, it would be easy enough to write it off as finally reaching the optimal punishment.
The following three years of my life were rather graphic, please be warned. Skip the next paragraph should you prefer to avoid details. I promise to be less graphic right after.
By fifteen I was caught in a cycle: Fight with my Stepmom, Eat, Cry while vomiting. I remember the feeling of stomach acid as it hit the back of my teeth, falling yellow and clear into the bowl. I was never satisfied until every last morsel of food I had consumed was out of my body. I clung with brittle nails to the toilet bowl I was tasked to clean weekly but never could “correctly”. Sweat kept my thinning hair clinging my face. Crying and vomiting while the sink ran so that no one could hear. Only when I felt like I had punished myself enough for not being good enough would I stop.
I want every little girl to know how horrible binging and purging truly feels. There is nothing sexy or glorious about emptying the contents of your stomach. Our bodies are not built to do it and fight every step of the way to try to get us to stop. Unfortunately, it takes the mind some time to catch up with the body.
As an adult I often imagine thousands of young girls repeating this act while living in abusive households. None of us ever received the approval we craved, even after we performed our penance. None of us had mothers who could check on us and worry, hold our hair, then help us wash up and let us know that such sacrifices were unnecessary for anyone to truly love you. All of us not yet wise enough to start learning to love ourselves.
I was one of those women and I was alone. I was also vehemently convinced that what I was doing was entirely normal and benign. And if I ever doubted it, I would re-convince myself that this is how every woman spends her time in the bathroom, and that made it completely ordinary.
Sitting on tile, clutching my stomach in immense pain as my body rebelled. The only true and consistent consequences of my actions were unrelated to weight-loss. I never lost a pound. I never felt better. Instead, I had cavities in my teeth, coarse hair, peeling nails, and painful acid reflux, which to this day remains as a reminder of my mistakes.
I am so grateful my body fought a good fight. Lots of internal scarring, sure, but it was working against a broken mind, trying to keep me alive, no matter how stupid my actions were.
Most of my family except for my sister knew and lauded my actions. Running was an approved sport substitute. Crying a lot and then going to the bathroom was just being overdramatic. Throwing up did not appear to be connected to either of those activities, which is why everything never came together as an issue.
It ended rather abruptly
I was seventeen and had finished my third course of prescription anti-acids in a year when my sister sat me down to talk. She never used the word bulimic, she just told her story and caught me with a throwaway phrase: “and I am pissed you keep wasting the food I buy us.”
At the time I was living with my sister and visiting my parents on the weekend. At one point our parents promised they would help us with rent, but they periodically forgot to. The two of us were living on her $35,000 a year salary with a monthly $1,100 rent payment for a one bedroom just because it was in a good school district and our parents promised to help. Needless to say, we didn’t have a lot of money for food, and the realization that I was for literally flushing our careful purchases down the drain filled me with guilt.
Now, bulimia doesn’t come with an OFF switch, but that realization was finally enough for me to want to stop. I went to teachers I thought would understand and connected with a few girls I thought I could trust and started to talk about it. I got better, but I didn’t fully stop the habit until I was midway through college.
The total body damage was the following:
- It took about a year my last purge for my nails to grow in normal.
- Two years for me to grow out hair that wasn’t brittle and split at the ends.
- A year for fluoride toothpaste to help my teeth, which had been damaged by stomach acid.
And that was just the damage I could heal from. As I mentioned, I still have the acid reflux and have not been able to digest lactose since. Rounding the whole thing out is, what else, Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
I have often referred to myself as broken. Sometimes in a derogatory way, other times with hope and implication that I can be fixed. My mental health never had a solid foundation, but I now own the fact that I was the one who broke my body.
The whole optimism of “but I learned this lesson” only applies if there was a reason to try and make the mistake. I don’t feel like this particular thing had to happen in my life to teach me a lesson. It happened because I misused my body as an outlet for my anger and hoping to find adoration. I don’t regret a lot of things that have happened to me, and I certainly have forgiven myself for doing this, but I really wish I never started the cycle. The cultural permeation of what I needed to be is what created the idea that I would need to “fix” my body at one point, but it was the constant reinforcement of this belief that drove me to act.
Since it is customary for these entries to have happy endings, I can note oen positive outcome.
Had this not happened to me, I would not be able to write about it. Without writing about it, I couldn’t spread awareness about what bulimia is truly like and perhaps deter someone from deciding to pursue it.
Consider how you speak to the women and men in your lives. Do you let them know they are okay the way they are, no matter what ideal they are feeling pressured to conform to? Or when someone looks thinner, do you compliment them before even asking how they feel? These are all pieces of daily life that had a hand in reinforcing my actions. My need to punish my body was born from the idea that my body was never right.
Think about what you wish someone would have said to you as a child and offer that insight to someone you know now. You don’t have to be bossy, but you can start a positive discussion around this difficult topic. Make a better default.
Are you ready to share your story? Have you helped someone who was going through this? Let me know in the comment section!