Early Bloomer: Into the World of Eating Disorders
*Editor’s note: This post discusses the author’s experience with an eating disorder and may be triggering for some audiences.*
I was a gigantic baby, and I wish I could string together a better assortment of words that didn’t sound so inherently uncomfortable to say—but I was. In fact, I’m pretty sure the reason my dad never invested in a home gym at our first house is because he could’ve easily bench-pressed me for his morning workout. Yep, that big; and thus was my grand and golden entrance into this mundane world.
But I grew into my frame relatively quickly, as kids often do. And soon enough, I was a sweet yet sassy 4-year-old, confident and fearless. Almost too fearless, I’d argue: One of my mom’s less fond memories of that era involved her wealthy friend boasting about a life of luxury and I, in all my childhood wisdom, following up her filibuster candidly with, “You know, you should really get a job.” Needless to say, I went to bed early that night.
But then, I just. kept. growing! And growing…and growing…and growing…Until finally, I was towering over my classmates. “An early bloomer,” as they say. And essentially, I think that’s where it all started—my history with insecurity, that is.
I don’t know why it bothered me so much, being tall. It seems like such a stupid thing to be embarrassed by really—something you can’t control. But back then, I wanted more than anything to be a carbon copy of my peers, to be tiny and petite like the rest of my friends. I found myself longing to be able to borrow a swimsuit for the spontaneous, late evening dips into the pool after forgetting my one piece at home. Or—just once—be chosen as the top of the pyramid for those God-forsaken cheer routines we spent the whole day working on, to which our parents were then subjected to suffer through (more commonly referred to as, “the reason I’m not having kids”).
By middle school, though, I had pretty much assimilated with the rest of my class, and in response shifted my lack of self-confidence to something new: my smile. I was in my second round of braces at the time—yes, you read that right (before the whole process of correcting my underbite began, my upper and lower jaw didn’t even share the same postal code—true story). But even that didn’t get to me too much. It was junior high; I mean, pretty much everyone had braces back then.
But then came high school, and with it the rain. At first glance, everything seemed it should be falling in place. My teeth were finally straightening out, my height had been at a steady 5’5″ for some years now. I was blending in by the day. But as my emotional wellbeing began to spiral downwards (another tale for another time), my confidence took a turn for the worst while something new grabbed my attention: my weight.
Claiming 9th grade was the year I became insecure about my figure would be, in part, a lie (as you’ve borne witness to already). Given my taller build, I’d always been a little wary about stepping on the scale. However, it was the first year my appearance began to consume me, and, more seriously, the first year I ever struggled with an eating disorder.
I’m not really sure what the tipping point was. High school more or less feels like one giant blur (thank God), and that’s something that only grows more true the farther back I try to go. But there is one seemingly insignificant memory in particular that sticks out to me all these years later, and that I attribute the catalyst for my undoing: homecoming 2015.
Funnily enough, I didn’t actually go to the dance that year. I’d considered it—I’d even looked at dresses. But when trying out for the Volleyball team that fall I’d torn my ACL, leaving me with crutches and a full leg brace, so heading out for a night of dancing wasn’t exactly a realistic thing to put on the agenda. Instead, my older sister took me out for a manicure, followed by a trip to the local KFC (we’ve always had a taste for the finer things in life). But our afternoon excursion had a time limit—my brother, a then junior, was still going and we both wanted to be back in time to see him off.
I had a blue dress on that day. Or at the very least, I put one on when we got back. It was a pretty one too, probably stolen from the back of my sister’s closet. And as I gazed at the reflection in the upstairs mirror, I found myself thinking, “Wow…not too bad. I could honestly go to the dance in this if I really wanted to.”
But of course that was already off the table and had been for some time now. So quickly, I made my way downstairs to join the rest of the party. But just before running outside, I grabbed something off the kitchen countertop: a half-empty bucket of KFC.
Yeah, so you can probably already guess where this is going: ironic photoshoot with my “date,” Mr. Chicken Bucket. BUT before you hate me for being cringy, please keep in mind that we’re on the same team here: If I saw 14-year-old Alli out on street she’d most definitely catch these hands. Quite honestly though, I was on a whole other level of insanity back then (as young adolescents often are), so if that fight ever were to go down, there’s no saying who would actually come out as victor (think unstoppable force meets immovable object). Not that any of this is particularly relevant; I digress.
The photo spree was relatively brief, as both my photographer (more informally known as Mom) and I grew tired of the idea rather quickly. Besides, the time for my brother’s departure was coming upon us, and so as we all shuffled back inside, she handed me her phone.
“The pictures are on here,” she’d said, “You can send them to yourself.” I tapped lightly on the little photo album icon and waited for them to appear.
You know it’s weird, because much like everyone else I’ve had my share of unsightly pictures. But when the little black screen finally finished buffering, the image before me conjured up something I’d never felt towards myself before: disgust.
They were deleted just as quickly as they’d come. My fingers tapped ferociously at the little trash can button off in the corner, over and over again blindly while I did my best not to look. As soon as I was certain every last one was gone for good, I placed the phone back down on the cold countertop. Now I had something else to do: covering up what was left of the KFC—no more of that for me today, I’d told myself. And all the while, I had but one question playing on repeat, like a broken record in my head, “Is that me? Is that what I actually look like?”
Of course my battle with bulimia wasn’t brought out solely from this one incident. As I’ve demonstrated throughout this story, I’ve always had a history with letting my exterior infiltrate my sense of value as a whole. But I really think that day, standing in my kitchen in that God awful blue dress I now couldn’t get off fast enough is when it happened—my tipping point.
And thus began a four-and-a-half-year struggle that millions of other people across this globe know all too well (roughly 70 million, to be exact). I wasn’t open about it for a long time. A year had come and gone painfully before I even found the courage to be honest with my best friend at the time. And I think that’s something that rings true for a lot of people out there struggling with EDs. There’s this inherent sense of guilt and shame that tends to come along with them, a feeling only exacerbated by the ignorant belief that they’re merely a problem born out of vanity, something found at the far end of self-absorption. But in reality, it has everything to do with your sense of self-worth, and self-worth is of the utmost importance.
For a long time I had this graph in my head, one that depicted a negative correlation between how much I weighed and the amount of love and respect I deserved not only from others, but from myself. It wasn’t until this past year through truly starting to realize who I am and all I want to offer this world that I discovered that just wasn’t true. And it was this journey that led me to another day not too long when I finally decided I’d had enough; and for the first time in almost half a decade, I knew something in me really meant it.
It was in the wake of a relapse that had come shortly after spring break. Before that, I’d actually been doing good for some time. But after coming home from college and being boarded up all day inside at the hands of a statewide stay at home order, I found myself falling back into old, painful ways. And then came another small, still moment—much like that one at 14–and with it that same disgust. But it wasn’t disgust at myself this time. No, it was disgust at my actions, at the fact that I was still hurting someone I had begun to really love: me.
I think I even said the words out loud: I’m done. And since then, that statement made some weeks ago has still stayed true.
Self-love really does start from within. It starts with loving who you are, not what you are. I might be controversial in saying this, but I don’t think the primary cure for a broken image is filling up on messages of body positivity or self-acceptance. That helps, sure. But rather, I think it should start with realizing that the aesthetic appeal of the physical self should not be taken too seriously. That there’s more to life than what you look like. That your soul should be so radiant it outshines any shell it could ever be placed in.
Part of the reason I want to get better is because I want to live. Because God knows living with an eating disorder isn’t living. There’s so much of myself I have and long to give, and I understand I can’t do that if I keep my value as a person rooted in a dress size.
It’s not often I have regrets. Not because I don’t mess up—I do. A lot. But the whole notion always seemed rather redundant to me, to let your mind be imprisoned by someone you used to be. My mantra has always been to let the mistakes of your past be the guardrails of your future. However, admittedly from time to time I do find myself ruminating over that path I went down when I was 14, and how my life might be different had I done otherwise. I probably wouldn’t be dealing with major water retention right now, or—a more taxing task—unlearning the harmful belief that there’s some ideal version of myself out there I must obtain to be loved.
But that leads me to my second and more important mantra: don’t let anything go to waste, not even pain–especially not pain.
And that’s why I tell my story—that’s why I tell all my stories, but that message rings especially true for this one. I remember what it felt like at fourteen to feel like I was the only one. I remember the pain, and the shame, and the guilt I kept bottled up inside for so long because I was too embarrassed to do otherwise. I remember it, a little all too well.
But I also remember the sense of comfort felt upon seeing others open up about their own battles. I remember looking at them, and then being able to look at myself and go, “See? You’re not so alone.”
If my parents instilled anything into me, it’s this: love is a choice. And while that quote is most often used in reference to how we should treat one another, it’s also pertinent to the way we should treat ourselves.
Choosing love looks like a lot of different things for me now: It’s a morning cup of tea. It’s going for a jog every afternoon. It’s avoiding religiously counting calories, or stepping on a scale each morning before hopping into the shower. It’s saying no to binging on a bunch of food I don’t even really want to eat anyways, but also saying yes to the occasional bowl of ice cream with Magic Shell because that stuff slaps. Above all, however, it’s choosing to maintain a balance. A balance whose one true goal is to be healthy, emotionally and physically.
While my grand teenaged ego may still have me believe I could easily go 1v1 in philosophy with Socrates himself, there’s a part of me cognizant enough to recognize that I’m only in the dawn of my journey for self-love. And I’m also cognizant enough to recognize that it’s not one I should walk alone, which is why I plan on seeking professional help as soon as we’re all allowed to leave our houses again (a step in healing I *highly* advocate for—these battles are ones not to fight solely yourself). A long road lies ahead, one that will not be easy to take–most important trails in life aren’t. But that light at the end of the tunnel for me is knowing that eventually, it’ll lead to somewhere beautiful.
“I will not cause pain without allowing something new to be born” — Isaiah 66:9