As I sit here writing this piece, all I am thinking about is the lemon cake on the bakery counter, waiting to be purchased.
Feb. 22-28 was National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. And while our Facebook pages and campus emails are usually riddled with information for various causes, this specific cause went relatively unnoticed. And I find that it usually does.
In the fall of my freshman year, I gained 15 pounds. As a small girl with a fortunately fast metabolism, I had never gained weight in high school no matter what I ate. Additional weight was a novel concept for me, and this myth of college weight gain became my internal obsession and reality.
Growing up, I always ate healthily. I was lucky to have a home-cooked meal every night and to attend a school that provided breakfasts and lunches focused on nutrition. But even I had my guilty pleasures — come on, I’m from D.C. We are born to love two things: Five Guys and Georgetown Cupcakes.
Frank, the man who worked in my high school cafeteria, knew me by name. I would frequently go up for seconds or thirds, and he knew to serve me as much as he served the boys twice my size on the football team or else risk incurring the wrath of a hungry teenage girl. I remember, one day, asking him for more food. He responded, “Sure, fatty!” It did not bother me then. In fact, I was proud. I was 5-foot-3 and twiggy at the time, and this was the type of joke shared between a worker and an active student with a zealous appetite.
Fast forward to freshman fall of college, and I was still eating enormous portions. I took the “all you can eat” slogan of the dining halls very seriously, carrying several plates to my seat at one time. But I didn’t have a clue what made food bad or good for the body. Though I would try to limit myself in terms of sweets and eat many fruits and veggies, I would also overload on pastas, grilled cheeses and other Ratty delights — how I miss meal plan! But by winter break, it was evident that my fast metabolism was quickly slowing.
Beginning around November, already unhappy at college — I hold no doubt that my unhappiness fueled the eating, and the eating fueled the unhappiness — I had started to hate my body in a way I never had before. I called myself fat; I called myself ugly. I convinced myself nobody would want to be friends with someone like me, and I stayed away from the hook-up scene. Outside of my a cappella group, I was a lonely recluse.
By December, I could no longer fit into my jeans, and I solely resorted to leggings and large sweaters to hide my figure; I was still within a healthy weight range but in a body that I was not used to. I remember taking my breakfast tray to the milk machine one morning at the Ratty and standing next to an athlete filling up his cup. Looking down at his tray, I noticed we had the exact same meals, except I had a larger amount on my plate than he had on his. He looked down at my tray and, obviously noting the same thing, smirked and said “nice,” before walking away.
It was a joke, said in the same tone as Frank’s — a male-to-female approval of consumption. But this time I did not feel proud. I was ashamed. I was so unhappy with myself and with my body.
It was not until spring semester that I decided to take action. Enough was enough, I told myself. It was time to change. I enrolled in an online program that guided me through losing weight in a physically safe way — something that was very important to me. I wanted to lose weight and sustain my healthy body.
I started exercising regularly and both looked and felt great. The program required inserting every item of food I ate into a nutrition calculator and all of the exercise I was doing into the program. And though, after months of effort, I was strong, fit and thrilled with my accomplishments, my physical health did not reflect my mental health. This program fed my always existent obsessive-compulsive anxiety disorder.
I became obsessed with counting calories and monitoring my weight. Even though I had lost the pounds I had gained in the fall, I still kept track of every calorie I was eating and every calorie I was burning — both online and mentally. Going out to restaurants was a stress-inducing nightmare. I would not want to eat anything on the menu after automatically estimating the calorie content, and I was so concerned about re-gaining weight that my days were spent scheduling myself around meal times and places. Food overwhelmed my mental capacity, and it was exhausting.
Early that summer my habits worsened, and the all-consuming stress pushed me to go to lengths I never had before to avoid future potential weight gain. Not officially labeled as an eating disorder, life-disrupting stresses revolving around food are labeled under the category of “disordered eating.”
As defined by the National Eating Disorders Collaboration, “Disordered eating is a disturbed and unhealthy eating pattern that can include restrictive dieting, compulsive eating or skipping meals.” Disordered eating shares characteristics with and has the potential to transform into categorized eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorders and other equally severe illnesses. It may also result in stomach ulcers, headaches, fatigue, weight gain and muscle cramps, to name a few.
Many students at Brown know both the general stigmas and ramifications of eating disorders and disordered eating, but few know the vast extent of its existence.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated disorders, “Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting and taking laxatives” to avoid gaining weight. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and anorexia is reported as the third most common chronic illness among adolescents. Approximately 24 million Americans of “all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder.” And this statistic does not even take the “disordered eating” category into account.
I refuse to say I made the choice of developing a disordered eating habit, but it is hard to reflect back and excuse myself for all actions. The words I said to my body while in front of the mirror, the words I said to myself while in the dining hall and the words I said about myself in front of my drastically younger and currently maturing sisters haunt me. The social experiences I cut myself off from as a result of my habit leave me with many regrets.
While I mostly no longer engage in my disordered eating habits, I would be lying if I did not say there are still aspects of them that remain ingrained — obsessing over the desire for certain foods, like the lemon cake on the counter: its taste, its caloric value and both the satisfaction and regret it holds.
Though I still won’t let myself buy the cake, that is something I am working towards — allowing myself to indulge more frequently, if only out of love for myself.
Zein Khleif ’15 is an independent concentrator in political psychology and can be reached at zein_khleif@brown.