Gabi Conti
May 21, 2019 2:51 pm
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For Mental Health Awareness Month, HelloGiggles is publishing “The Support You Deserve,” an essay series exploring the different barriers, stigmas, and myths blocking our access to effective mental health care. This essay discusses anorexia and disordered eating behaviors. If these subjects trigger you, please read with caution.

It was my last summer at camp, and everywhere I went, the rumors swirled around me like mosquitos:

“She lost so much weight.”

“Yeah, she’s anorexic.”

“She looks gross.

It’s true. I’d lost twenty pounds since the last summer—but I wouldn’t come to terms with my eating disorder until much later in my life.

I had spent that winter obsessing over being skinny: squinting at my curvy figure in my bedroom mirror, sucking in my stomach while pushing back my love handles, searching for any other pockets of fat on my body. It was 2002, and there was nothing I wanted more than for my hip bones to pop out of my Abercrombie & Fitch low-rise jeans. I’d look at a photo of me and my camp friend Ashley, and outline my dream figure with a pink milky pen. In the photograph, we both wore matching bikinis. I thought her two-piece fit her perfectly; I poured out of mine.

Leading up to that summer, I was sick of being the “big girl,” always taller and chunkier than most of my middle school peers with big boobs I felt ashamed of. In combination with the early-2000s preppy style of pastel cardigan sets and chunky silver jewelry, my body size had most people mistaking me for “ma’am” until my smile revealed rainbow braces. Boy students often asked me for hugs. Later, I’d learn this wasn’t because they liked me—they just wanted to feel my boobs.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always focused on food. Food is the core of an Italian family, and mine was no different. Get-togethers centered around eating, from the afternoon antipasti to late night pastries. When I was six and my mom got sick with cancer, my family let me eat whatever I wanted as a “sorry your mom might die” arrangement. My sadness led to a specific kind of thought process: I didn’t have a healthy mom, but I had strawberry frosted Pop-Tarts, rows of Oreos drenched in whole milk, and double cheeseburgers and fries from McDonald’s aplenty. Every bite felt like a hug, assuring me it was going to be okay.

My mom survived cancer, but my relationship with food stayed complicated.

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By the time I entered high school, I felt lost and out of control. Both of my grandmothers died in the first two months of freshman year—the first people I really knew and loved who passed away. In my grief, I felt like the only thing I could control was the food I put into my body. Food, once a friend, was now the enemy. I transformed all of my opportunities to eat into opportunities to starve—giving away my bagged lunch, picking at my dinner plate, always turning down desserts. I started working out obsessively, pushing myself to melt off every possible pound until I looked the way I wanted: bony and skinny with boobs that no longer defined me.

But my eating disorder didn’t look like the ones I saw on TV.

I still ate sometimes. I wasn’t counting calories or swearing off certain foods. I never threw up my meals. No one ever said I looked “too skinny.” For the longest time, I just blamed my weight loss on my sadness because I didn’t have the information to understand what was really happening: I was anorexic.

Then my parents congratulated me on finally losing my baby weight, and even started taking me into Manhattan for modeling go-sees.

I was always tall, but now I was finally skinny. I wasn’t a “big girl” anymore—I was a model. “Her skin isn’t usually this bad,” my mom apologized to a modeling agent at a teen magazine. (Of course, my mom could only see my problems that were on the surface.) That year, I booked my first modeling gig; it was for Abercrombie kids. Now my hip bones not only poked out of my low-rise Abercrombie & Fitch jeans—I was Abercrombie & Fitch. You’d think this would have made me happy, but I still felt just as empty as my constantly growling stomach. My pictures never made it into A&F stores, and I never made it as a model. I realize now this was for the best.

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I remember being anorexic so vividly, but I don’t have those same clear memories of my recovery. I called my dad hoping he could refresh my memory. Instead, he sighed loudly when I told him I was writing a piece about being anorexic in high school. “You were never anorexic,” he said. “You lost a lot of weight and your hair got thinner.” “Yeah, Dad,” I grunted. “Those are kind of the textbook symptoms of anorexia.”

I vaguely remember meeting with a nutritionist as a teenager. She helped me learn that food wasn’t the enemy and that feeling full after eating wasn’t shameful. When she put me on a diet of healthy whole foods, I stopped stressing about eating “too much”—but I soon became obsessed with healthy eating, and I continue to think constantly about food.

Don’t get me wrong, my relationship with food is much healthier than it was during my freshman year of high school, but it’s still complicated, and I still struggle with my body image. Thoughts regularly running through my head include: What am I going to eat next? When can I burn it off? What foods can I cut out to stay in shape? When should I go on another detox or juice cleanse?

That’s why I can’t remember the exact moment I got “better.” Eating disorder recovery is a lifelong process.

I’ve learned what habits are harmful to me, so I’ve cut them out. It doesn’t help me to scroll through Instagram or read about celebrity diets that are basically starvation plans. I’m now aware that models posing with giant slices of greasy pizza or burgers the size of their faces probably aren’t eating and swallowing that food, so I shouldn’t aspire to look like them. I’m grateful to role models like Jameela Jamil for challenging influencers and their fit tea. I’m happy that girls growing up today can look up to beautiful women like Tyra Banks, Lizzo, and Tess Holiday—women of diverse sizes whose values aren’t tied to thinness. I am proud that we’re celebrating our curves.

Fifteen years after developing anorexia, I’ve started wondering how it would feel if we all started talking more about our messed-up relationships with food. That’s why, for the first time ever, I wanted to publicly share my story. Maybe, if we spoke more openly, we’d feel less ashamed, we could support each other through recovery, and we could help each other find resources for treatment.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please visit the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) for more information and support or text “NEDA” to 741-741.

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