What I wish I had learned in health class — and why it matters
Between the ages of 10 and 11 I started to notice my clothes fitting a whole lot more snug, then my face filled in with plump cheeks, and my mom started strategically hiding all of the junk food in the house from me. I went from an extremely average size to a much chubbier chipmunk look.
On top of a major weight gain when I was 11, my middle school started to replace everyday dodgeball in gym class with twice a week health classes. Instead of picking teams we began calculating each other’s BMI’s. My gym teacher paired us with a BMI “buddy” to help us find our overall score. To my mortification my BMI buddy, Amy*, started laughing hysterically when she used my height and weight to discover that my BMI landed me in the obese category. She even decided that it was so hilarious I deserved the new nickname “Caroline the Swine.” My gym teacher asked me to stay after class to talk about the incident.
In his defense, my gym teacher was most likely trying to spare me from future humiliation by keeping me after class in order to discretely give me some extra helpful nutrition tips. With good intentions, he suggested that I start to keep a food log of everything I ate, including the calories and food group.
The poor guy even cracked an encouraging smile while handing me a bunch of cheesy pastel colored nutrition pamphlets with titles like “Beyond your BMI” or “10 Best Nutrition Facts for Every Girl.” The latter one was the worst offender. It had pictures of trendy celebrities and a section completely devoted to which diet pills these seemingly perfect celebrities used that would work best for average folks like me. Being 11, I was a total sucker as soon as I read about how Avril Lavigne supposedly only took in 1500 calories a day.
He totally thought he was just trying to help me avoid teasing. In reality, he had actually introduced me to my all-consuming love affair with disordered eating. Even at just 11 years old, logging everything I ate became more holy than religion and my penance for consuming too many of those pesky evil calories was puking (I hate those cliché ED terms so bear with me). Nothing I did seemed to help rid my thighs of the baby fat that encompassed them. After every meal, the calories I consumed shouted so loud I could barely think straight.
My self-loathing was so strong that I was convinced that any adult could immediately smell it out on me, I took great and even ingenious lengths to hide my dieting obsession. I covertly smuggled diet pills in the hollowed out tips of pens. I was so good at sneaking around meals that I put James Bond himself to shame. At the time my mom thought my journals were just normal tween diaries filled with dreams of Justin Bieber, Smackers lip balm and Tiger Beat magazine. Being the baby of the family, I flew completely under the radar without suspicion.
My eating disorder, food journals and all, graduated with me from middle school on to high school. High school was a major reality check for the nerdy overweight girl who had always picked staying inside to read a good book rather than going outside and getting exercise (imagine a chunky Rory Gilmore, and you’ve pretty much pictured me). I had a hard time talking to people, let alone making friends. I constantly had what I like to call “Calorie Brain,” meaning my mind was too busy replaying every single bite I ate that day to even focus on what teachers or classmates had to say. Most likely, I didn’t have many friends because of how self-involved I was. Having multiple eating disorders was a one woman show that I just so happened to be the star, director and producer of.
When I was 14, my mom let me get a gym membership after I begged for months and bribed her by promising to double my chores at home. I was convinced that if I worked out hard enough and only ate 1,500 calories a day, then people would totally begin to notice me and want to be my BFF (because doesn’t everybody want a friend who works out three hours a day and passes on eating cake at her OWN birthday party?). Exercise binging took over my life to the point that I gave up on doing homework and reading just to spend extra time working out. Why did I need to read Romeo and Juliet when I was already basically in a romantic relationship with my treadmill?
By the time I had turned 15, I had lost 50 lbs in five months. I had completely lost control of myself, but suddenly people became to notice how thin I had become. They complimented me on how fit I looked and how much self-discipline I must have had to be so in shape. Even though I had lost the weight I had obsessed over for so long, my self-esteem was still at an all-time low. This fact led me to the hollow realization that the problem was never my weight to begin with (I know, shocker right?). It was just about the most anticlimactic result imaginable; I thought I would be so happy once I was skinny, but I was still the same old me. I decided I needed serious help because the whole plan of starving the confidence into me had yet to work, even after five years of trying.
Getting help was one of the best and most uncomfortable choices I’ve ever made. I felt I was almost betraying my younger self’s efforts when I told a complete stranger all the crazy habits I had worked so hard to cover up (like, “Nice to meet you — oh, btw, I cry when I eat carbs but pshhh I’m fine. Completely normal.”). I explained to this counselor my deeply rooted fear of possibly having another huge weight gain like the one I had in middle school.
The counselor raised an eyebrow to this notion and stopped me to explain that, “You really should not be the same weight you were when you were 11 when you’re 16. You’re supposed to gain weight and muscle in your pre-teens, it’s a natural process. You were never fat.” Just like that my mind was blown: I was never actually fat, my body was just adjusting to change in hormones. I don’t know if it was the lack of carbs in my diet that was slowly suffocating my brain cells, but that idea had never even occurred to me.
The fact that your body is supposed to grow in different ways throughout puberty is something I desperately wish I had learned in health class instead of learning how to calculate a stupid BMI (I’m no expert here, but pretty sure BMI is actually an acronym for Biggest Myth Imagined). In many ways, we’re taught that preoccupation with body image and diet culture is just a normal part of womanhood. We’re taught that being “health conscious” involves restricting what we eat so we can be seen as more attractive. I thought for years that my obsession with counting calories made me the epitome of health. Every time I deprived myself of so called “bad” foods I thought it made me that much closer to perfection. In Courtney E. Martin’s book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters she says, “I believe in the possibility of a world where a girl doesn’t have to learn how to count calories at the same age she learns algebra.” Little girls measuring their worth by their courage, curiosity, and kindness instead of their weight is the kind of world I want to live in. To me, health involves so much more than the generic numerical standards I was taught in health class. Health, to me, is a continuing awareness of the skin I live in; it is taking care of myself by being kind to both my mind and body.
Although my final food log feels like a lifetime ago, I still have the journals tucked away in my closet. They are scribbled with faded fat-hating words that I cringe and roll my eyes at when I think back to how preposterous I was. When I find myself having a bad day, I crack one open to remind myself how important it is to keep self-love central in my life.
Even considering how much I’ve changed since my days of obsessive dieting, it’s always an ongoing challenge to love myself. Every day I put in effort to dull the inner monologue that constantly nags me to weigh just 5 pounds less. I keep the journals as a memorial to all the progress I’ve made. The negative self-criticism still sneaks back into the forefront of my thoughts from time to time but I take it day-by-day and I appreciate the little wins. I’m glad to say that now my thighs have a healthy jiggle when I walk and I don’t define my worth based upon miles on a treadmill. Calories sound much more like a distant whisper than the deafening roar they use to be.
(Images via here)
Caroline C. is a part time insomniac, part time writer, and full time book nerd. When she’s not fangirling over her idols Amy Schumer and Amy Poehler, she’s most likely reading, petting a dog, or pushing the next episode button on Netflix.