I have a special guest blogger today! She is one of the members of our Body Image Support Group, and I am so thankful that she is a part of it. In almost every session, I find an excuse to make her share her list of reasons for why she did not want to count calories because I love the list so much. I asked her if she would be willing to write a post for my blog so that all of those readers out there who struggle with mental illness can see that there is light at the end of the tunnel, regardless of how long that tunnel may seem.
It is a sad truth in our society that many people struggle with eating disorders. Moreover, just like any other mental illness, its spectrum is broad and deep. It is a big city that some people travel to and then leave after a short stay, while some set up residence in its limits and never leave. It is also full of invisible smog that suffocates and kills. I know this place like I know myself. I wore that citizenship like a second skin for nearly ten years of my young life.
I know the city like I grew up there, because in many ways, I did. My mind spent its adolescence wandering the streets of self-hatred and the alleys of obsession. It was easy to forget that anything else existed. I did make half-hearted attempts to recover once or twice in my teenage years, but these trips weren’t long—my permanent address remained the same.
It wasn’t until two things happened to me in college that set in motion my decision to leave and permanently depart from the city of this illness. One: I found my passion, writing. Two: I started going to therapy. Writing became a creative, constructive obsession that helped me face and make meaning from my eating disorder. Therapy allowed it to bubble to the surface and become something that was a crucial roadblock in my development of an authentic self, rather than a part of my identity as a person. These elements combined to free my mind to the rest of the world. As a result, I have opened up more to my peers, my surroundings, and the prevalence of eating disorders and their immense harm at my small university and in Western culture.
Therapy and creative writing both helped me put my eating disorder into words. In doing so, I realized that not only could I put it into words, but I could also fight it with words. Language—what we tell others, what we tell ourselves, what we see and choose to believe as truth—is the most powerful tool there is.
Here’s one of the ways that positive, empowered, truthful language has saved me: as I neared the end of the recovery process this summer, as I learned to love my body and myself, one thing that I had to work extremely hard on was not counting calories. Even as I had gained weight, even after I abandoned my eating disorder, my mind still wanted to walk on its sidewalks—they are straight, even, and predictable. They are safe.
Yet, a bigger part of me knew that I was lying to myself, that counting calories is like living in the suburbs of a city to which I never want to return. I had to force my brain to stop counting calories, and it was one of the hardest things that I have ever done. It was mentally difficult not because of emotions or intellectual depth, but rather because the sheer force of habit is a brick wall that is nearly impossible to scale. But I did it. One thing that helped—or perhaps, the main thing—was the creation of this list. The list started as a statement that I heard from a friend, and it developed over several weeks. The list is a roadmap for departure from my eating disorder, a map that only gives directions one way. The day that I decided to stop counting calories for good was the day I was truly recovered.
Reading this list every morning became a ritual that replaced the obsession of calorie counting. It nourished my mind like the food and love that I had gone for so long without. As I continue to think about combating unrealistic standards for women and other causes of my and many others’ body image struggles, I keep this list in mind. Though at this point I do consider myself fully recovered, this list reminds me the importance of not turning back. In continuing to write about eating disorders and other issues, the empowerment of this list remains with me, too. The list is specific to me, but it also isn’t. It is my hope that it can resonate with others, too.
- Because my body isn’t a project.
- Because my body has a voice.
- Because I am not my mom.
- Because I might have daughters.
- Because my body deserves kindness.
- Because I want to be able to say honestly, “I am over my eating disorder.”
- Because food isn’t a reward or a punishment.
- Because being skinny doesn’t get the kind of love or attention that I truly want or need.
- Because being skinny doesn’t result in anything that is good for my mind or my soul.
- Because I can’t think about other things or be my best self if I don’t eat enough.
- Because I shouldn’t waste thoughts on calories.
- Because I need and deserve nourishment.
- Because I expect others to respect and to be kind to my body, so I should respect and be kind to my body, too.
- Because growth is necessary.
- Because life is short.
- Because even if it feels impossible, the alternative isn’t an option that I can live with. Life is for living, not controlling. I can eat what I want.
- Because no one else really cares what my body looks like.
- Because I am a strong woman.
- Because it is a mental, chemical problem that I can’t just wish or talk away.
- Because I am a hard worker.
- Because counting calories and controlling food never results in ANYTHING valuable.
- Because thinness is not part of my identity. Neither is smallness.
- Because I would disappoint people who might respect or believe in me.
- Because I don’t want to trigger someone else.
- Because it’s not just about eating disorders, it’s about inequality, which I can fight IF I start by confronting myself.
- Because the pain of change is better than the pain of staying the same.
- Because I believe in change. I believe that people can change for the better.
Annie Persons is a senior English major and Creative Writing minor at Washington and Lee University. She enjoys writing and hopes to teach one day.