The first time I admitted to myself that I had an eating disorder, I was eating raw spinach straight out of the container. As I wondered how many calories it contained—10, to be precise—and how long I would have run in order to "undo" my meal, it occurred to me: This is not normal.
As a highly driven, perfectionistic person, I never admitted that I was struggling. On the outside, I never let it show; I was editor-in-chief of the newspaper, passed honors classes with As—and I ate less than 1,000 calories a day. I thought I was standing out. In reality, I was isolated.
I was starving for love—and I am not the only one.
For high-achieving young women in intellectually rigorous academic programs, eating disorders offer a coping mechanism for stress and anxiety—beyond normal responses to insecurities, says Donna Aldridge, a professional counselor who works at the Wheaton College Counseling Center.
And it is a weighty issue to balance one's worth against physical appearance or academic achievements. For Christian women, God calls us to something greater than a life of balancing scales; God calls us to place the full weight of our struggles on the promises of Scripture. In God, we are more than any number - either our weight or our grade-point averages - can define.
Yet, even on Christian college campuses, disordered eating is unfortunately prevalent, Aldridge says. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, the average age of onset for a formally diagnosed eating disorder, which counselors distinguish from disordered eating, is 19 to 20 years old—and religion appears not to be a factor in prevalence.
"An eating disorder steps over the line," Aldridge said. "It becomes an all-inclusive obsession where it eats up the whole person."
As I found out, anorexia nervosa is more than salad for dinner "to lose five pounds" or fear of eating cake. The disorder, which is truly mental, is, despite common beliefs, not a fear of food; it is an obsession with food, not a choice, but a compulsion to eat perfectly, or eat nothing at all.
For me, anorexia began as a desire to eat more healthfully, but I quickly became preoccupied with food. I tallied calorie counts in the margins of my class notes, counting over and over again. I worked out obsessively and planned elaborate, weeklong meal schedules, only to settle for salad every time. Sometimes I would slip up and binge—horrifying, thoughtless eating rampages—and immediately regret every bite. I lived in constant fear that each meal would be the one that triggered a binge—or worse: that it would be my last. In any case, I could focus all of my brainpower on those miniscule calories, rather than on the uncontrollable world around me.
And that is the allure of anorexia for women like me: It is an outlet for the desire to control something when everything else seems out of control. Most students who come to the counseling center at Wheaton for help are driven, perfectionistic people who have trouble knowing how to deal with life in an appropriate way, Aldridge says. And, she adds, they are proud.
For many months, I did not see my eating disorder as an issue that I needed to face. Although I was aware that restricting food was not normal, I was also proud that I did not have to eat—so much! so often!—like everyone else did. For perfectionists, Anorexia seems to offer us something we fail to achieve through academics: the chance to prove that we are worth loving. But as we seek to control food, food begins to control us, and we lose sight of God's truth about our identities. In my struggle to earn love, I lost my grip on my spiritual identity, sinking into a universe of food rules, depression, and shame.
Aldridge says many eating-disordered students deal with that same sense of shame, especially within Christian community. They feel like they should be able to handle their problems—if only they were stronger Christians or would pray more.
I did need to pray, but I had to gather the courage to see a counselor first. She diagnosed my anorexic and bulimic tendencies aggravated by my intense academic and work schedules. In my mind, it was a strange diagnosis: I had never considered myself anorexic because I never actually stopped eating. (And, I truly do like food.) A mixture of shame and pride kept me from admitting my eating disorder both to myself and others; only in laying both down before God did I come to terms with my struggle last August. Since then, I have been learning to be more open and honest about my eating disorder, which allows me to feast on - rather than fast from - the fullness of God.
But I would lie if I said I do not struggle today. Perhaps those of us young women who struggle with eating disorders forever will feel plagued by the legacy of our academic careers; maybe we will always view the choice to eat as the choice between love and failure. After all, there still are days when I feel trapped, when my hips catch an unflattering angle in the mirror and I cringe. I critique. I cry. I weep real tears of sorrow for the body I had and for the weight I have gained over the past 12 months.
But these 30 pounds I have gained are not merely fat or muscle. They are pounds of experience, wisdom, and conquered fears. They are pounds gained as I learned to embrace God again, rediscovering fellowship, laughter, and joy I thought I had lost forever. They are the pounds I gained as God lifted the weight of my trap off my body.
God is the weight I put on. And even as I still fight the desire to lose physical pounds, I know I can never lose God. He promises that I am beautiful to Him, that I am dearly beloved. To revel in that identity, which I struggle to accept, reflects the woman I am becoming—faith, hips, and all.
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