How My Struggle With Body Image Turned Into A Complete Obsession

by Caroline Nelson

I order three shrimp tacos and a Diet Coke. The lady taking my order asks if I would like to make it a combo.

I say "no." I don't need the chips. It's bad enough that I'm drinking a carbonated beverage and eating flour tortillas, sour cream and cheese.

I silently punish myself twice: once for going to a place I know isn't going to solve the back fat, saddlebags and love handles I see in the mirror, and the second time for realizing I still dislike my body as much as I did in middle school.

I would never describe myself as skinny. I have never thought of myself as skinny, and I'm more than OK with that.

Ten years ago, that thought drove me crazy. It was crazy to the point of being unhealthy. I kept quiet about it for a long time, and I stopped thinking about how obsessive I was about my body for a while.

Even though I sometimes don't see food, I see calorie counts and grams of sugar. Recently, though, some of my friends and I have had conversations about how we used to have eating disorders.

But since we were undiagnosed, we continued to go about our business, all the while putting ourselves at risk. However, we believed we were healthy.

We were jealous of our friends who were size 2s and 0s, and we never understood why we weren't built to fit into those sizes. As a result, we never stop trying to.

I often say that I don't know what made me eat again. But – thankfully – somehow, the cycle broke for me. It was hard.

I have to admit that I still obsess about every pound I put on... or think I put on.

It was the summer before seventh grade. I was blithely unaware of “sexual appeal,” and the most important thing to me was riding horses. I didn't care what I looked like or what I wore. I was unhappy with the fact that I had breasts, and I still dressed with ponies on my shirts.

One day that summer, my mom, sister and I went shopping for bathing suits. Per usual, we went right to the one-piece section. I couldn't imagine baring my midriff.

My mother then said to my sister, “I think you should try a bikini. I think you would look great in one!”

Well, if my sister would look good in one, I should too, right? Apparently, it didn't work that way. My mother told me that a bikini probably wouldn't be flattering on me.

She probably didn't mean it in an unkind way. It was possible that she maybe wanted to find a way to hide me from the embarrassment. However, I couldn't get the thought out of my head that I was a little overweight. Thus began my struggle with body image.

Over the summer, that thought ate away at me. We went to the beach, and all I could think about was how skinny my sister and my cousins were, compared to how fat I was. I accepted the fact that my sister got a lot of compliments on her bathing suit attire.

And what about the compliments I would get? “You have such beautiful hair. I love your skin.”

I didn't care about that. I wanted a rockin' bod, like my sister had.

So, that fall, I went on a diet. My mom helped me navigate what I was eating, and she allowed me one “cheat day” per week. She heavily encouraged my diet, and strictly monitored what I ate.

Again, I understand. She was trying to get me to maintain a healthier lifestyle. Sometimes, I would complain about not losing enough weight, and my mom would comment on the amount of bread I would eat at dinner. I was shocked to find out that bread could possibly make me put on weight, so I immediately started limiting it.

Soon, I began losing weight, and my mom took me shopping. She kept putting me in a size large. But then, the sales associate came up to her and said that I should be in a medium... maybe even a small.

I was thrilled. I bought so many clothes I didn't even like, simply because they were a smaller size. I mistook skinny for healthy... as most girls do.

I don't mean to put the entire blame on my mother. It didn't matter which magazine I looked at: All the “beautiful” people in Hollywood were – and still are – skinny.

When I started losing weight, I started getting happier. I had no idea that this was a symptom of an eating disorder.

My self-worth was directly tied to how skinny I was. It became an unhealthy obsession.

I began quietly punishing myself for any chocolate that passed my lips. I exercised to the point of fainting, and I refused to eat to the point of starvation.

Since I had one cheat day a week, I never thought there was any chance that I had an eating disorder. My friends would comment on how little I ate at lunch, or sometimes, how I ate no lunch at all.

They told me it was scary. I told them they were crazy.

The truth is, I wasn't scarily thin. I had no bones sticking out, but my body wasn't properly nourished.

I would exercise literally double the amount I normally would if I thought I was going to have a “heavy meal.” All of these were symptoms of anorexia nervosa, but my mom kept telling me I looked good. Also, I was still several sizes away from where my sister was.

I was never satisfied. But if I had gone to a doctor, I would have known I would never be satisfied. My goal weight was out of my reach.

However, that didn't stop me from trying.

I wish I could tell you what flipped the switch and made me start eating well again. But I honestly don't know.

Unfortunately, I flipped the switch a little too well, and ended up on the other end of the spectrum. I ended up gaining an unhealthy amount of weight.

During that time, I was clinically obese. I bought laxatives every week, and had one whenever I thought I had eaten too much. However, it didn't work. I didn't lose the weight I needed to.

I have recently lost that weight, and am in the best shape of my life. But I'm also healthy.

I don't eat well all the time, but I do my best to fuel my body. I would be lying if I said I don't feel “fat” some days. I still feel guilty if I eat certain foods. It's an unfortunate part of my personality: I not only hate myself for feeling fat, but I also hate myself for thinking it.

As a young woman in my 20s, I would hope by now that my body wouldn't bother me so much. However, there isn't a single picture of myself posted online that I don't scrutinize for at least 20 minutes.

Most of my friends with eating disorders can pinpoint things their parents said to them that triggered certain unhealthy behaviors. To this day, their parents don't know what they went through. My mom was honestly shocked when I shared my story with her.

I don't blame my mom for my eating disorder. I understand that everything she said to me came from a good place. If she had known what her words would have done, I'm sure she would've never said them. Honestly, she would've bought me 100 bikinis just to avoid all this.

Unfortunately, we often say things we don't mean, and we often take things the wrong way. My mother told me 1,000 times that I was beautiful just the way I was. But of course, I never heard those things.

I wish for this cycle to be broken. I wish that no more young girls ever go through what I did. But alas, I fear it has only gotten worse.

Ten years ago, we had to worry about being skinny, while still having big boobs. Now, it seems we need to have big butts, social media presence, luxurious hair and a toned – but not too toned – body.

I now know that beauty comes from within. But I also know that 13-year-old me thought this was just something people said about ugly girls.

I wish I could convince young girls that they are beautiful just as they are, but I know it's useless. So, here is my real wish: I hope they come out the other side valuing what's on the inside.

To all the young girls out there struggling with eating disorders, I hope you'll land good jobs, find love and make some great friends. Put away the push-up bras and self-tanner. Reach for seconds if you're hungry.

Fuel your body and kick butt on the field, in the classroom and at home. Don't spend another second looking in the mirror, thinking about everything you want to change. Just grab your bag and run outside. Show the world who you ARE, not what you look like.

At the taco truck, the lady smiles and hands me the chips anyway. She winks. I crumple up the bag and hand it to a homeless person I pass along the way back to the office.

I had a chocolate cookie last night, as well as a homemade pizza. This will just add another pound of fat.

Is that pound in my head, or is it real? I honestly can't tell anymore. When I get back to my desk, I immediately sign up for a Bikram Yoga class. Maybe I do it to center myself. But more likely, it's to sweat off the pounds.

I sigh. At 24 years old, I have gotten better. But food hasn't been the same since that shopping trip to the swim section before middle school.

I eat my lunch and focus on work. I try to focus on being a better person instead of obsessing about food.

And I guess that's all we can do: try.