By Graciela Barada •
When I was about ten or eleven years old, I became overly conscious of my body and the lens through which the world saw it. Arguably, everyone deals with fluctuations in their self-esteem, particularly in regards to body image and especially during puberty, a confusing time of uncertainty and change. But this was bigger than that. In middle school, I developed a series of troubling disordered eating habits, mostly out of fear of gaining weight. On a deeper level, however, my relationship with food itself turned sour, as I used eating (or starving) as a mechanism to cope with unstable emotions and changes in my life. Soon, I grew deeply uncomfortable in my own skin and felt trapped in the body I inhabited. Since then, body image has become a very deep complex for me, one that is almost so inseparable from my understanding of “self” that for years I possessed virtually no knowledge of myself outside of my relationship to numbers on a scale.
In sixth grade, I experienced my first of several instances of overwhelming body dysmorphia and poor body image. I was eleven years old and I remember going to the nurse’s office one day in the middle of class with three of my best friends to get our annual health check up. We talked and laughed on our way down to the office. I vaguely remember experiencing mild anxiety about the prospect of getting weighed and measured in front of other people, but I brushed it off as a silly thought and skipped along. I remember being measured first – at 5’2, I was taller than most girls in the grade – and eventually stepping onto the nurse’s scale last. Afterwards, I left the nurse’s office with an unfamiliar sense of disgust slowly pulsing through my chest. On our way back to the classroom, my friends nonchalantly asked each other their measurements and weight while I remained quiet, my head bowed. I felt stuck and completely petrified because I was over 100 lbs, but the other girls weighed in at about 95 lbs each. For the first time in my life, I wanted nothing more than to shrink into myself, disappear. That day, I ate only an apple at lunch.
Okay, so let’s fast-forward to 2018. I’ve been in Barbados for three weeks and life is exciting! Nearly every day I encounter new people, wonderful food, eclectic music, and scenic beaches. At the end of our first week in Barbados, the five girls in my program and I moved from our UC-funded apartments into temporary housing at the university dorms. The dorms were hot and sticky, so I made the most of the ocean and took cold showers multiple times a day in a lame attempt to stay cool(ish). Since my arrival in Barbados I’ve spent countless hours lounging bikini-clad on colorful towels at the beach. In a matter of days, I became several shades tanner, which I’ve boasted about to my friends who are still stuck at school on the east coast. Ha ha.
As someone who has been dangerously conscious of their body – and ashamed of what it looks like – for most of her life, it’s been extremely difficult for me to ease into wearing a bikini in public. In fact, it’s taken me years to feel even remotely comfortable putting my body on what feels like public display at the beach in order to soak up the sun and enjoy the waves with friends and family. When I was in seventh grade, the act of tanning at the beach or by the pool – something so simple and common – became terrifying. People would see me. My body. For years, I gave into this toxic fear of humiliation and shame by avoiding the ocean and pools at all costs, or wearing an oversized t-shirt and shorts to the beach. I hated shopping for back-to-school clothes and I loved wintertime because it meant I could add layers upon layers to my body, in an effort to hide it from the world. The thought of changing in front of my teammates during soccer practice or summer camp was nauseating. And bikinis? Petrifying. It wasn’t until last summer (in freaking 2017) that I was finally able to buy swimsuits and sport them (in a somewhat carefree fashion) in the presence of strangers, friends, and family. For those outside of the ED community, this kind of progress may seem absurd. But for someone like me, whose poor body image has led them to such a dark and dangerous psychological place, it is a monumental step.
A few days before Thanksgiving 2017, I wrote and published an article for FEM Newsmagazine about what it’s like to cope with an eating disorder during the holidays. Because I was determined to contribute to the ED internet community through my writing, I was honest in my descriptions of my battle with bulimia from a few years back. In the days (and even the weeks) that followed, various women of diverse backgrounds contacted me to express their gratitude and praise of the piece. Their positive and reaffirming feedback was a powerful reminder of why I’m committed to my recovery, and attests to the collective healing that is produced through writing. According to my therapist, my ED support group, and my friends, I’ve demonstrated tremendous growth in my journey towards recovery from bulimia in just a year and a half. Apparently, I’ve improved the clothes that I wear, the way I talk about myself, and the way I treat others. My mother has held me and told me, with a glowing pride tainted by a quiet sadness, just how strong-willed and powerful I am. More importantly, I know this to be true.
Nonetheless, I won’t pretend that I’m past all of the body image B.S. In fact, I am very adamant with my close friends and family about the negative feelings that I continue to harbor towards my body, and that my complicated relationship with food is not entirely a thing of the past. So, while I’m no longer caught in the vicious cycle of restrict-binge-purge, my life is not flawless and I am still working to achieve a healthier mind-body relationship. Some days are harder than others. But each little accomplishment, each affirmation, and each step forward leads me closer to a full recovery (which, admittedly, I’m not sure exists). When I first began to write this post, I sensed tears forming in my eyes. As some of you know, on January 20th, 2018 I turned twenty. Twenty years old. I was unbelievably emotional throughout that day because I couldn’t believe I’d made it to my 20’s after having experienced such waves of turmoil and devastation, born from mental illness and family drama. During the lowest point of my struggle with depression, bulimia, and anxiety, life seemed bleak and pointless more often than it seemed beautiful, big and meaningful. In the process of regaining emotional and mental strength, I’ve had to look outside of myself for support and learn to really feel the love that is shown to me by friends and family. I cannot overstate how important friendship has been to my healing process. Had it not been for my own volition to seek professional treatment and then allow myself to be vulnerable with the people who love me, I doubt that I’d be here today. So, yeah, twenty was a big deal and I feel eternally grateful for the love that my friends from home and LA showered me with (albeit from thousands of miles away).
In my last post, I wrote about twin flames, soulmates, and what it means to find The One. And while I truly believe the most important human connections are formed between two souls, not two bodies, I also know that my experiences as someone living with an eating disorder have greatly shaped my romantic outcomes thus far. Starting in middle school, guys would look at my friends and gawk at their beauty. Every single one of my straight/bisexual girlfriends in high school (and now, in college) has had at least one relationship or fling with a guy, while I’ve sulked in single-as-a-pringle mode forever. From time to time, I question if this is due to my personal shortcomings, whether they be personality traits or related to external beauty. It’s easy to feel invisible when you’re in high school and your best friends are all falling in love for the first time. As a teenager, I thought I was incompatible with most human beings because there might be something inherently wrong with me. But now I know myself a lot better and I’ve realized that a lack of romance in my life isn’t necessarily because of who I am inside, given that I’ve managed to form plenty of healthy, long-lasting, and deeply emotional bonds with friends and family. In fact, in recent years, I’ve gained tremendous self-confidence pertaining to my intelligence, my compassion, my academic abilities, and other talents I possess. I know what I bring to the table and I refuse to let anyone tell me otherwise.
Nevertheless, I’ve spent the better part of my life believing that thinness is the absolute gateway to happiness. In order to commence my recovery from bulimia, I’ve had to push myself day in and day out to unlearn this naive yet incredibly powerful falsehood. But when it comes to romantic love and sexual attraction, I can’t help but think my fate has been shaped by what I look like on the outside. If you’ve seen me, you know that I’m not glamorous, I’m not thin, and I’m not tall. So, naturally, you can imagine why I’d be so excited to meet someone who can see past my exterior and love the person that I am, while accepting (and maybe even celebrating?) what I look like. Sometimes I beat myself up about not being prettier or skinnier or more toned, because I haven’t fully relinquished the false promise that there is just one definition of beauty and that, until I achieve it, I will not be desirable. BTW, this is my ED voice talking. I’m still learning to let that go. But it’s really hard when the world keeps telling you to build, buy, or pursue a body and image that is not your own. Thus I’ve reached a point in which I am no longer ashamed of my eating disorder, rather I am frustrated by how much of a hindrance it has been for nearly a decade of my life. I’ve deprived myself of so many formative and exciting experiences because I truly believed that I was undeserving of joy, attention, and love. Somewhere between spiraling into a pit of aimless depression, losing my twin flame and watching my family slowly disintegrate, I was met with the realization that there’s no way I can enjoy my life to the fullest if I remain too afraid of being seen and loved and accepted firstly by myself and then by others. The first and most important step I’ve taken in this process is valuing truthfulness above all else. Since then, I’ve strived to be truthful about my struggles with mental illness with myself, my family, friends and my doctors. To be truthful with the people I love about why they mean the world to me. To be truthful with those who hurt me about why their behavior has caused me pain. To be truthful with myself about the ways in which I’ve hurt others. Although I value honesty above all else, that isn’t to say that I have never been dishonest with myself and others (whoops! a double negative, sue me) nor that it is the only trait I have fostered in my journey towards recovery. But it’s central to who I am and what I believe in.
A little over one week ago, my fabulous roommates and I moved into a six-bedroom, three-bathroom house in a neighborhood called Black Rock. Each day, I spend hours laughing, dancing, and talking with five beautiful, driven, hilarious college women, all of whom are preparing to take on the world in their own way. Fola, Demi, Courtney, Jade and Bernice. #CasaCalifornia. We’ve only known each other as a group since January 14 but these women, my housemates, feel like family. Each of us has different academic and personal interests, yet we seem to understand and vibe with one another in ways that feel completely natural. From the beginning of our time together, I’ve shared details of my experiences with bulimia, depression and anxiety for the sake of establishing relationships based on honesty and open communication. To my relief, I’ve been met with understanding, patience and support, and I couldn’t be more grateful to live with these five women.
Sometimes it’s even difficult to believe that not too long ago I viewed any confession of my eating disorder as self-sabotage. By now, I’ve accepted my eating disorder for what it is and even used my experiences to empower other people who are affected by ED. In the United States, the harsh reality of eating disorders is that they impact everyday people across race, gender and class lines and are among the most fatal forms of mental illness. However, because they’re seldom discussed in academic, professional, and social spaces, eating disorders are often either glamorized or seen as enigmatic and self-fabricated. For most folks, something as simple as finishing a meal and accepting the subsequent fullness of your belly is neither revolutionary nor special. But to me it’s everything, in the same way that wearing a bikini at the beach is proof of the scary yet powerful strides I’ve taken towards stronger mental health. Whenever I lose sight of these accomplishments and the intimate value they hold, I think of 6th-grade me, leaving the nurse’s office with my head hung low, and I remind myself that I never want to feel that way again. Beauty is a state of mind.
This article was originally published on Cuatro Meses en Barbados, by Graciela Barada who is from Washington, DC, raised in a bilingual, multicultural household by her Afro-Cuban and Spanish parents. She loves writing, spoken word, film, traveling, and working with kids.