By De Elizabeth
CW: Eating disorder and body image talk.
A few days ago, I enlisted the help of my 2-year-old while making a batch of brownies. (Actually, they were cookie-brownies: the kind from Annie’s that is essentially a brownie with a cookie on top — you’re welcome.) I helped her stir the mix, let her lick the spatula, and asked her to scoop the cookie dough with a little spoon. While it was baking, we turned the oven light on and she stood in front of the door, alternating between patient self-reminders of “they’re cooking!” and impatient exclamations of “wanna eat!” Once they were cooled, she tasted her very first cookie-brownie, somehow even more delicious I think, because she helped bake them.
There’s a lot I love about watching my daughter discover things about the world, but arguably one of the cutest is seeing her get excited about her favorite foods. A few weeks ago, I purchased a pack of muffins from the bakery, eliciting a squeal of “Ooooh a muffin!” She’ll announce everything on her plate at lunch — “PBJ! Cheese! Crackers!” — and she’s become inexplicably fascinated with one of my cookbooks, asking questions about everything she sees.
As someone who has dealt with an eating disorder for nearly half my life, such an innocent and pure relationship with food is entirely foreign to me. I truly can’t remember the last time I ate a brownie or a muffin or literally anything else without assigning some kind of qualifier to it, some kind of value, or negotiation in my brain. This is OK because I didn’t eat breakfast. This is fine because I won’t eat lunch. Despite being in some form of recovery for over a decade, that voice has never been quieted; it’s never gone away.
Even before my eating disorder “officially” began, or before I received a diagnosis, once I made the connection between food and my body, there was always a desire to eat less, a wanting to be smaller. As a teenager, it was all so very literal: I wanted to take up less space, fit into smaller clothes, have slimmer hips and thighs like some of my friends. As I grew older, my eating disorder seemed to morph into the metaphorical: I wanted to feel less, become impervious to heartbreak or sadness, prove to everyone — but mostly myself — that I didn’t need anything at all.
So much of my eating disorder was deliberate at the beginning; I crafted detailed meal plans in my journal in college, counting calories and tracking my weight, setting goals that ceased to matter once I reached them. It’s hard to say what came first: the behaviors or the disease itself. In some ways, I feel like I “gave myself” an eating disorder; I pushed myself to consume less and less until everything and anything felt like too much, until “I won’t eat” became “I can’t eat,” until even the foods that once felt “safe” were filled with fear. I memorized numbers to the point where they’ve been burned into my brain; even today, I can tell you the caloric content of a banana, a cup of rice, a handful of carrot sticks, a tablespoon of hummus. I can recite numbers the way others recite their favorite song lyrics. Recovery is not so much learning, but it’s a desparate — and oftentimes futile — attempt to un-learn.
But I know it wasn’t always like this; at some point, a lifetime ago, I was the way my daughter is now. And for a lot of reasons, it just makes me sad — we all start that way, a blank slate, before diet culture and knee-jerk comparisons, before we know how to feel self-conscious, before we learn to want to be less. You don’t have to have an eating disorder diagnosis in your medical records to have those feelings; almost every adult person I know has felt at war with their bodies at some point or another.
If I could, I’d keep her from ever getting there, from ever thinking that she needed to take up less space, from ever thinking she was “too much” of anything. I’d keep her from getting there the way I couldn’t keep myself from getting there, the way I’m still there, even if I check all the boxes to declare myself “better now.” I’d keep her here, in this tiny window of her story, where everything is joy and nothing is scary or sad or lost.
But deep down, I know I can’t protect her from everything. So maybe the answer isn’t really an answer at all — but to be ready to listen with honesty and transparency, to one day tell her where I’ve been, not as a cautionary tale, but so she knows no feelings are off limits, no emotion is excessive, that everything and anything she might think or feel is valid. I can’t keep her little, but I’ll do my best to always keep her safe — and protect the little girl that I once was, too.