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The Weight of Weight: a College Girl's Struggle with Food

girl at college

This story was written by Courtney Yeager for It's her story of disordered eating through her college years.

I was thirteen years old when I first started noticing my body. And when I say notice, I mean the first time my mother asked me if I really needed such a big helping of lasagna at dinner. Later, after everyone else went to bed, I stripped off all my clothes in front of my full-length mirror and touched the soft skin coating my hips and thighs. I could sort of, in the right light, see what my mom was hinting at.

Her comment wasn’t enough to change my eating habits at first, and even if I'd wanted to I couldn’t have. In my house, my sisters and I were never told to eat our vegetables. My dad didn’t like them, so my mom didn’t make them. For the first part of my life, I survived on spaghetti, pizza rolls, and chicken pot pie. After-school snacks were Oreos dunked in milk or neon-orange Cheetos straight from the bag. My metabolism slowed down at some point between seventh and eighth grade, but I kept eating processed foods and carbs because they were the foods I was used to.

My mom's own disordered eating

My mother didn’t eat healthily either, and her method of losing weight wasn’t to eat healthier: it was not to eat. After giving birth to five children, she’d lost the skinny stomach she flaunted in her sorority days when she still looked like Marsha Brady. She’s not fat by any means, but she says it’s hard to stay in shape with a full-time job.

My dad has shown me pictures from their wedding day, when my five-foot-three mother had managed to starve her body down to one-hundred-and-six pounds. Skin stretched across her cheekbones like latex, and her now-full breasts vanished inside the dress’ lace bodice. Her tanned face and thick eyelashes seemed to bobble on a body that was too small for her. When I asked her about it, she stared at the image. “I didn’t really eat for two weeks,” she said. “I wish I still looked like that.” When I asked my dad about her shrunken frame, he told me it was the prettiest he’d ever seen her. This, I thought, was what men found desirable.

I didn’t know it then, but now I understand that my mother projected her weight obsession onto me—onto all four of her daughters. I was thirteen when she first called attention to my body—a tomboy’s tangle of skin and limbs. I didn’t start worrying about my weight myself until my junior year of high school.

My close friend Sofie, a wispy Filipino girl with black, buzzed hair, told a group of us that she couldn’t come shopping because she had to go for a run. When we teased her about never having fun, she got defensive. “Some people actually care how they look,” she snapped. I stole a glance down at my own body, its shape hidden beneath boot-cut jeans and an oversized, hooded sweatshirt. She couldn’t be talking about me, I thought, sneaking looks at my friends’ figures around me. But then, I feared, maybe she was.

My first "diet"

After that day, I went on what I would now call a starvation diet. “I’m making a lifestyle change,” I announced to my mother, excited by the phrase I’d discovered online. No bread, pop, pasta, or dessert—those were the rules. Of course, with my limited palate, that didn’t leave many things I could eat. The first week was hard, but soon I was hooked by the challenge of seeing how much I could deprive myself. I compiled an ever-growing “Do Not Eat” list in my head, with things like french fries and string cheese. I’m not sure how long this “lifestyle change” had been in effect before I began counting calories too. I restricted myself to a thousand a day, and whenever I went to bed with my stomach rumbling, I considered my day a success.

My mom's reaction

My mom said she was proud of me, but I could tell she was envious. She’d constantly insist that I stop “extreme dieting,” or she’d buy a tub of cookies ‘n’ cream and position it at the front of the freezer. At the time, I thought she was a mother worried about her daughter’s health, but now I wonder if this was her little method of sabotage. “Don’t get too skinny,” she’d say, because I’ll be jealous.
I stuck to this regimen for an entire summer. When I went back to school, compliments flooded in, many from people I’d never spoken to. In four months, I had lost twenty-five pounds, most of which I needed to lose. Not once during that time period did I think I had a problem with food. And after people told me how great I looked, I started eating like a normal person for the rest of the year. I must have taken comfort in the fact that, if I started to gain weight back, I could probably do it all again.

Weight issues continue into college

My food issues didn’t resurface until I left Ohio to start college in Maine a year later. Before I headed off, my mom managed to work the “Freshman Fifteen” into most of our conversations. She made the abominable weight gain seem inevitable, though she emphasized that it had never been a problem for her in college. While she didn’t want me to be too tiny, she didn’t want a daughter who was overweight, either.

Instead of getting bigger, I lost weight during my first semester. Rather than succumbing to my cravings for pizza or cheesecake, I started eating salads topped with tomatoes and baby carrots, minus the heavy ranch dressing. It seemed as though the skinniest girls were the ones who loaded their bowls at the salad bar, and I desperately wanted to look like them.

My introduction to exercise

My roommate’s habits influenced me a lot, though I’m still not sure whether that was a good thing. She was from New York, and she brought size-two jeans, patterned tights and vegetarianism with her. During the first week of classes, she asked if I wanted to work out with her. I’d never been to a gym before, but I said sure, why not.

As she pulled on her spandex and sweatband, I fumbled through my drawers to find something that resembled athletic shorts. At the gym for the first time, I felt out of place in the sea of bulky machines and shapely arms, where the white noise was metal sliding against metal. I followed my roommate’s cues and somehow survived despite the ache of newly discovered muscles.

Everyone, it seemed, went to the gym, or at least that was true at my school, where half of the student body played a varsity sport. Finding time to work out was like taking a mandatory fifth class that you somehow had to fit into your schedule. I enjoyed the gym because I quickly discovered that exercising regularly meant I could worry less about what I was eating. I noticed the skin of my thighs tightened and my abs became more defined. Soon I started going every day, though my grades started slipping. I was truly addicted to the endorphins, the shin splints, and the way my stomach looked in a form-fitting dress.
My trips to the gym ended right before Christmas break when I sprained my ankle at a party. I went home with crutches wedged under my armpits and ate every reindeer-shaped cookie that was offered to me that holiday season. I suppose I was depressed about my ankle. So, even though food would only make me more upset about my weight, I took comfort in it, as I always had.

Back at school, my overeating continued, and my ankle stayed the same. Most of my friends ate whatever they wanted without going to the gym, or that’s how it seemed to me. By February, none of my pants quite buttoned anymore. When I stuffed myself to the point of pain in the dining halls, I started considering making myself throw up. I wanted to poke my fingers down my throat because it was the only way I could imagine being able to look like everyone else. When I finally tried doing it, I wound up with my back pressed against the cold plastic stall, my face wet with both tears and sweat; the food was still trapped in my stomach, exactly where it was supposed to be. This was when I realized I had a problem. This, I realized, wasn't anywhere close to healthy.

Getting help

The next morning, I visited one of the school’s therapists. Before, I had been one of those people who didn’t really believe in therapy. I had friends I could talk to about everything, except I couldn’t bring myself to talk to them about body image. I couldn’t be an East coast native or suddenly come from money or even pull off their clothing style, yet I could try to fit in by matching their sizes. And apparently I couldn’t even get that right.

The therapist referred me to the nutritionist right away. She was a short woman, though not too small-boned herself. I remember later scolding myself for thinking that. Before I could even sit down, she asked me my height and then told me to put on a gown so she could weigh me—“Just to see where we’re at,” she explained. When she read the number off the scale, I started crying—really crying. The nutritionist settled me down and motioned toward the cushiony patient’s chair. And she showed me a chart, a beautiful chart, which was the only thing that calmed me. “Courtney, this is where your weight falls on the height graph,” she said, pointing to a cheery-looking green area in the middle. “You’re in the target weight range for your height. Now, do you see how it’s a bit closer to the red?” I nodded, understanding that red was bad. But she told me it was okay—she would help me work through this.

Learning how to be healthy

The first step, she said, was to establish a food plan. I could eat anything in moderation, and keeping a food journal would help me keep track. The catch was that I couldn’t count calories. “Just pay attention to what you’re putting in your body,” she said. If I had an English muffin at breakfast, then I didn’t need a sandwich at lunch. Week by week, I learned to ask myself, Do you really want that brownie? Most days I didn’t, but some days I did, and letting myself eat the brownie without punishing myself later was one of the hardest parts.

The nutritionist asked me to start seeing a physical trainer so I could learn how to stay active with my weak ankle. Just returning to the gym helped, even if I could only do crunches and arm exercises. I liked the routine involved with working out, and I began to appreciate it in moderation rather than to feel guilty for not going more regularly.

With both the counselor and the nutritionist, I also discussed my mom's prominent role in my eating problems. In general, my mother was a great mom. She always put her children’s needs before her own, and she’s still the first person I call when I’m having a rough day. We both appreciate the fact that we have a mother-daughter bond as well as a close relationship as friends, so I had trouble recognizing how seriously her remarks about food had impacted me until I sought professional help. My mom wanted me to lose weight so I’d be happy, but she couldn’t see that her encouragements had the opposite effect.

Within a couple of months, the nutritionist helped me develop a healthier relationship with food and a better understanding of my mother. Now I’m able to sympathize with her in her insecurities and avoid taking her comments to heart. Regardless of my progress, I know I’ll always be aware of the calorie counts listed on every food package, and I still rarely eat bread.

How my college affected my disordered eating

My decision to attend a private, liberal arts college on the East coast has impacted me in more ways than I could have ever imagined. My school has a twenty-nine percent acceptance rate: proving how competitive the admissions process is. Naturally, my peers thrive on competition, and they apply the same approach to their bodies.

In a recent study, researchers concluded that females at “successful” schools were more likely to become anorexic than women at “lower-achieving” schools because students at elite institutions feel more pressure to succeed, which can trigger eating issues.

I hesitate to call the problem I’ve been struggling with an “eating disorder.” I don’t purge after I eat, even though I’ve thought about it, and I could never have the self-control required of an anorexic. Instead, I would qualify my problem as “disordered eating." In a week’s time, I’ve been known to compulsively eat for two days, starve myself on the following day, and then drastically restrain my food intake.

Now, three years after I first sought help, I still waver between periods of eating too much and too little. And I fear that this mind-numbing cycle will continue for the rest of my life. Yet I hope that I can keep my problems to myself and not project ideas onto my children in the future. Sure, they’ll see what the “right” kind of body looks like on television, and they’ll probably stop eating carbs if their friends do—but they won’t learn a negative attitude about body image, not from me.