Names have been changed.
All my life, I was a big girl. Food was my best friend when I was young. I wanted to eat everything. I was attracted to the smell when my mom or older sister Gina would cook. I loved tacos, burgers and fries, chicken nuggets, and sub sandwiches, but a home-cooked meal was my favorite.
My mother was abusive and violent, but she always fed us well. My little sister Ashley and I would sit together at the kitchen table and gobble our whole plates. Ashley and I had fun eating: We would tell funny stories, talk about our day and what we learned in school. My mother never sat with us at the table. I would ask for seconds and keep eating, even when my stomach felt like it was about to pop. I used to eat so much that I would vomit.
I was being abused by my mom and her various boyfriends, and boys at school bullied me. When I was 12, I weighed 177 pounds. That year I went into foster care, which at first wasn’t much better than my chaotic home. I ate and ate, especially when I felt depressed. When I was stressed out or sad I would eat. Eating kept me calm and less depressed. I was using food to fill up the emptiness I felt inside of me. I didn’t have a family and I didn’t know what was going to happen to me.
By age 14, I weighed almost 300 pounds. Most of the kids in my class made fun of me, especially the boys. Even though I pretended I did not hear the fat jokes, they bothered me. I wished I were skinny like the other girls in my class or the girls on TV.
Finally, I got sick of pretending and lost my temper. One day when the teacher was not in the classroom, this kid C.J. yelled out “linebacker,” and everyone started laughing. I dropped the F bomb, and said, “Shut up, you’re annoying.” C.J. stopped but then started up again. So, I said, “Yo can you please shut up?” He called me “trucker” and I punched him in his face. His nose was bleeding, but he stood there and did nothing. I felt sympathy for him. I thought, “What’s wrong with me? I am not the violent type. Why did I just do that?”
I felt bad, but I also knew he was going to tease me again. I had to do something about my weight. I was sick of the stress and anger and of feeling hurt and crying all the time. I knew it was my weight that all the kids joked about.
I decided to lose it. Not just to stop the bullying, but also so I wouldn’t get out of breath when I walked up the steps. I wanted to look in the mirror and say, “I’m beautiful.” I felt ugly because I was overweight. I worried I would never find a boyfriend because I was fat.
I really wanted to lose weight, but I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t ask anyone because I was embarrassed. I thought they were going to make fun of me, like, “Look at the fat girl trying to lose weight.” First I tried starving myself, but my stomach was used to eating a lot. When I didn’t eat, it hurt. To ease that pain, I would eat a lot, and so I could never lose weight.
When I was 15, I found a way to lose weight and still eat all I wanted: throwing up my food. I learned this trick from a friend who I later realized suffered from eating disorders. She was skinny, but I thought she looked good.
I first saw her do it in the school bathroom. I heard a gagging noise and looked into the stall to see if the person was OK. I saw my friend Amanda sticking her finger down her throat and whispering, “I can’t get fat.” I never brought it up with her because I didn’t want her to feel embarrassed. But I started doing it myself, because I wanted to be skinny like her.
At first it was easy because I had a weak stomach and all I had to do was think about gross things like eating roaches with milk. From there I’d stick my finger down my throat and let my body do the rest. No one knew I was doing it every time I ate. If I got hungry again later I would eat and then throw up again. I threw up in church, school, and outside, in an alley or behind a building. I kept it a secret because I was embarrassed. Later I found out that what I was doing was considered an eating disorder, called bulimia.
At the time I was living with my best foster mother, Mrs. Rodriguez. She was a nice lady who treated me kindly. She adopted a lot of children and seemed to be a foster parent who was not in it for the money. My three years living with her were the time in my childhood I felt the most supported and safe.
I did not want Mrs. Rodriguez to know what I was doing. I would make sure she was not around, sneak off to the bathroom and be as quiet as I could be when I threw up. Before long, I had lost around 13 pounds. This was a great idea, I always thought to myself.
Then one day, about five months into my bulimia, I went to the bathroom to throw up the rice, beans, and chicken I had just eaten. I noticed something red. “I did not drink Kool-Aid,” I thought. “What is that?” I got worried so I ran and told Mrs. Rodriguez. When she saw the blood in the toilet, she called 911. I was afraid; I thought I was going to die.
When I got to the hospital, the doctor said he wanted to do an ultrasound on my stomach. I waited for two hours and worried about the doctor figuring out what I had been doing and telling Mrs. Rodriguez.
After the ultrasound, the doctor said to Mrs. Rodriguez, “Everything’s going to be OK. Your daughter strained her stomach by vomiting.” Then he asked me if it was on purpose. I said, “No, I wasn’t feeling good. I think I ate too much.”
Then he asked, “Have you been going to the bathroom often, and does it hurt when you go?” I had to think quickly. My heart was racing. I said, “Yes, it does hurt when I go and I haven’t been going often.” Doctors are not stupid, I thought. But to my surprise, he believed me.
The doctor gave me a prescription for a laxative, but I never took it because I knew what was wrong with me, and it was not constipation. I realized that I could have died from the way I was trying to lose weight. It was very unhealthy and could damage my stomach. I knew I had to stop and lose weight the right way.
Treating Myself Better
After that horrible experience, I started exercising, going for long walks, and riding my bike. I also started eating right, which was hard at first, but I got used to it. I asked Mrs. Rodriguez to buy me more healthy snacks like apples, grapes, strawberries, and cherries. I cut down on junk like chocolate, candy, soda, juice, Chinese food, and McDonald’s. I also drank a lot of water, because my science teacher had told me that water is a cleanser and flushes out your system. Learning this made me glad I paid attention in school.
I was proud of myself because this was something I wanted to do. Nobody told me to eat healthy or exercise, but Mrs. Rodriguez supported and encouraged me.
Losing weight was hard. There were times I wanted to eat more right after I had finished eating, but instead I drank a lot of water. The water kept me full and I knew I would not gain weight from it. In the six months after I vomited blood, I lost 25 more pounds from eating right and exercising and drinking water. In the eight months after that, I lost 50 more pounds.
As I lost weight, I grew proud of myself and did not want to quit my healthy ways. Every time I saw the numbers on the scale drop, my smile got bigger and bigger. In another three months, I’d lost 30 more pounds. By my 19th birthday, I had lost a total of 140 pounds from losing weight the right way.
My self-esteem level leaped up. Now, no one bothers me or calls me names. They actually compliment me on how good I look. I just started a new high school, and I am popular now. People like me, and I feel wanted, a feeling I never felt before. Even when people weren’t teasing me, when I was big I isolated myself because I was embarrassed and afraid that someone was judging me because of my weight.
When I lost weight, some of the boys who had made fun of me asked me out on dates. I felt confused. They always made me feel bad about myself. I told them NO! It felt good to tell them off. I didn’t care how nice they were to me now; they used to make me feel terrible about myself.
I Learned to Love Myself
A guidance counselor at my new high school told me every time we spoke that if you cannot learn to love yourself, then no one can love you. She was right, and she gave me an extra boost of confidence. I searched inside for what makes me beautiful. I’m a sweet person, I’m smart, I have a great sense of humor, and I’m a good listener when people are feeling hurt or down. I no longer hang out with people who can’t accept me for me.
I am now 20 years old and I weigh 158 lbs. I’m not sluggish anymore, and I don’t get out of breath like I did when I was big. I am more active and it feels good. Instead of waiting for the bus, I walk the extra blocks to the train. I don’t throw up anymore, and I don’t eat more after I’m already full. I eat until I am satisfied, not stuffed until the point where I cannot move. I still like soda, junk food, and fast food sometimes, but I try to eat healthy overall.
My relationship with food has changed partly because my support system has gotten bigger. When I was suffering with bulimia, I felt I had nobody there for me. I was bullied and abused when I was younger, and I felt like nobody cared about me. Now I have more control over who I’m around, and I avoid people who hurt me. When I feel empty or sad, I write poetry or talk to my older sister Gina. I also feel more in charge of what happens to me now.
What Are Eating Disorders?
YCteen writer Stephanie Perez interviewed Dr. Katie Gentile, the director of the Women’s Center at John Jay College, with a PhD in counseling psychology. Here are excerpts from that interview.
Q: What is anorexia?
A: Anorexia is an eating disorder in which you quit eating, or eat only minimal amounts of food. People can end up losing 20% of their body weight. If you’re a woman, you typically lose your period.
Q: What is bulimia?
A: Bulimia is an eating disorder in which someone eats a lot of food in a short period of time, a lot more than most people. That’s called bingeing. Then they make up for it. They might throw it up, take diet pills, or take laxatives. That’s called a purge. Maybe they don’t eat for a long period of time or they exercise a lot.
Some people have both anorexia and bulimia. You can binge and purge when you’re anorexic. You can be anorexic if you binge and purge. There’s also a binge-eating disorder, bulimia without the purging. You binge but you don’t throw up. Eating disorders happen mostly to women, but about 10% of anorexics are men. Up to 30% of bulimics might be men.
Q: Why do people develop eating disorders?
A: There are lots of reasons. A lot of women in particular who purge, about 70% of them, have a history of trauma—like incest, rape, abuse, molestation—usually sexual trauma…. Eating disorders aren’t really about food, though it’s like food is the drug. It’s about control—not having control over your body, over your life. The assumption is that the one thing you can control is your body. But that’s not necessarily true.
Q: What problems can these disorders cause?
A: Anorexia is a form of starvation. You can lose your hair, your skin starts peeling, you grow body hair—like fur—you’re cold all the time. And even if you begin to gain weight after being anorexic, you can still have problems. It can affect your hormones, your thyroid, your heart.
With bulimia, it depends on how you’re purging. If you’re throwing up, you can burn away your esophagus with stomach acid. Your teeth can begin to decay. You can develop stomach and digestive problems. If you take laxatives, you can get hemorrhoids and you can destroy your intestines.
This is really dangerous. It’s not just a diet.