I Thought I Was Fat

(My friend "Christine" and I when we were about 16, Panama City Beach)

I've been teaching at Portfolio Center for close to ten years, during which time I have been learning how to help students get the best from themselves. PC students aren't allowed to be content with making pretty pictures or writing clever cell phone ads; they're forced to examine their lives and their histories, to understand their own identity and power, and to face and conquer their fears in order create work that moves and matters. It's a remarkable, life-changing process that I'm privileged to witness again and again.

Even though I know that at the end of their two years in that little concrete box on Bennett Street, they will be stronger and more fully themselves, it's not easy, sometimes, witnessing their metamorphoses. I hear stories that are hard to hear. I'm privy to a lot of pain. I love my students, these young, beautiful, passionate, sensitive people, so my heart breaks for them every day. I don't know if it makes it harder or easier on me that most of their stories are also my own, but I hope it makes things easier for them--that when they see me, they see someone who's been through it already and come out the other side.

These days I'm happy. I love my home and family. I look forward to going to work. I have Fay. I'm not angry, depressed, or shut off. I have pretty good self esteem. I'm not defined by other people. I'm not controlled by alcohol, my own obsessive thoughts, or food. The food thing is a big one.

At any given time at Portfolio Center, we have four or five girls I know for a fact have eating disorders. There's no telling how many there are that I don't know about. These are beautiful, talented, powerful young women who don't realize their power, because for some reason they can't love themselves. I know the hell of that. If someone told me I had to go through everything again, but I could choose one thing to be spared, I'd take the sexual abuse, the alcoholic father, the depression and addiction, the domestic violence, and betrayal, and I'd beg for a pass on the eating disorders.

Nothing is as insidious or difficult to overcome. Nothing rules your life down to the minute the way anorexia, binge eating, and bulimia do. When you have an eating disorder, every day is a lie. I know that drug and alcohol addiction are the same in that regard, but those things you can quit cold turkey. Food is a daily negotiation.

Growing up, my fear of fat was greater than my (OCD) need to count telephone poles while in the car or to pull my hair out or to sleep with the covers pulled tight under my ears every night to keep the vampires from biting me (a fear that lasted until I was a sophomore in college). It was greater than my shame and more brutal than being beaten up. I chose to stay depressed rather than take medication--because of my fear of fat. And yet, in my mind, I was always fat.

I was anorexic at the age of ten. I exercised in front of the TV and counted my peas. I had little rituals to keep myself thin--like only eating popsicles and breaking up a cookie into a hundred pieces to make it last. My best friend in fifth grade was Pam Crawford, who was about three inches shorter than I was and lithe as a gymnast. My goal was to weigh the same as Pam, and I did. My mother had to make my clothes because storebought wouldn't fit.

For years I'd swing back and forth between starving and binge eating, and around 15 I became bulimic. By my junior year in high school I was making and eating big stacks of pancakes at midnight and throwing them up. It was a mild case, though, compared to what would happen later in college, when I was 18-19. I became the stereotype, the girl who ate a dozen donuts in the car while she sat in the drive-thru line at Burger King. The girl who told the checkout clerk at the grocery store she was having a party when she really planned to eat all the Doritos, Nutter Butters, and candy corn herself.

I couldn't stop. I resolved and prayed; I made deals with god; I threatened myself, made promises to myself, and pleaded with myself. Nothing worked.

I ended up in the hospital with kidney trouble, the result of running 60 miles a week, puking my guts out, staying dehydrated. I was out of commission for a month, during which time I couldn't exercise and was afraid to eat. After that month, I went right back to it.

I'll never forget the day I quit binging and purging. I was still in school in Athens and had just moved from the main house I lived in with two guy friends into one of the tiny basement apartments in that house. It was the first time I'd ever lived by myself. I had so much fun decorating it, a cross between gypsy and granola. I planned to celebrate night one by baking a big batch of brownies in my new kitchen and eating them in bed. They were cooling on the top of the stove when I suddenly decided I wasn't going to eat them after all--that I was done. I wasn't going to continue damaging my stomach, esophagus, and kidneys; eroding the enamel off my teeth; aging my skin; bursting vessels in my eyes; living this lie; dying this slow death.

I threw the brownies in the trash and gave up sweets, my trigger, for good. Just like that. It was as though someone (God, my better self?) had flipped a switch. I still don't understand how it happened. I wish I did, because I'd make it happen for these girls I know.

I was liberated from that particular cycle of binge/purge that sucked my energy (and money!). That wasn't the end of my food and body image issues altogether. I've struggled since. I continue to be pretty regimented about what I eat, but I feel like an idiot, not a prisoner. I can laugh at myself.

I was 35, turning into the parking lot at work, the moment it occurred to me that I'd spent my whole life worrying about what I looked like to the world (imagining how I looked through the eyes of others) rather than looking out at the world though my eyes. I decided then to change that. I would start looking at the world, DOING more, becoming more. I would find better uses for my time and energy than making sure my earrings matched my sweater. I was going to stop letting my day be ruined by 116 instead of 115 on the scales.

That was almost ten years ago. I've been improving slowly ever since.


Jessica said...

it really is looking outward isn't it? we women at PC are so lucky to have you . . . but truly your words are the beginning of a book. i wish i had read exactly what you posted in this entry when I was a pre-teen! you need to (in all that spare time you have) create a book out of this.

Alena said...

I didn't deal with same problems as you struggled with, but you pretty much know the ones I did deal with. And it all comes from the same place.

I don't think you know how much your classes caused me to grow, to toughen up, to stand up for myself. I hope you know how thankful I am for that.

Tania Rochelle said...

Wow. That was really nice to hear. Both of you.

Collin said...

One of the best, most honest, important posts you've ever written. I hope it goes far and wide into the blogosphere.

kuh reel yuh said...

Wow. I never would've thought you went through these things. Amazing story, and I'm glad there is a (continuing) happy ending.

Ty said...

Wow, Tanya! Nice post. Still shaking.

Montgomery Maxton said...

thaks for sharing this. i left my ex partner of 3 years because he wouldn't address his bulimia. xo.

Anonymous said...

if i could give up one issue, it would be the food as well. thank you for writing this. minutes before i began reading this, i was hating myself for the two dinners i ate tonight and dreading what is going to happen tomorrow on thanksgiving.

Mary Campbell said...

Unlike alchohol or drugs, we absolutely need food; because it cannot be avoided or written off, a person's relationship with food must be reconciled on some level. But, it is never really about food anyway is it? I suppose it is reconciling that most basic and intimate relationship we have with self.

Tracie said...

Popsicles eh? *in the Tracie weight-loss vault* teehee, nah, just kidding...a little.

I listen to some girls at school telling me that they're dieting because they're fat. I'm thinking, damn if you're fat, then I must be the Sta-Puff Marshmallow Woman! It's tough though, being overweight and being surrounded by skinny, scantily clad girls everyday.

One day though Tania, mark my words, I will be able to cross my legs like every other girl in the classroom.

Tracie said...

PS - they were rocking monokinis when you were 16? That's hot.

lessismore said...

Very powerful post - just wanted you to know I was listening. I agree about the book idea. It is hard to actually tell all the young girls out there who deal with eating disorders, addiction and other insidious problems how to change or stop but it is powerful for them to read or see that they are not alone and that change is possible. Think about that book! Are we gonna do a poetry night at A Cappella? Let me know what's going on in your world. L.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for recognizing the difficulty in giving up an eating disorder. So many people trivialize the problem, but indeed, food is the only substance we need, and yet can become addicted to, thereby keeping the cold turkey quit from being an option. I have dealt with obesity for years, trying to eat my problems and being unable to stop. Knowing that you faced it all at once makes me want to do the same....so resolution number 30,000 here I come. Wana

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