[Trigger warning for eating disorders]
Background: I battled bulimia for ten years. Or, more accurately, I embraced it for three years, battled it for one, reveled in it for another one, struggled with it for another one, partied with it for two more, and fought it for another two before winning(ish). It’s been five and a half years since I last purged and four years since I last wanted to. I’d ask for a chip or something, but chips are kind of a sore subject with me. (Rimshot.)
For most of my youth, my exposure to eating disorders had been pretty much limited to Lifetime-style movies where the pretty young woman desperately wants to join the cheerleading squad and starts exercising all the time and throwing up her food, and everyone compliments her on losing weight, except for her abandoned former best friend, who is the only one who can tell that Something Is Very Wrong, and eventually she collapses at school, and then there’s inpatient treatment and a roommate who’s been Doing This For Years, blah blah blah meaningful self-discovery, blah blah happy ending, blah blah ED hotline blah. A serious and not-uncommon story, of course, but about about as relatable to me in my sheltered life as the Very Special Episode of a sitcom where a heretofore unknown uncle shows up, drinks from the liquor cabinet at night, drives drunk, gets in an accident, teaches us all a Valuable Lesson, goes home, and is never mentioned again.
It hit a little closer to home my junior year of high school when my chorus teacher was voice-coaching an aspiring Miss Georgia. They’d decided that a captive audience of 18 high-school-age girls would be a great chance for rehearsal, so AMG stopped by to sing a few songs and practice her platform–eating disorder awareness. It was, from what I recall, a good presentation. Formerly anorexic and bulimic herself, she had pictures of her Before and After and Since, accurate statistics and medical information, and honest commentary on her own experience. It was meaningful stuff. And while the girls in the class were cringing at the idea of someone sticking her fingers down her own throat, I’m pretty sure I was the only one thinking, “Hold on, that’s a thing you can do?”
At least one meta-analysis indicates that my reaction is the exception rather than the rule and that most girls do receive the intended benefits of eating disorder education programs. I was, arguably, already broken at the time–the only person in the room (to my knowledge) who heard AMG’s awful stories and managed to tune out everything but “I started sticking my finger down my throat” and “I started losing weight.” I saw her skeletally thin photos from inpatient treatment, and while I didn’t admire them “thinspirationally,” I thought, “Well, I can stop before I get that skinny.” (I can quit whenever I want.)
AMG had no way of knowing, when she walked into that chorus room, that one of the girls there would end up taking the diametrically wrong message from her presentation. And even if her talk did give me brilliant ideas for starting my very own eating disorder, it certainly wasn’t the cause of the stress, depression, perfectionism, poor self-image, and body hatred that would have manifested somehow eventually, if not the wrong way up my esophagus. And yet the part of me that, 15 years ago, was grateful for the diet tips now feels just a little bit betrayed. I was 16 years old. I was stupid. Why would you put that in front of me? As if I wouldn’t have stumbled across it sooner or later anyway.
Even now, I’m still in no place to look back on that time objectively and identify the factors that got the whole thing started. Was there something she said (or didn’t say) that set me off? Some analysis suggests that “survivor testimonials” like the one I got may be more likely to have adverse effects. Did I show any kind of warning sign that I personally would be better off not hearing that particular message in that particular way? I don’t even have the comfort of saying, “We need to protect girls from the fate I suffered,” because the research seems to indicate that most other girls don’t suffer it. But whenever I’m given the opportunity to talk about my own history with bulimia (and I’ve got some stories), I’m afraid to–because I’m afraid that in the audience of girls cringing about vomiting, there will be one girl taking notes.