Recently I’ve been to several discussions focusing on various forms of self-image, on personal and institutional levels. Through these conversations, I’ve realized that I’m not as alone in my struggles as I thought.
I’m not sure when my struggles with myself began—maybe when I was 4 and asked what ballerinas weighed, or on that day in 2000 when I wondered what people would do if I weren’t around, or on one of those many occasions that I was ridiculed, or some moment when I thought I wasn’t good/pretty/funny/smart/talented enough, or when I developed obsessive-compulsive disorder and hated myself for being so obsessive. Whenever it was, those feelings of anxiety and self-loathing escalated until I decided certain foods were good while others were bad—something I now know to be bullshit. I started dieting at 13 because I wanted to be thinner, because I was depressed, because I was anxious, because I was angry, because I wanted to be liked, and because I wanted to like myself.
Dieting didn’t help with that last one, although focusing obsessively on numbers of sit-ups and calories did repress most emotions. Sadly, it also made people like me—or, at least, my appearance—more. But I never approved of myself. Once the anorexia really progressed, right before my senior year of high school, the physical side effects started hitting me, but I didn’t care. I had scary episodes in which I came close to passing out, and my period, which had come and gone since that first diet in 2003, completely disappeared for 22 months. I didn’t know it at the time, but my hair was falling out—when the plumbers recently redid my shower, they found enormous amounts of my hair in the pipes.
There were more physical consequences, like osteopenia and the fact that I was always cold, but just as important were the emotional ones. No matter what I did, I hated myself, even when I got into Barnard and especially once I was here. I hated myself for not being as pretty as the other girls in the hall, for not being as intellectual as those people in my First-Year Seminar, for not being as thin as that girl also working out at that absurd hour, for not possessing that confidence that every other “strong, beautiful Barnard woman” seemed to radiate, for being too damn inadequate in my distorted eyes.
That’s why my anorexia worsened that first semester, until I was almost hospitalized. I didn’t have a life back then, only a foggy half-existence of calorie-counting and nonstop homework. Freshman year should be exciting, but I was so malnourished that I barely remember mine—a good thing, since I want to forget those long hours lying awake thinking about food while my roommate slept, or that time I finally lulled myself into a nap by silently repeating, “I hate myself, I hate myself, I hate myself.”
Finally, in February 2007, I asked my doctor at home if I had an eating disorder, sure of the answer. Every Friday for the rest of that semester I was at my doctor’s office on Long Island, peeing in a cup and getting weighed. I started seeing my therapist and had to write down everything I ate. And I had to eat. While my roommate summered in China, I stayed at home, going to the nutritionist, doctor, and therapist, crying alone in my room several times a week, and trying to get to the target weight set for me. But I did it.
This last year and a half of health has been difficult, full of panic attacks and second-guessing, but it has also been fun and exciting and happy. I’m still afraid of some emotions, but I have real friends, and the physical and mental energy to be passionate about my studies. I exercise when I feel like it and eat something sweet every day. Some days are tough—hearing other students talk about their weight is stressful, and I’m still too hard on myself. I may have held at a healthy weight for over a year, but I haven’t recovered yet. But I will. It’s been almost 7 years since the anorexia began, and even longer since I started to battle with myself, but I am finally coming closer and closer to fine.
Even if you don’t have an eating disorder, you can learn to feel better about yourself at places like Well-Woman or the counseling centers. ROOTEd discussions emphasize acceptance, and there’s a meditation group at Teachers College. Find people who value the real you (I promise they exist), and speak out against the unspoken campus law that says we have to be smart and world-saving and beautiful too. Talk to your professors and your friends. Start a revolution, stop hating your body.
Marissa Mazek is a Barnard College junior majoring in English. The Rough Truth runs alternate Mondays. Opinion@columbiaspectator.com