A Distortion of Reality
— an essay by Amanda Felice

Nobody ever plans on developing an eating disorder. They don’t set out with that mission in mind. It manifests itself without someone realizing it is happening and by the time she does, it has taken over her life. The initial idea might have been to lose a little weight, begin a diet. Once the pounds start shedding, and the clothes began fitting better, the girl’s self-esteem has endured a jolt of positivity, especially if she had always been a heavy girl. At the moment when all of this is happening to her, this is still not the point where an eating disorder rears its head. It is also not enough to say that female representation in the media and our society is enough to be the only thing that influences her young, teenage mind. It is much more complex than this. To really figure out exactly when and where the eating disorder unveiled itself and took her over, one would have to look at the young girl’s life and how the conditions around her were just right for the development of an eating disorder that would not only change her appearance but take her health and her sanity. 

 For a girl who has looked an eating disorder in the face and lived to tell about it, she may remember the exact moment when she decided she needed to lose weight or perhaps the moment she decided she needed to gain back control of her life. Maybe at sixteen she is unhappy and bored with the monotony of her life, the fact that she doesn’t have many friends and the belief that when her classmates are behind her laughing they are probably laughing at her. Maybe being home with her parents who openly hurt each other not only mentally but physically as well, and right in front of her, has begun to take its toll. Her surroundings are less than desirable and one in which she feels that she cannot control, so she looks at the half eaten chocolate bar in her hand and acknowledges that this is something she can control. What she puts in her mouth is something she can control. So, why would she not?

 The female who develops an eating disorder is no idiot. In fact, she is rather smart. She has to be smart enough to do the research and find out how to break down fat, calories and carbohydrates, how much of each are in everything she puts in her mouth and how much exercise it takes to burn all of it. Once she has calculated and internalized these numbers, she will decide how much her body can handle and push herself one step beyond that eventually relying on her will power and perseverance. Numbers become very important along with the ability to keep a one track mind. This will eventually lead to the isolation that becomes the reality of the girl’s life. This process alone can be exhausting and considerably stressful but it is a necessity if one is going to begin a new life consumed by weight loss.

 Once a mission, a plan of attack, is in place the girl has made an unconscious decision to clear her mind of all other distractions. This is perfect to her because she could not control the distractions taking place around her. Now, she doesn’t have to worry about it. She believes she has finally gained control over something, food, little does she know that she has given away her control to the eating disorder. The first thing to go is relationships with other people. Not only is there no longer time, but there is no longer a need. People, friends and family, not only wouldn’t understand but they wouldn’t approve. So, instead of trying to explain to them why her time is consumed by calorie counting, fat obsession and exercising she chooses to simply eliminate contact with them all together. It’s easier this way. She is in control of whom and what is in her life. 

 Now the friends are gone, family is shut out and hours are spent exercising and neglecting food. But she can see a difference. Her face looks thinner, her clothes fit differently and people start commenting on her weight loss. To some girls, this would provide them with a sense of pride and accomplishment but she sees this as a challenge. If I can do this, I can do more. I need to push myself harder. So the exercise increases from one hour a day to three hours. The calories go from a thousand a day to eight hundred a day. This is not a problem, and she does not need help, she is simply gaining even more control over herself and her body. The best part to her is that she is by now so far removed from the world around her, the world she can’t control, that she can’t feel the pain that the world has afflicted on her. She doesn’t have the time. 

 A few months into her transformation she begins to notice changes taking place to her body that may be unnatural and unhealthy but not enough to stop her. She doesn’t get her period one month or the following month. She’s always cold to the point her skin takes on a bluish hue. Her teeth seem weak and brittle and her gums are always sore and bloody. She is constantly tired and is sent home from school where she lays on her floor picking up the hair that has fallen out in clumps the size of her fist. And she has a smell about her now. A smell of poison. A smell of death. She dismisses these physical ailments as part of the process she has to go through but what she can’t dismiss is the sound of her growling stomach. This sound is met with a double edge sword. On one hand, it’s inspiring to know that as her stomach growls making a noise that echoes the sound of cries she has the strength to ignore it and what the sound represents. She’s not like the others. She’s special. She doesn’t give into the loud growling of her stomach but rather considers it a badge of honor. On the other hand, her stomach hurts. The four half cup servings of green beans at thirty calories each was not enough to quiet the voices in her stomach just the voices in her head. 

 She breaks down to her mom in a moment of weakness. She’s only seventeen. She’s a kid. She doesn’t understand why she’s so cold all the time. She doesn’t understand why her heart seems to be beating faster than normal and she doesn’t understand why all she can think about from the moment she wakes up to the time she goes to sleep is what she will eat and when she will exercise. She doesn’t understand how a girl who was once so happy and excited about things like spending time with her family and her best friend now snaps and yells at these same people without an explanation as to why. She doesn’t understand how her life has spun out of control. Her mother puts her arms around her and tells her it will be okay. Perhaps she doesn’t have the answers to these fears. Perhaps she is scared because these fears are now the reality of her young daughter’s life. Nevertheless, they hug and assure each other that everything will be alright. Because there is no discussion of what are you doing to yourself and I think you need help the girl continues on with her journey of self-control.  

 Her time is precisely scheduled out from the moment she wakes up. She goes to school, and actually enjoys the academic part when she is able to stay awake in class, but she is anxiety ridden waiting for the 2:45 bell so that she can go home consume the last of her allotted six hundred calories for the day and lock herself in the spare room she has made into her at home gym and workout for two hours. After this grueling workout she takes a shower where she watches the hair fall from her head into the drain as she grabs on to the wall to keep from passing out. After taking a hot shower to keep her body heat elevated, she puts medicine on the welts that have started developing on her legs after the showers. They only last a few hours but are so painful that sleeping is restless and difficult. On the weekends, she is not confined to the walls of a school house so she is free to burn calories that she may not otherwise burn sitting at a desk six hours a day. She begins to take over the household chores for her mom who is now working outside the home for the first time. She takes on these chores not only to help out around the house but to keep busy, to burn calories. The dinners she makes for her family will not be consumed by her but she enjoys cooking them because it is her only interaction with real food. She watches as her family indulges in the meals. She does not join them. She goes in her workout room to engage in her nightly exercise ritual and returns only to clean up the kitchen. Her parents begin asking her why an attractive and thin seventeen year old girl isn’t out with her friends are on a date on a Saturday night. She doesn’t give this a second thought. Not only is it unimportant to her now but it is no longer an option.

Does she ever look at celebrities or beautiful women on television and let it affect her worsening eating disorder? No. This is not about the pressure society puts on young women to look a certain way, although she knows this exists. It’s about gaining control over a life she felt she had no control over. It would be simple to point the finger at the media or pop culture and say look at what images they bombard young women with. How could these girls NOT develop an eating disorder? But that would be likening young girls to mindless zombies who are only willing to starve themselves to look like someone they see on MTV wearing a size two bathing suit. There are factors such as environment and how some girls are predisposed to react to their environment that plays a bigger role in whether or not that girl is likely to develop an eating disorder. Because starving oneself and controlling what one eats and how much one eats is just that; control. When a young girl feels that she cannot control what is happening to her, or around her, she turns to the one thing she can control and for many girls that thing is their body. Because the body belongs to the girl, it is the easiest thing to control. Ironically the further the young girl gets into the disorder the farther away she removes her body from herself. It is this loss of control that she is fighting to regain and she does it through her eating disorder. For those who survive, they have learned to ask for help and listen to their body instead of harm it. They have learned how to feed their bodies and not starve them but most important they have learned that what they struggled with for so many years, this monster known as an eating disorder, was a distraction and a distortion of the mind, body and soul.

Amanda Felice is currently a composition instructor at Missouri Western State University in Saint Joseph, Missouri. She has an M.A. in Written Communication and has recently published a memoir titled "Dad" in HalfwayDowntheStairs, an online journal. She is also working on a book about media and its effect on our society, particularly young women.