Getting Engaged Meant Facing My Anorexia Again

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Photo: kzenon/Getty Images

Recently, I was skimming an old “diary” of mine — basically a massive Word document that covers my last two years of college, during which I was sick with anorexia — when I came across the following excerpt:

My doctor told me yesterday that sometimes people can see the true depths to which their illness drowned them, the real extent of how sick they were, but only with the benefit of years in recovery. I was thinking about this and wondering if someday, when I am grown, when I am thirty and have a job and a home and children (if I am so lucky!) will I look back on my days of starvation and sigh with pity for the younger me? Even for the me now, who appears (more than?) healthy but still pines for the days of tunnel vision?

And I thought: Well, shit. I’m thirty-one.

I generally feel okay about what I’ve accomplished in my three decades on earth. In fact, judging by my 22-year-old standards, I’m doing pretty great. I have a job. I have an apartment. Children, no, but I do have a long-term partner who, last fall, got down on one knee and was promoted from boyfriend to fiancé. In some ways, I do pity the calorie-counting me of yore. And yet, in my instant transformation into a bride-to-be, I realized that the habits and prejudices and assumptions of my old self are perhaps not quite as remote as I would like to believe. Case in point: Not more than an hour after being proposed to, a terrifying thought appeared in my mind like skywriting: I’ll have to get in shape.

Though I loudly proclaim myself recovered from anorexia, which I struggled with from ages 14 to 25, I’ve always known that this is partially because I cushion myself against stimuli that might encourage me to fall into a body-image shame spiral. I rarely shop, and I don’t own a scale or even a full-length mirror. I pay no heed whatsoever to dieting trends or percentages on food packaging, and I never, ever Google Image Search my former diagnosis. This necessarily isn’t all that different from what many women I know do to protect themselves from body hatred, although my version is perhaps a little more extreme. But in the months leading up to my wedding, I knew there would be no way to completely protect myself from the parts of the process that might seem meaningless to some but for me provoke a very particular kind of post-traumatic anxiety.

Being measured, for example: I considered telling seamstresses to just keep the numbers to themselves, but I wonder if that won’t make me seem more unhinged. Having this trainer or that diet pitched to me by hapless salesgirls. How should they know that even so much as thinking get in shape or lose weight is enough to make me freeze up and panic? In my head, get in shape is completely synonymous with starvation and everything that comes along with it: hopelessness, social isolation, constant fear, and all manner of physical sickness. I hear “lose weight,” and I immediately think: hospitals, feeding tubes, death.

Yet perhaps just as much as I was repelled and frightened by the idea of dieting, I was enticed by it. I live, as many do, with low-grade body dissatisfaction, but because of my past, I feel obligated to at least give the appearance of being totally beyond all of that. And a kernel of me was looking forward to being in a position where dieting was culturally sanctioned again (when you’re a teenager, it is always allowed). I fantasized, as I had many years ago, about cutting out entire food groups, scheduling colonics, or attending rigorous pre-bridal workout programs, though this time without any dream of making the deprivation a sustained lifestyle. I wanted to make do, in other words, with a short-term starvation buzz.

An acquaintance named Frances, who suffered from anorexia in her teens but had been stable for nearly a decade before she got engaged four years ago, told me she had a similar instinct. Unbeknownst to her family and friends, she had never fully abandoned her unrealistic expectations for her body post-anorexia, and thought of her engagement as a period of time when she could diet without evoking suspicion from friends and loved ones. “I viewed my future wedding as the perfect opportunity to force myself to lose weight and return to my ‘perfect body,’” she says now. “I couched my desires in more palatable terms of health, nutrition, strength, but in my head I really just wanted to be a clothes hanger for my wedding dress.” In the end, she did diet but didn’t lose much weight, and also found herself slightly disappointed that she didn’t end up fully relapsing — which makes perfect sense within the backward rationale of anorexia, in which sick is good and sicker is better.

My own grand plans never even got off the ground: Even though I told myself to cut back on the bread, I always found myself stuck in situations where a sad microwaveable bagel and prepackaged cheese was my only lunch option, or I came down with a cold the day I was going to start running. Like so many people, I put off implementing any strict regimen until the first of the month, or a Monday, or the Lunar New Year.

Thankfully, no one suggested that I host my bachelorette at a Barry’s Bootcamp session or go on an expensive juice cleanse — though I had a vivid nightmare that one seamstress told me I had “let myself go,” so I punched her square in the nose. (It felt great.) But while my studied apathy about my weight serves me just fine in my daily life, I decided it was important that I be able to contemplate nutrition and exercise without being overcome with dread.

I recall some years ago, when I was sailing the precarious crest of a wave of health, a psychiatrist told me that I would never, ever be fat. She meant it to be comforting — you’ll never have to worry about this topic again if you keep following your meal plan! — but I recoiled at such faulty logic. Of course I was capable of becoming fat; most people, barring other medical issues, can become fat if their intake exceeds their output. Biology cares not a whit for emotional baggage.

Despite my past, I too will get older: My metabolism will slow, my cholesterol will rise, and regardless whether dieting freaks me out, it will probably behoove me to cut down on French fries. In fact, feminism aside, this joyous life transition has reminded me that I am older now, and if I’m ever going to learn to achieve a happy balance, the better time to do it is “sooner.” So without making any outrageous goals, I started to attend the occasional exercise class, and was surprised to find it almost fun to be physically challenged. Now I can do 25 push-ups in a row, but what’s more important, I can look at myself in the studio mirrors with mild dissatisfaction (it’s never going to be perfect, after all) and then move along with the rest of my life. The balance is here, though: When I went to my first dress fitting, I looked quickly down at the measuring tape and nervously asked the salesgirl if she wouldn’t, um, mind just, like, not telling me the numbers? She was hardly fazed.

“This happens pretty frequently,” she said, shrugging. “It’s good not to get too obsessed with it.”

I couldn’t agree more.