Letting go of societal expectations: My eating disorder recovery

By Cate Navarrete

Content warning: This story contains language that pertains to eating disorders. 

The night of my freshman year homecoming, I remember getting dressed with my friends, laughing at my minimal knowledge of makeup and being excited to take those coveted corsage photos. The next day, when I looked back at pictures from the night before, I didn’t recognize myself. The girl I saw in those pictures was ugly. She was fat, and she didn’t compare to her thinner, prettier friends. She wasn’t “model-skinny” like she had previously been. 

For most of my life, I was naturally thin and received validation on the basis of my appearance. I didn’t give much thought to food and exercise. I swam daily with my club team and ate enough food to fuel my active lifestyle. I got dressed, looked in the mirror and took pictures with friends without anxiety or dread. 

I didn’t struggle intensely with body image before high school. But, during my freshman year, I developed two eating disorders: binge-eating disorder, characterized by consuming large amounts of food in one sitting and feeling that eating behavior is out of control, and orthorexia, an obsession with healthy eating. 

I refused to accept my matured, changed body. I convinced myself that I wouldn’t be happy until I had the “perfect” body that society convinced me I needed. 

That fall, I spent months cycling between restricting and binging foods until I was able to acknowledge that my obsession with and dependence on food was an issue. When I brought my habits to my parents and doctor, they told me it was the result of increased hunger — nothing to be concerned about because my weight and vitals were normal. I spent three more months punishing my body with irregular eating habits, gaining weight and not improving in my sport. 

Months later, in January 2019, I asked for help again. My doctor acknowledged my concerns but only because I had gained weight. Doctors are not certified dieticians or nutritionists; many times when a patient is concerned about their eating habits, primary care physicians will default to the scale for answers, which can invalidate someone’s struggle and worsen the issue.

No immediate solution presented itself, leaving me to find a solution on my own. Without professional help, I stopped binge-eating — not to regulate my body, but in an attempt to lose weight. My binge-eating disorder relapse occurred two months later after not getting the results I wanted, and I fell back into the restrict-and-binge cycle. 

One month after my initial relapse, I went through an intense restrictive period leading up to a spring break beach vacation. I refused to go out to restaurants, didn’t eat meals with my family and panicked at the thought of certain foods. I often ate as few as 200 calories during the day to save up for larger meals I would have at night. 

Diet culture instilled in me that food restriction would give me the confidence to take pictures at the beach. But no matter how small I got, I didn’t feel confident. I felt sick; I was pale, cold and malnourished. I took one picture of myself on that trip and hated it. Diet culture had lied to me. 

I was formally diagnosed with binge-eating disorder and orthorexia in July 2019. During that summer, I swam daily and did strength training three times a week. I continued to binge-eat, compensating for it with exercise, and I eventually lost my period, a common symptom of overexercising. This cycle was routine for me, and I no longer felt like I was suffering. This had become my new normal. 

I got professional help in the fall of my sophomore year. I wanted to recover, I told my nutritionist. I wanted a meal plan, and I wanted a linear path to my previously flat stomach and thigh gap. But recovery isn’t always linear. We tried to find common ground, but ultimately, I couldn’t commit myself to her suggestions. I was too focused on weight loss. 

During this first attempt at recovery, I created the Body Positive Alliance at Whitman. I preached self-love, size-inclusivity and anti-diet culture sentiments, but I refused to absorb the messages I spread. I believed that everyone was beautiful and worthy, except me; I didn’t even think I was normal looking, let alone beautiful. For the duration of my sophomore year, I continued to struggle with binge-eating, and after taking a step back from my sport, I struggled to be physically active. 

The COVID-19 pandemic gave me time to organize my life and eventually get help again. In March, I started seeing a dietician, once again attempting “recovery” with the pursuit of weight loss. She gave me a meal plan but taught me something more valuable: balance. 

My previous nutritionist had suggested intuitive eating, which encourages listening to the body and developing a good relationship with food. But I believed I wasn’t capable of changing my mindset surrounding food. Like many people with binge-eating disorder, I struggled with the “all or nothing” mentality; I would insist that I have no cookies, which would later result in me eating all of them, as opposed to listening to my first craving and eating just a few.

Still, I tried intuitive eating. At first, I relapsed quite a few times. I was used to eating little throughout the day, followed by extreme hunger at night. I lacked regularity.

With a dietician, though, I found the balance I needed. I had a loose meal plan to go along with my intuitive practices, a compromise I was unwilling to commit myself to with my previous nutritionist.

One month into recovery, I unfollowed people on social media who made me feel unworthy and instead followed accounts that inspired me. I’ve been on social media since I was ten years old. I’ve spent hours a day scrolling through images of airbrushed, carefully-posed women and girls, worshipping and envying them. Decreasing my likelihood of comparison removed so many of my negative feelings associated with social media. I got rid of clothing that no longer fit and made use of the time I now wasn’t spending comparing myself to others. 

I started noticing positive differences in how I felt both mentally and physically. I started accepting my body, not necessarily loving it, but not hating it either.

Now, I’ve stopped binge eating. When a negative thought surfaces, I make an active effort to challenge it. I have to frequently remind myself why I’m recovering: I’m taking back my self-esteem, my physical health, my relationships with friends and family, my enjoyment of life and my ability to do things that I love.

For people who suffer from an eating disorder, so many of their thoughts are occupied by food — what they’re eating and how much they’re eating. But when I began buying clothes in the correct size, I realized how much I missed fashion. When I successfully started eating intuitively, I remembered how much joy food can bring. When I began to exercise in moderation, I learned to value moving my body for pure enjoyment.

In May, I decided to use my experiences with eating disorders and low self-esteem to advocate for societal change regarding body positivity, eating disorder recovery and fashion inclusivity. I expanded the Body Positive Alliance I started at Whitman to allow students, employers and staff at other schools and companies to start their own chapters. 

I never believed I would recover. I thought that I would either wake up one day with the perfect body or spend a lifetime trying to achieve it. But I came to understand that my worth is not defined by my body. I define my worth by my intelligence, my kindness, my passion and my courage, and that doesn’t depend on whether I have a thigh gap.

It’s incredibly difficult to sustain recovery when I feel as if everyone around me is talking about their new diet, workout plan or their insecurities. Disordered behaviors are so normalized in our society that we don’t even realize how damaging they actually are. 

I’ve realized that insecurity is the result of expectations that the diet and cosmetic industries perpetuate for profit. People make billions of dollars by convincing us that we’re physically flawed or that health is a number on the scale.

Less than a year ago, there were hardly any pictures of me on my Instagram page. Now, I’m more comfortable posting on Instagram and proudly show off videos of my bloated stomach on TikTok. I still sometimes feel self-conscious and uncomfortable posing for pictures, but, if I relapse, I know that I’ll have the strength to pick myself back up. Recovery isn’t always linear, but it is possible.