The first time I met up with eating disorders was in middle school. I had transferred from an artistic, diverse, public elementary school to a liberal arts school for the "gifted." I was one of three or four people who was not white and one of four or five who did not live in a mansion. When I try to think back on those years -- from 10 to 13 -- I find I can't remember much because I was so sleep-deprived. I usually stayed up doing homework until 2 or 3 in the morning, and then I had to be up by 6 am to get to school on time.
My one real friend and I reacted to the relentless pressure in our own ways. We listened to Hole and the Sex Pistols; she dressed "punk" and I dressed like a chola. We were also known for being loud, negative, and contrary, and usually we hung out only with each other. My moods fluctuated wildly. While I didn't get much taller, I gained weight as the other girls in my class were becoming anorexic or bulimic, or starting to cut themselves.
At first I was oblivious to what was going on all around me. I don't remember exactly when I realized that my friend and I were the only girls in our class of 30 who never took part in any bulimic or anorexic behavior. All of a sudden, though, I started to see it everywhere. First, I noticed that one girl would always give all of her food away at lunchtime, while her friend consumed nothing but tea. Many of my classmates didn't eat all day.
Then, one day in social studies class, I saw that one of my most high-achieving classmates, who usually wore long sleeves, had inch-long, raised scratches all over her arms and wrists. When someone asked her about the marks, she simply laughed and said her cat had done it. I thought that was a little excessive for a cat, but I didn't know until later that she had cut herself with a razor.
Another time, several of my classmates were talking about cutting after a guest speaker lectured on the subject, and one of the girls -- on the surface the perfect blonde, who got the attention of all the boys -- suddenly lifted up her shirt to reveal three knife slashes on her stomach that went from one side to the other. Another girl pointed to dark brownish-red patterns on her right hand from putting out matches on her skin. Perhaps to these girls, this was all just part of some odd rite of passage. But when I expressed surprise, they all looked at me as if I was weird, saying, "You never, like, cut yourself?"
Nope, I never cut myself. I was loud, moody, negative, and mean, but I never cut myself. Only now, as I write this at age 18, do I realize that the behavior my teachers ascribed to my being an outcast, messed-up kid, was in fact healthy compared to almost everyone else's.
"More frightened of fat than a nuclear holocaust"
As I learned later, eating disorders and cutting -- that is, cutting yourself with a knife, razor or other sharp object as a way to deal with extreme emotional pain -- often go hand in hand. And literally starving oneself (anorexia) and compulsive overeating followed by self-induced vomiting (bulimia) are fast becoming common among elementary and middle-school girls.
"Ten years ago, eating disorders rarely affected girls under the age of 15. Today, they are fast becoming an epidemic in girls aged 7 through 12," writes psychologist Marlene Boskind-White, PhD, who co-authored Bulimia/Anorexia: The Binge/Purge Cycle and Self-Starvation. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, up to 5 percent of teens and adults -- the vast majority women -- develop eating disorders. The death rate for anorexics is about 12 times higher annually than all causes of death combined for women aged 15 to 24, and a November 2010 American Academy of Pediatrics report revealed that eating disorder-related hospitalizations for children under 12 increased by 119 percent between 1999 and 2006.
"The majority of adolescents I speak to look at size two as normal, when in fact the average adolescent is a size 10," Dr. Ira Sacker, author of Dying To Be Thin, told People magazine. "There is a study which shows that young girls are more frightened of being fat than they are of nuclear holocaust or their parents dying."
A case in point: Julia, a classmate of mine from high school, recently revealed that once, when she was in middle school, she clipped an article on anorexia out of a fashion magazine. But far from being alarmed about becoming anorexic, she was attracted to it, and she used the article as a model for her own eating behavior.
Psychologists say that eating disorders stem from a feeling of powerlessness in the face of all the challenges of adolescence. This is a confusing time when we are supposed to be forging individual identities, yet it is more taboo than ever to be different.
I remember a pre-pubescent time when I loved myself so much. I thought I was the funniest, smartest, most entertaining person in the world. The thought that I could be anything less than wonderful because I had a chubby belly or a face that looked nothing like a model's never crossed my mind. I used to pity the interesting-looking older girls with dignified hooked noses, large Mediterranean eyes, and dark hair who became blonde to fit some media image of female perfection. I couldn't understand girls who wasted their energy hating their shapely hips, big butts, or buff arms. But sure enough, when I began middle school I started doing the same thing.
One day in sixth grade when I was wearing shorts -- before I had gained weight and was too embarrassed to show my legs -- all the girls gathered around me and asked me with disdain why I didn't shave my legs. I probably responded that I didn't know or didn't care, but I started to shave them soon after -- even though at 10 I really didn't have much hair. It was during the next three years that I would start to view my existence in an entirely different light, constantly asking myself what I could possibly do with my life if people didn't think I was perfectly beautiful.
I remember that every day in middle school, for example, the girls would hold contests in the bathroom while we changed for gym or dance class. Nobody ever came out perfect, but somebody always had the advantage over someone else. "Oh my god, I like cannot even look at my thighs. Like what happened to my hips, where did they, like, come from? At least your butt doesn't, like, take up the whole world. Eeeew! I hate this fat on my stomach, it's like so gross. Oh my god, at least your eyes aren't like way too small. Who cares, look at my nose, it's so gross, I just, like, want to cut it off. At least you have lips. At least your hair isn't frizzy. I hate being short. I hate being taller than every guy. At least your fingers aren't stubby. God, my feet are so ugly. At least you're not fat."
Now that I think about it, I'm not surprised that almost every girl in my class was either anorexic or bulimic. We pounded these ideas of unattainable perfection into our impressionable selves every single day.
Many teens with anorexia come from families that place a strong emphasis on outer appearance and accomplishment. In my middle school, it seemed like the mothers of many of the girls were about as mature as their daughters. The mothers also had cliques, and they used their daughters to one-up each other. Through their mothers, many of my classmates found out the latest gossip on other people's parents.
That parental example, along with the enormous pressure from the teachers to do so much work without complaining and to conform to the model of the previous year's teacher's pets, I think, led so many of my classmates to starve or abuse themselves in other ways. A teacher's pet was always perfect in every way. You had to be pretty, popular, well behaved, and highly enthusiastic about your endless schoolwork and multiple extra-curricular activities. Merely excelling in school was never enough.
So the girls invented newer, slimmer, more popular selves. For some, anorexia began with a simple diet. When a girl saw the results, it made her feel as though she was in control of her life. She might not be able to control the blood that flowed from her, or her developing breasts, but she could control how much she ate. For the perfectionist, though, "control" soon spiraled out of control.
Julia, my high school classmate, admits that she deliberately set out to become anorexic in middle school. Julia came from a loving family, and her lesbian mothers didn't put much emphasis on appearance. There was a different motive in her case: In sixth grade, Julia appeared older than her age and received a lot of male attention. She really disliked the interest that men in their 30s and 40s displayed in her, and she almost felt that the smaller she was, the less noticeable she would be.
Julia began by limiting herself to 1,000 calories a day and burning 1,000 a day. She then dropped to consuming and burning 500 a day. To satisfy her sweet tooth, she would eat white and raw brown sugar. Julia was also using anorexia to rebel, doing exactly the opposite of what everyone was telling her to do. Being anorexic was a method of standing out in her white middle-class environment. Julia was sent to therapy, but she hated her therapist with a passion and saw her as an adversary. She drank gallons of water before each appointment so that she would appear to weigh more than she actually did.
I feel that I am a stronger individual because of my experiences, and more resilient, but the pain of those years is still with me. It wasn't until I turned 17 that I began to appreciate looking different from others, and I started to notice how beautiful many of my classmates were in their unique ways.
If I have one wish for my old classmates at middle school, it's the hope that they too will get beyond their self-hatred and that, in years to come, they find some sort of peace.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, the following Web sites may be useful in the search for recovery.
American Academy of Pediatrics, HealthyChildren.org. AAP Clinical Report: Children's Eating Disorders on the Rise. Nov. 29, 2010. http://www.healthychildren.org/English/news/pages/AAP-Clinical-Report-Childrens-Eating-Disorders-on-the-Rise.aspx