TW: Anorexia, eating disorders, domestic bullying
ATHENA: One Thanksgiving when I was about fourteen-years-old, beloved relatives came to share the day with my family and brought treats I’d never seen before. I took small helpings of each. When I reached for a second helping, my older brother said, “Don’t eat that; you’ll end up looking like <insert name of non-svelte teenage girl in our ward> and no one will want to date you.”
Did he think I was fat? (I wasn’t.) If he thought I was fat, did his friends think I was fat? Did boys my age think I was fat? Upset, I left the table. People were actually watching what I put into my mouth. I locked myself in the bathroom where I could sob in peace. Eventually, my crying made me so sick I vomited up my dinner.
I realized two things that day: (1) my goal to be a perfect daughter of God must include a perfectly fat-free body, and (2) vomiting was terrible. My solution? Stop eating.
For a while, I lost weight. I got compliments. People noticed me. The moms in our ward asked how I stayed so skinny; they wanted to help their daughters. My answer? “Oh, I just watch what I eat.” In my head, I added: “so no one else will.”
Eventually, I consumed so little my body couldn’t fight off illness. I was clobbered by one major infection after another, each more serious than the one before, and I kept losing more weight. I never bounced back to healthful vigor. Still, the only thing anyone seemed to notice was how “perfectly” slender I was. I was pleased because I yearned to be righteously skinny.
When I married, my spouse wanted me to prepare robust meals for him that he didn’t want me to eat for fear I’d “lose my figure.” I complied.
Years of abusing my body by depriving it of proper nutrition caught up to me. My metabolism broke. Not only could I not lose or maintain my weight, I gained. My starving body had switched into survival mode.
Before long, I was heavier than I’d ever been—pudgy, but not obese. My husband, the priesthood-holding patriarch in our home, complained, literally declaring that my body should do what he wanted because he said so. He said, “There won’t be fat women in the celestial kingdom. If you want to be with me forever, you’ll have to get skinny.”
I dieted, I exercised, I prayed, and fasted. Fasting just made me sick. Still, he accused me of overeating and sneaking food when I didn’t lose. I ate just enough to keep from fainting. It didn’t matter. My body wouldn’t give up its new-found insulation.
He sent me to doctor after doctor. Each one claimed to know a sure-fire regimen guaranteed to cure my rebellious body. They were all wrong, all of them, until I got to the doctor with the magic pills.
The pills did help. I dropped forty pounds with virtually no effort. But when I quit taking the pills, my weight climbed up. I got more pills. I took them because I wanted to be acceptable to both my husband and my Heavenly Father.
When the pills stopped working, my dress size increased. Then, my body handed me another surprise: I began hemorrhaging. I quickly found a new doctor who told me my lady parts had to go. “They’re killing you,” she said.
My husband asked, “How will she have more babies if her parts go away?”
“I won’t,” I said.
“Then you can’t do it.”
“She’ll die,” the doctor said.
He responded (direct quote), “What good will she be to me if she can’t reproduce?”
I had to make a choice: keep the body parts that were trying to kill me and please my husband, or protect myself.
I chose. The treacherous uterus and its appendages went away.
As I healed, I had a lot of time to think. I thought about how my son—the only child I’d ever have—was beautiful and brilliant, and not skinny, and how that child’s unskinny body bothered his father. My boy was growing up to believe that he was unacceptable to everyone— his friends, his father, God, and even to me.
This realization broke my heart. I loved my child more than anyone, including my hypercritical husband. As I reflected, I realized I’d never loved myself, no matter what I weighed. I realized that Jesus never once said “only love thin people” or “don’t love fat people.” Jesus focused on feeding people. First he fed them physically; then, when they were filled, he fed them spiritually. I’d been doubly starved.
My beautiful child had already figured out that he couldn’t make his father love him, so he stopped trying. When I realized I couldn’t make my husband happy—I couldn’t be perfect and I couldn’t be skinny—I stopped trying, too. I finally had to admit that I didn’t want to be with this man who would never really love me, neither in heaven nor on earth. I wish I could say I’d had the strength and resolve to leave him, but I didn’t. I stayed because I had promised to be with him forever, and I believed in keeping my promises. He must have reached the same conclusion; he found someone else and moved out.
I thought my heart would break. And then it did, for real. I got sick again. After many years, more long and mysterious illnesses, more doctors, I found one who knew what to look for. He explained that my heart ailment was caused by the magic pills that had once briefly made me thin again.
“What do we do?” I asked.
“There’s no fix,” he said. “You wouldn’t survive a transplant. We can try to slow down the damage with medication and buy you time. Maybe you’ll live long enough for someone to find a solution.”
And here I am.
Nobody who looks at me now would ever believe I was anorexic in my youth. Those who see me probably judge me negatively because I’m fat. They probably think I eat too much (I don’t), or I don’t exercise enough (I can’t; my broken heart won’t let me), or that I’m sick because I’m fat (I’m fat because I’m sick, not that it matters).
I don’t go to church anymore, for many reasons. One of those reasons is that I know what some people are thinking about me. I know, because I used to think like they do, and because I’ve seen the way they look at me when I take up too much room in the pew. I used to think “but for the grace of God….” Now I know that the grace of God (as manifested through amazing technology and medical care) is what has kept me alive.
Even my new doctor, who knows exactly why things are the way they are, forgets sometimes. He tries to “encourage” me to lose some of this extra girth. When he does that, I stare at him and say, “Go back and read my chart again, and try to remember that every fat person you meet has a story like mine, one that no number on a scale can tell you.”
This Thanksgiving, I’ll taste a couple of new dishes. I may even have a second helping.
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