Amy’s story
by Tillie Harris
June 4, 2020

“My obsession with health left me half-starved.”

The pursuit of bodily perfection is a common tactic that women use to try and protect themselves against judgement. But if that preoccupation occurs just as we find ourselves vulnerable and unprotected in some other way, we may turn the control of our bodies into a talisman of strength that must be worn to ward off all that we fear.

But blind strength is generally a short-term solution, because it relies on sheering off a huge chunk of emotion and putting it on hold. And held feelings will not wait indefinitely – when we refuse them expression, they have a habit of showing up in other ways.

“I became a dietitian because I wanted rules. At home, the way we ate was all ‘do your own thing’ because we were latchkey kids. Mostly it was processed food, microwavable snacks – whatever we wanted.

My mom was always heavy: she ate her feelings. We were a nice family, but not one that talked issues out. We were active all the time – we never sat and spoke about how we felt or watched a movie together because we were always busy. My dad’s a dentist and he’s an inherently healthy person. He’s very athletic and I’m petite, but we’re the same type. He would play tennis or go run – meals weren’t a priority. He’s in his 70’s now and he still likes to ski and mountain bike. We’re so similar.

My mom was active too. She tried to keep up, but her problem has always been food. To this day she still says things like, ‘I’ve eaten everything in the house’ or ‘If it’s not nailed-down, I have to have it.’ Just no control at all. She let herself go and I never wanted to be like that.  

In New Jersey in the 1980’s, all nice families sent their kids to college straight from school. All my cousins went, and I had to go too. It was a one-time entry into adulthood where you were expected to grow up in that moment. So at 17 you get sent away knowing you’ll never live with your family again, and you were just supposed to know how to cope.

My parents dropped me off and I was scared. I was in a dorm with girls I didn’t know, six hours away from home. I missed my parents, my boyfriend, my dog. I just wasn’t ready.

That’s when I turned to exercise. I worked out all the time. It gave me somewhere to be, something to do. I went to the gym, I ran, I took every class and excelled at all of them. Sometimes I did three or four in a day. I thought it was healthy behaviour, but really I was hiding from my feelings.

I was hungry a lot at that time too because in dorms, the kitchens were only open at a certain time. And you had to go to the dining hall and sit down and talk to people. It was very hard for me to have other people control how I ate.

Food in general was huge for me. I was determined not to gain ‘The Freshman 15’ – the 15 pounds most American kids put on in the first semester of college. The idea was so horrible to me. Imagine having to go home and having people comment on how you looked different! I was not going to let that happen. Instead I was going to watch myself and stay in control. I am a perfectionist because being criticised or having done things wrong tears me up inside. So while all the other kids were out drinking and partying, I was waking up early and working out. I had more discipline than everyone else.

I didn’t hate myself like a lot of people with eating disorders. I knew I looked good because I still saw my boyfriend from home, and he would comment on my perfect butt or my great legs. But he only complimented parts of me. I was so young, I looked up to him a lot.  He would say my thighs were good, but he would always point out my flaws too, because body perfection was very important to him. In fact, he went on to be a plastic surgeon. I think he thought my face was okay, but it was my body that got the praise. And my brain never got talked about. I always got straight As, but that’s not something anyone ever noticed about me.

I majored in nutrition, because becoming a dietitian would mean my eating would always be on-point. I thought, ‘It will keep me in line forever’. And also, for American girls in the 80’s, it didn’t really matter what you chose as a career, because you were supposed to marry a man who would take care of you. We were told we could be whatever we wanted to be, which is the language of empowerment, but really it was because our career choices didn’t matter – our husbands would be making the money. Anything I did was only ever going to be a side-gig.

And that’s what happened. I married a consultant who is a great provider. I worked a little as a nutritionist but mainly raised our kids. I love being a mom, but I hated everything about being pregnant. Getting fat was horrifying for me so I put on the minimum weight possible. It was the Freshman 15 again because everyone said I would gain, but I was defiant, like, ‘There’s no way. Just watch me.’

I’ve been with my husband over 20 years, and it’s a great marriage. He’s very tolerant about how rigid I am. I have followed quite a few different eating styles – each one maybe a little more extreme than the last. For the past few years I was raw-food vegan; I only ate plants, mostly lower carb, and raw.

For 29 years I’ve been looking at menus and saying, ‘That’s not going to work for me’. I would call ahead to restaurants and say, ‘I see that you have this pecorino salad? I don’t want the cheese. And I don’t want the dressing. And can you switch out the croutons for extra broccoli?’ I had to have exactly what I wanted because I have a mother who would look in the mirror and say, ‘What did I do to myself?’. I was never going to feel that kind of shame.

The only line my husband drew was around the children. He was very clear, saying ‘Our kids will eat normally’, so I had to separate how I wanted to eat with what they ate. I’ve always bought cookies, pasta, they have always been allowed to put whatever they want in the cart. Like all girls, they’ve had their troubles with weight and their bodies, but they’re both in perfect shape for their height. They’re maybe a bit curvier than me, but they both look really good.

I’ve been around 95 pounds most of my adult life and I loved it. Women would say to me: ‘Oh my god, you have kids? Look at you! You are so tiny!’ That was my dream comment. I lived for that. And nobody ever said, ‘This feels extreme, are you okay?’ I think everyone knew that wasn’t what I wanted to hear.

That was my life until last year. Then I started to feel unwell. I was tired all the time. I had gotten really into the ‘clean living’ trend, so I thought the answer was to reduce the toxins in my body. I decided to stop taking birth control. And that’s when I realised that my periods had stopped, because when you take synthetic hormones, it masks your natural cycle. Without birth control, I realised I wasn’t bleeding. I knew why, but I wasn’t ready to hear it.

I went to see a bunch of doctors. They would look at me, but they never said, ‘Maybe it’s the way you eat.’ I wanted someone to say that. But I also didn’t. I went telling them I was a dietitian, my eating was 100% on-point. So they knew they couldn’t go there with me.

The turning point was my teeth. I’d seen a dentist, and he really freaked me out because he said my teeth were eroding. I hadn’t eaten sugar in 29 years, so how could my teeth possibly be damaged? I saw dentist after dentist until one just put it to me straight.

He said: ‘Listen. You get tooth erosion in two ways – acid coming in your mouth from sugary foods, or acid coming up from your stomach, for example, if you vomit a lot.’ I was so insulted. I knew he was hinting that I was bulimic, but I would never binge. That was so upsetting to me. Because, yes, maybe I under-eat, or over-exercise, but don’t call me bulimic. I would never do that to myself.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I thought, I am damaging my teeth. That’s not nice. That’s not normal. My father is a dentist so I knew how much healthy teeth matter.

Then one day I was running, listening to a podcast about anorexia. They said being anorexic can cause tooth erosion, and I was like ‘Oh my god, that’s what’s happening to me’. After that I searched ‘anorexia and tooth erosion’ and that was it. I never knew I was anorexic until then. But once you know, there’s no not-knowing. I thought, ‘If I keep this up, I’m not going to have any teeth’. That would be so shaming. You can’t hide having bad teeth. That was it for me. I’d had enough.

I flipped on a dime. All that energy I put into being healthy, I put it into getting better. I thought, ‘I can drop my eating disorder in an instant if I have made up my mind to.’

My goal was to get enough calories in my body to get my period back. I started to eat. Not loads – I just upped the amount of veggies I ate. Then maybe I introduced a little avocado, some olive oil. But I wasn’t gaining fast enough. So I thought ‘Okay, what if I just eat like other people? What if I just eat whatever my family eat?’

I ate pizza for the first time in 29 years. I started to go out and let other people pick the restaurants. My brother and sisters couldn’t believe it when I ate burgers and fries. I ate brownies, Pop-Tarts. Not crazy amounts of anything, but normal food like normal people.

That’s when I started waking up in the night to write. As I loosened up about my body, my feelings exploded, and I just had to get them out. I burned through pad after pad, pouring out all my memories and feelings. It’s like everything I had worked so hard to keep a grip on was bursting through. My husband would wake and say, ‘What you doing, hun?’ and I would say ‘I’m figuring it all out’.  So much of it was about going to college – being sent away when I wasn’t ready. And about being like my dad and not my mom. It was painful, but it was also exhilarating. I wrote about how there’s no shame in hunger, or in the fact that I’d denied it for so long. My eating disorder was my survival. Really, everyone is just trying to survive.

Within a few months, I got my period. Because I was not broken, not in a way that couldn’t be fixed. I outgrew all my clothes and got new ones.  I still work out, but not in the way I used to. And I still feel like I have a great body, but with a little layer of fat around my mid-section. I look good for woman in her 40’s, and my teeth aren’t falling out. We have fun going out as a family, the kids are so amused watching me try all the foods I didn’t used to allow myself. I checked in with my family doctor not long ago and she weighed me. She said ‘Congratulations, you gained 15 pounds.’ And I laughed. It was funny to me, because I thought ‘Finally, I gained the Freshman 15.’ “

There is little in our lives that isn’t a metaphor for something else. And Amy’s story, like all of ours, is full of people that represent other people, and things that represent other things. Her childhood alignment with her dad protected her against her fear of becoming her mother. And when she was sent away to school, her proto-plastic-surgeon boyfriend became the new authority in her life – a stand-in for her dad. In addition, a fear of growing-up both physically and socially earlier than she was prepared for was transposed into a preoccupation with ‘health’ and controlling her own body. Thinness became a symbol of all of this, and more broadly, a symbol for men, for love, and for not being sent away.

For 29 years, Amy defended against the fear of being out of control by starving herself. It was only when her teeth started to show signs of the strain that she was able to stop. This is because her defence behaviours came full-circle and pulled the very thing she was defending against dangerously close: losing her teeth would signify an imperfect body and evoke the disappointment of her dentist father. The layers of representation were stripped away and the symbolic and literal collapsed into one. All Amy’s routes into approval and love ceased to keep her safe and were revealed to be ones that would deliver her to shame and rejection. In response, Amy ‘turned on a dime’, and opened the floodgates to emotion, reflection and the need to be nourished.

Related columns