Last semester, my friend Mohammad shared his story on weight loss and body image. He, in turn, inspired me to share mine.
I began to lose weight in my final weeks studying abroad during the fall 2013 semester. My battle with clinical anxiety, which started two and a half years prior, had begun to take a toll on my body. When my worries surged, my appetite disappeared. My calorie count plummeted, and the weight melted off without any intention at all.
I continued to lose weight upon returning to the United States, during winter break and the spring 2014 semester at CMC. Although I did not weigh myself during those periods, I quickly noticed that my clothing no longer fit as it had before. Pants that had once fit snugly around my butt now sagged; shorts that had hugged my thighs hung loose. A couple of my closest friends began to express concern about my rapid weight loss. I felt worried as well, but I was too mentally preoccupied to pay sufficient attention to the matter.
That changed when I returned home for the summer of 2014 and alarmed my family with my tiny frame. My parents and sisters were frightened by my weight loss, which had taken me from lean and healthy to thin-as-a-rail. I attempted to gain weight, but it quickly became a lost cause. By that point, I had lost my appetite altogether. Eating food had become a chore rather than a pleasure; I could no longer enjoy even my favorite meals, although I could nostalgically remember a time when I did.
I hit my low point that summer, when worsening anxiety and a heart-wrenching breakup pushed me to 101 pounds. My original weight had vacillated between 120 and 125.
I am 5’6”. At 101 pounds, my body mass index (BMI) was 16.3. The generally healthy range is between 18.5 and 25. I had dropped from a size 5 to a size 0, which I hadn’t worn since middle school. My doctors began to express concern that my weight loss could have negative long-term consequences on my health.
My appetite slowly began to return during the month of August, as I healed emotionally and found an effective treatment to manage my anxiety. I returned to Claremont last fall knowing that I needed to gain some weight. Still, I peculiarly remained reluctant to gain it all back. Despite my family’s and doctors’ insistence that I was too thin, part of me enjoyed my new frame – and the distorted confidence it gave me. At 101 pounds, I no longer avoided certain outfits in which I had previously felt self-conscious. With virtually no fat on my body, I felt nothing to hide, and I admittedly enjoyed that newfound freedom.
Upon returning to Claremont for the fall 2014 semester, my reluctance to gain weight evolved into more of a fear. My weight loss appeared drastic to those who hadn’t seen me since the previous semester, and I received a myriad of comments about my new body. Some people voiced serious concern, others mere observation. Some people actually complimented me on my weight loss and asked me “how I did it.”
I had never before been very concerned with my weight – nothing beyond the standard self-consciousness that most women face. But as I received comment after comment on my body, I grew fearful that just as my peers had noticed (and even complimented) my weight loss, they would likewise notice any weight gain – and judge me for it. I feared losing control of my weight and being perceived as the Amelia who “let herself go.” I wanted to be the Amelia who kept herself together, and that meant I couldn’t allow myself to gain it all back.
I would not go so far as to say that I developed a diagnosable eating disorder, but I do believe that I was at high risk for one. For a large part of last semester, I found myself unduly concerned with maintaining my stick-thin frame. The warped confidence I felt being so thin, combined with the fear of judgment from my peers, kept me motivated to restrict my diet and complete early-morning workouts to keep the weight off. My body image was also significantly distorted. When I looked in the mirror, I did not see the scary slim body I had; I merely saw a thinner Amelia.
My distorted mindset was like quicksand – so easy to become sucked into, and near impossible to escape on my own. Thankfully, I was not alone, and I firmly believe that the support of my friends, family, and medical professionals are the reason I do not have a full-blown eating disorder today.
Although I initially resisted their advice, my doctor, dietician, and psychologist (all amazing resources of the consortium) encouraged me to recognize my unhealthy behavior. These individuals served as a continual reminder that my weight loss was a medical concern, and that I needed to value my health over whatever social pressures I perceived.
Thanks to the work of those professionals, and the encouragement of my closest friends and family, I have gained some of my lost weight back. I have come to recognize not only how distorted my thinking had become, but also how difficult it is to resist. It has been hard for me to set aside my fear of being judged for weight gain, but I have slowly learned to value my health over the approval of others.
It’s been even more difficult to dismiss the distorted confidence that being stick-thin once gave me. When I was a rail, I felt perfectly confident wearing crop tops, body-conforming dresses, and swim suits, because I finally looked like the women I’d seen modeling such outfits in the media for 21 years. Now that I’m healthier, and not as slim as a Forever 21 model, such pieces render me more self-conscious and, occasionally, make me miss my old body. I have to continually remind myself that my old body, although it gave me confidence, was unhealthy and, quite frankly, unattractive – even though I myself could not see it. And I’ve come to value my health, and reality, before a warped and media-fueled sense of confidence.
What I feel now more than ever is freedom – freedom from the perceived judgment of others, and freedom from the grasp of the media. I once allowed my concern for others’ approval, and conformity with the media’s depictions of beauty, to jeopardize my health and my happiness. I now feel free of those bonds, and I write this piece in hopes that it may encourage another woman or man to seek that same freedom. It is difficult to dismiss ubiquitous social pressures (I am still working on it!), but it’s worth it. For when we reclaim the power we have surrendered to our peers and to the media, we can retain it for ourselves to break through warped perceptions of beauty, health, and approval. When we break through those distorted perceptions, we begin see the truth. And the truth, in turn, will set us free.