“I Was Never Skinny Enough”
In support of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week this year, *Junie Lee shares how she slipped through the cracks and went undiagnosed, but found her way back to health through love and support
I have a massive love-hate relationship with food. Today, I’ve grown to love and appreciate the food I put into my body, but it’s taken me decades to get here.
I can count the number of times I remember eating fast food as a kid growing up – twice. Once, I shared half a fillet-o-fish with my dad at Mac Donald’s (I wasn’t able to finish it on my own). The second time was when I had some fries and a piece of fried chicken at Texas Chicken. My incredibly health-conscious mum did not tolerate junk food and barely allowed deep fried food to creep into our menu. Fish and chips was a real treat, something that I was allowed to eat perhaps once every other month.
At 13, I dedicated my life to sports when I made it into the school sports team. Life as an athlete strengthened my resolve to stay away from food that I viewed as unhealthy (which actually wasn’t a bad thing, to be honest). But every time my friends wanted to hang out at a fast food joint, I would end up miserably peeling away the fat on my fried chicken, removing any traces of skin or fat, before I was willing to eat the lean meat underneath. Even then, I’d only pick gingerly at my food after dabbing off as much oil as I could, wasting a ton of serviettes in the process.
I recall my dad telling me on occasion that a little bit of fat in my diet was ok, “It’s necessary for your body to function properly,” he would tell me gently, “Don’t worry, you’re not going to get fat from consuming that little bit.” But I paid no attention to his words and consumed food only as a necessity for my body to function.
I never tasted cheese until I was almost 17. I avoided it like the plague simply because I thought that it was fattening. I refused to go near it. The thought of putting even a small sliver of cheese into my mouth, was terribly revolting. In my head, I saw it as a disgusting, yellow piece of gooey fat.
DID I THINK THAT I HAD AN ISSUE?
Nope. On the contrary, I pitied other people when I saw them indulging in food. “Oh no that girl’s got a problem,” I would think to myself as I observed regular folks around me eating their meals. “Look at her polishing off the food on her plate. Yuck. Why is she even eating lunch? She sure looks like she doesn’t need it.”
At 14, I started dating a boy my age. We were both clueless teens trying to find our place in the world, trying to make sense of our own identities. I would flip through the glossy pages of fashion magazines and be awed by all the pretty models featured inside. They all looked great in everything they wore. They made everything look cool. They looked stylish. I wanted to be like them.
ALL THE PRETTY MODELS WERE THIN.
I quickly picked up society’s ideal of beauty. Intrinsically, I understood that it was desirable to be thin.
It didn’t help that *Johnny, the boy I was seeing , was also a complete bozo (I can say that now on hindsight, but as an impressionable 14-year-old who didn’t know better, his opinions meant the world to me).
Johnny loved skinny girls and made no attempt to hide his fondness for ogling anything in a skirt that walked by. He would constantly pass comments about how sexy they looked, then give me the once-over and without fail, say, “Dear, you better lose some weight and eat less.”
I would go quiet, too timid to stand up for myself.
Sometimes, Johnny would notice my crestfallen face and add (ironically, in what he probably thought was a “kind” gesture), “Actually you’re not fat… but you’d look perfect if your legs were thinner. And it’d be better if you slimmed down a little more so that you’ll be smaller overall… so, I think it’ll be better that you eat less.”
Subconsciously, I became fearful of eating in front of him because he would inadvertently judge me – not for what I ate, but simply because I ate.
I stopped eating entirely whenever I was with Johnny, and drank lots of plain water to stave off any hunger pangs. To make matters worse, he had a voracious appetite and was always hungry! We’d end up at various eateries or coffeeshops, where he would literally eat enough for the both of us. Each time, he’d order two or three main courses (which I usually ended up paying for since he was always broke). He’d devour everything on the table while I sat there sipping on my diet coke, willing my empty stomach not to growl while my eyes hungrily watched him feed his.
Bit by bit, Johnny’s careless comments chipped away at my self-esteem. He had this passive-aggressive way of communicating. His comments would start out sounding alright but quickly underline a more condescending message: I was “almost perfect” but sadly, I always fell short of this or that. I was never enough. And he was the caring boyfriend who was simply doing his best to mould me into the perfect girl – in his eyes.
I accepted everything he said as “truth” because I was too young and inexperienced to know that I deserved better. My peers weren’t much help in this area either… we were all greenhorns who were none the wiser.
I was displeased with my reflection every time I looked into the mirror. My tummy’s not flat enough. My legs are too muscular. I’m still too fat! Why am I still so fat? I have to be thinner!
Flipping through my photo album now, I’m taken aback at how hollow my cheeks looked. But back then, all I wanted was Johnny’s approval. Standing at 1.64m and weighing just 45kg, I was underweight and “blissfully” unaware of it.
I distinctly remember hearing another girl puking in the washroom after lunch in school one day, so I tried sticking my finger down my throat too – I heaved and retched but there was nothing for me to throw up. It was nasty though! And I was put off enough to not attempt it again. I figured I didn’t have to since I was barely eating much to begin with.
My parents both worked long hours so it was easy for me to hide my issues from them so long as I kept up appearances. I knew that as long as I continued to do well in school, they would not suspect anything amiss.
I started spending my savings on various over-the-counter supplements that promised weight loss through increased metabolism or appetite suppression (not that I needed any of that). I turned to laxatives whenever I felt bloated and needed to “purge”. I was filled with hope when I heard of a doctor who dispensed medication for weight management. I tracked down his clinic, but the receptionist took one look at me and turned me away.
In the days that followed, I started reading #Thinspiration blogs and pro-Ana sites (“Ana” stands for the illness anorexia nervosa and “pro” connotes an obsessive and absolute devotion to it). These sites advocated an alarming subculture that promoted extreme behaviours. Fortunately, I stopped short of blindly adopting what those sites recommended, because a small part of me was still sensible enough to find girls with anorexia unattractive… I wanted to be thin, not anorexic-looking.
I’M IN CONTROL.
Well at least that’s what I told myself.
Somewhere along the way, I grew addicted to exercise. I became obsessed with how often and how intensely I worked out, and convinced myself that I was #fitfab. I continued to tiptoe at the edge of a full blown eating disorder but did not see my lifestyle as unhealthy because I was exercising. A lot.
In that process, I lost myself. I lose my self-worth, my health, my confidence, and my happiness. I tortured myself mentally every day. I was a slave to my eating disorder but in my mind, I thought that I was in control. I never got diagnosed because I never felt skinny enough – or considered myself unhealthy, for that matter. What’s more, the less I ate and the more I worked out, the more Johnny approved.
It wasn’t till almost three years later that I finally found the courage to leave Johnny. I eventually started a much healthier relationship with a guy who treasured me for who I was, who never made me feel less, and who helped me to realise that I was so much more.
I could hardly believe it initially because for the first time in my life, here was a guy I fancied and he was actually encouraging me to eat! I’d developed a phobia of eating in front of other people by then, but whenever I refused food, he would cleverly coax me by saying, “Would you join me please? It’s bad manners for me to eat alone”.
For months, he persevered while I slowly learned to normalise my eating habits. It took another two years before I managed to bring my BMI up to 17.5. At 19, I was still a featherweight at 48kg – this remained below the healthy BMI range of 18.5 to 24.9, but, I considered it an improvement nonetheless.
COMING OUT ON THE OTHER SIDE
I’m now in my 30s and happily, have a very healthy love of food. I wish I could say that I found my way out of that vicious cycle on my own, but looking back, I really don’t know if I could’ve turned my life around without the intervention and encouragement I received. I cannot emphasise enough just how essential support from close friends and family is.
Recovery was hard work, but I’m no longer the broken girl I once was. Yet even now, there are moments of self-doubt when I catch myself scowling at my reflection in the mirror…
The truth is, deep down inside, I sometimes still wish I looked like my 19-year-old self.
I find it terrifying that despite having the knowledge and wisdom that I’ve gleaned over a decade, the potential to fall back into that (hell)hole remains.
Yet, I have hope: the very fact that I have this awareness tells me that I’m much better equipped now to face my demons whenever they resurface.
I tell myself that size does not define a person. I am still me – I’m still figuring things out along the way, only this time round, I’m happier, wiser, and I feel more enlightened. I’m sharing my story because I know that this story is not mine alone… most girls have experienced it in some form to varying degrees. It is also my hope that this will help someone else who’s walking a similar journey. Well-meaning friends will always tell you to “just eat”, but they don’t realise that eating disorders aren’t about food. At the core, it’s about hidden feelings of shame, anxiety, guilt, fear, and depression.
But I refuse to be a prisoner of my past, and I refuse to be ashamed of my struggles because they have made me who I am today.
Everyone deserves to be loved and to feel confident in their own skin. If you are walking this journey, know that you’re not alone. And if you know of anyone suffering from these illnesses, please reach out with compassion and support.