Food and loathing

"Food and loathing" Continued...

During our entire conversation on Skype, Adam was standing, shuffling his feet, and fidgeting around. He had spent the whole day sitting at his desk in Annapolis, Md., and felt antsy about his lack of activity: “I feel like if I sit, it’s taking years off my life.” He had raw vegetables with BBQ sauce for dinner because he’s feeling guilty about the pack of Nutter Butters he had for lunch. He shops in the boys’ section sometimes because men’s clothes hang off him.

Adam isn’t the stereotypical eating-disordered patient, and not just because he’s male. He makes sure to get about 2,500 calories a day, but that’s the problem: He’s so hung up by this magic number that anything that deviates from it sends him into an anxious rage. 

He keeps a scale in his kitchen to keep precise measurements of his non-fat yogurt and chicken breasts. His mind pulses non-stop with calculations: An apple isn’t an apple. It’s 101 “good” calories, and a license to eat that cup of “bad” ice cream. “You start to lose a sense of even enjoying the taste of food. It’s a calorie, something you get to check off a list.”

In June at his grandmother’s 85th birthday dinner, Adam demolished an entrée-sized salad—and 16 slices of pizza left by relatives. But the “morning-after syndrome” keeps striking him: “It’s not so much a body image issue … the eating disorder itself, the obsession about food and the obsession about control, it’s hedonistic and idolatrous.” With his head low and his feet still moving side-to-side, Adam summarizes his recovery: “This is a marathon, not a sprint.” Right now, he looks exhausted. 

Fourth story: Olivia Linde, 22, is beautiful. Her dark, expressive eyebrows arch like Audrey Hepburn’s, and her dark curls tumble in soft cascades. But to her 13-year-old eyes, she was just an awkward teenager hiding behind big frizzy hair, freckles, and glasses: “I always felt I wasn’t beautiful enough, and I wanted to fit in.” 

Olivia grew up with Christian parents but was still “soul-searching for God.” Seeking acceptance from others through her physical appearance, she found anorexia instead. Spiritual starvation led to physical starvation.

Olivia didn’t make a conscious decision to diet. She was an active teenager playing soccer and volleyball who started upping her daily activity and calculating calories. That “innocent diet” gradually transformed into a serious social and mental disability. When her youth group laid out food, Olivia scampered into the bathroom to hide. She covered herself in layers of clothing to hide her emaciation.

When Olivia was 14 and deep into her eating disorder, she professed faith in Christ and resolved to follow Him. There began the long process of recovery: the terror that gripped while her nutritionist and parents rejoiced at the higher numbers on the scale, the battles with her parents at the dinner table, and the guilt-wrestling as she watched how much her parents were hurting. 

Even now, Olivia still struggles not to act on the “anorexic thoughts” and the “horrible mental pictures” of her body: “There’s no quick fix. … It’s just choosing Jesus every single day.” This summer she worked at a Christian camp for teens and rarely needed to preach: She merely allowed herself to be vulnerable with her story. 

Olivia’s experience helps her detect symptoms of eating-disordered behaviors: “Every single girl I know, if they haven’t struggled with it themselves, they know someone who does.” 

Fifth: Four years ago, Natalie Tan was a 20-year-old National University of Singapore student who also didn’t know a calorie from a bean, but her boyfriend at the time started working for a diet product company. Relatives said during Chinese New Year, “You put on so much weight! Why so fat?” Natalie decided to lose about four pounds, so she took the slimming supplements and educated herself on what calories were, disregarding the part about how many she needed. 

Natalie lost a lot more than four pounds. Within four months, her period stopped. In about a year, her skin had yellowed like a decaying phone book, and her worried parents took her to a counselor. As her weight continued dropping, her counselor referred her to Singapore General Hospital, where Natalie was diagnosed with anorexia and admitted to the hospital’s eating disorder treatment center. 

For Natalie, life at the treatment center with five other eating-disordered individuals fed her competitive streak. Instead of focusing on getting well, she and the others engaged in a silent competition: The person who gained weight the fastest was the loser. Some even learned how to hide food or throw up.

—Sophia Lee is a USC senior and WORLD intern


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