If you look at any picture of me from middle school to the beginning of sophomore year, I am probably wearing my purple coat zipped up to my chin. Sitting in class, I wore my coat. Walking through the hallways and at lunch all year round, I wore my coat. After school to the moment I got into my pajamas for bed, I would not unzip my coat even one inch.
“Julia, aren’t you hungry? You aren’t eating enough.”
“What size are your jeans?”
“Your leg is the size of my arm.”
“I can see your ribs when you wear this swimsuit.”
“How much do you weigh?”
“You need to eat a donut.”
When I heard these comments, I smiled and nodded. In reality, the thought of eating a donut or any other food made me nauseous and sent my brain into a frenzied panic. My bulky coat served as protection against various comments about my weight. If people stopped commenting about how skinny I was, I could keep pretending like I wasn’t starving myself.
But covering up an issue does not help for very long.
I was usually too exhausted, cold, or distracted to be present in school, which made it difficult to create meaningful relationships with friends or stay focused in class. I felt out of control of my own body and health. I was ashamed, scared, and disgusted with myself. While my family whispered in the other room about how skinny I was becoming and doctors told me I lacked certain nutrients, the pounds on my scale decreased. I learned how to keep a convincing smile and pretend to have energy, even when I was constantly drained. I wasn’t helping myself, and this was hurting everyone around me.
The first time I met someone who shared the same struggles as me, I felt another type of weight being lifted off of my shoulders. I started recovering mentally and gaining most of my weight sophomore year. Finishing applications and getting into college was a relief, but the relief I felt when I met people like me was beyond compare. I discovered that I wasn’t wrong or strange for sneaking to the bathroom after meals or counting the calories in my food, but I needed to become healthier like these other girls were. I went from feeling weird and guilty to feeling hopeful.
Of course, learning to “love myself” was difficult. I remember the pain I felt when my grandma came to visit for the first time in months. She said: “Wow Julia, you’ve gained so much weight. You look great.” I said thank you, smiled, then excused myself to cry in the bathroom.
The most important part of loving myself is realizing that negative thoughts are okay. Despite this, I must empower myself with positive thoughts rather than allowing negativity to dominate me.
It was easy to think I was the only person who became upset and anxious by the thought of eating. It feels uncomfortable to talk about eating disorders and other stigmatized mental health issues like depression, addiction, and suicide, but this cycle of silence just feeds into the embarrassment people with mental health struggles feel.
This Valentine’s Day, I will tiptoe closer to loving myself, one step at a time. For those who may share a similar challenging journey, know that loving yourself doesn’t always mean getting one hundred percent better. It means committing to a happier self.
For me, loving myself means repeating positive thoughts throughout the day to maintain control of my emotions. Loving myself means surrounding myself with positive people. Loving myself means recognizing my accomplishments and staying in the moment instead of instantly trying to progress to the next steps of success.
Nobody is 100 percent perfect. Someone does not need to be 100 percent better in order to feel successful or accomplished. Sometimes loving yourself is just about recognizing that you will never be one 100 percent perfect.
Sometimes, loving yourself is closing the closet door on your purple coat.