This guest post is written by a beautiful, courageous, intelligent, witty and wise-beyond-her-years girl named Natalie. In her words, she is a “Catholic home-schooled 16-year-old who loves St. Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, Jane Austen, books, good coffee, Batman, a good laugh, and pranking her friends!”
As a teen girl growing up in a body-obsessed culture, I can say in all honesty that I have really felt the effects of it. Airbrushed models, celebrities with “perfect bodies,” and weight loss commercials are constantly blared at me from TV, store ads, and billboards. As a young girl viewing this twisted idea of beauty, I now realize, as I reflect, that it has had a great impression on me, and consequently the life of everyone around me.
It all started when I was about twelve years old. I remember I was sitting watching a movie and the thought hit me like a thunderbolt…I wasn’t the culture’s idea of “skinny.” The thought, once planted in my head, became like an ever growing weed that couldn’t be uprooted. I didn’t have a “perfect” body like the actress’ on the screen, who looked so happy and joyful in the knowledge that she was beautiful, talented, and rich! Now, looking back, I recognize that I wanted that perfect body. I wanted to be the beautiful and talented girl, but why exactly? Happiness! If I examine my heart, and think hard enough about the “why,” it all come down to wanting to be happy. All humans yearn for happiness. We were created for eternal happiness with God. So, every person who chases fame, fortune, or beauty ultimately pursues these things because they want happiness, and they think the object of their desire will satisfy this eternal ache. So, in my confused twelve year old brain, I decided that if I looked like the actress on TV, I would be happy and the dissatisfaction with my own body and the longing I felt for happiness would go away. I would finally be content and happy with myself. That’s how it all began for me. A simple thought turned into two years of hell for me, and everyone around me.
My mom once told me “sin affects everyone,” and I now appreciate the truth of that statement (though I didn’t at the time.) Because of that one thought I began changing my eating habits in small ways—skipping snacks, not eating desserts, and scrutinizing nutrition facts all to fulfill my new found obsession. I thought about being skinny constantly, it ate away at my brain, and I was constantly tormented by guilt when my “diet” failed to work. It was like a tiny voice that pestered me constantly telling me what to do to be happy, secure, beautiful, and talented. That voice became my constant companion. After a short while of small compromises to my eating, I thought I needed to upgrade. I began trying to skip meals, and trying to see how much I could get away with, without lying to my concerned parents. My will and emotions were set against everyone who loved and cared for me.
I realize now that I hurt a lot of people I loved when my disorder took over. My disorder changed who I was, and people noticed. I wasn’t smiling and laughing anymore. I was always stressed and tense, thinking about my imperfect body and what I needed to do to change it. So many loved ones were worried about me, but I only saw them as obstacles to my happiness. For a year I struggled with skipping either breakfast or lunch and secretly throwing away food. My parents noticed and took action. They properly portioned my meals, and ate every meal with me, insuring that I finished them. They also forbid me to read nutrition facts. Unhappy consequences followed which impacted my social life, my personal freedoms, and enjoyment whenever I disobeyed, argued, or debated. I woke up every morning ready for a battle. For a while I even contemplated throwing up, but only stopped because of one searing experience. This life-changing moment happened when I was in the bathroom, looking at myself in the mirror. I had dropped weight and my parents expressed their concern, telling me that I had lost too much weight and that I was now unhealthy and too skinny. As their eyes welled up with tears as they expressed their concern about my health, my heart rejoiced. While they wept, all I could think about was me. I had been successful! I was skinny and people had noticed! But, why then, when I looked in the mirror, did my heart sink? I didn’t see a beautiful, talented, and happy girl. I saw a sad, lonely girl, who still ached for something. I thought perhaps the ache was founded on the fact that perhaps I still wasn’t skinny enough. When I finally was, would the ache go away? I knew I couldn’t live like this forever. No matter how thin I got, I was always dissatisfied and deeply unhappy.
Mother Teresa once said that America was the poorest country, and that its greatest poverty was loneliness. America is in such a crisis, and I feel that part of the problem is that so many people have not been properly loved. Some people have never felt the love and affirmation of a parent or loved one. I believe that can really screw up our perception of ourselves. Human beings need to know that they are special, important, loved, and that this world wouldn’t be the same without their presence in it. Especially now in the culture in which we live, teen girls and boys need to know and experience this. I have always been blessed with a deep and loving relationship with my parents. Around the same time that my eating disorder began to escalate, I began to try to starve myself of physical affection from my parents and everyone around me. I wanted to be left alone, and as much as possible I avoided any physical affection from my family. Had I succeeded at this, I would never have come to know myself as a unique, unrepeatable gift from God, but would have believed the lie that I was a fat, ugly teenager, who would end up alone in life. Providentially, my parents figured out what was going on, and began making me “practice” giving and receiving affection regularly and frequently. Then one day my parents asked me a question. After I had dropped an unhealthy amount of weight, though I hadn’t become a full blown anorexic, they told me I was well on my way to becoming one. They noted that I had gotten what I wanted—I was thin. But, they asked me a simple question: “Are you happy?” I thought about it for a moment. I did have what I wanted. I was skinny, but never skinny enough. The longing in my heart wouldn’t go away, and no, I wasn’t happy at all. I am so grateful to my parents every day for asking me that. It was a simple question, yet it impacted my life greatly. I wanted happiness, the kind that wouldn’t leave, and the kind that would make me proud of who I am. My parents told me that everyone is born with a longing in their hearts for something and that longing can only be filled with God. It reminds me a lot of a quote by St. Augustine, which has become a great favorite of mine: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” I relate to this quote so much and it has helped me realize there is a solution for restlessness and sadness and the answer is Christ.
I can’t say I have lived it perfectly! I still struggle with self-loathing sometimes, but when that little voice creeps again, I can come back to that quote and realize the discontent I feel with myself can be healed by God. I ask him daily to heal all the wounds I inflicted on myself with this disorder, and I witness God do miracles in my life daily. Thanks to Him, and the loving and patient help my family gave me, I am healthy and recovered and stay that way by the grace of God. Awhile after I began recovering from my disorder, I also began to wonder why it had all happened. Why had God permitted me to suffer from this? The answer came my way a few months ago, when a person in my community began to suffer seriously from an eating disorder. I had always kept my disorder a secret and as I healed from it, I still felt shame and refused to let anyone outside of my family know I had ever suffered from it. I was asked by my mom to minister to the suffering girl. My first thought was panic. I had kept my disorder a secret, and I wanted it to stay that way! I felt secure knowing that no one outside of my family circle knew and I felt scared knowing someone else would find out. Then I recalled the suffering I had felt. I experienced profound loneliness, and depression. After pondering these things in my heart, I suddenly realized why God had permitted me to suffer this disorder! He wanted me to recognize that He could use it to help another person. This brought me so much relief! God transformed my suffering into a great instrument of healing. I realized that those two years of suffering had been for a reason beyond my own self-will run riot! I thank God for permitting me to experience this disorder. It has truly made me realize that the culture places heavy and unhealthy beauty burdens on women of all ages. It has placed an exterior standard on us that no one can possibly live up to, and it dismisses interior beauty all together! God loves me for who I am, not for the number I am on a scale. I live up to HIS standards and that’s all that matters! I was made for Him and my heart rests in the beauty of His truth.
*Note: Among adolescents 13-18-years-old the prevalence of anorexia nervosa (AN) is 0.3%, bulemia nervosa (BN) 0.9%, binge eating disorder(BED) 1.6%, subthreshold (meeting some, but not all criteria for a full diagnosis of anorexia) anorexia (SAN) 0.8%, and subthreshold binge eating disorder (SBED) 2.5%. The median ages for onset of AN, BN, BED, and SBED was between 12- to 13-years-old. Adolescent eating disorders are often associated with impairment in daily functioning and suicidality. BN and SAN are associated with suicide plans, and BN and BED are associated with suicide attempts. Subthreshold levels of AN and BED should be taken seriously. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder it is important to talk to a medical/health professional. For more information about eating disorders please visit the National Eating Disoder Association (NEDA) website: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/general-information