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Illustration by Brittany England

Content note: This article contains mentions of eating disorders.

“Hmm… strange. There’s resistance. Weird. Wait a second. Hmm… more resistance. I’ll be right back.”

These aren’t exactly the words you want to hear as you’re getting your second COVID-19 vaccine. But there I was, sitting on a plastic chair in a pop-up clinic on the outskirts of Brooklyn. Like everyone else, I’d eagerly waited for this day. In many ways, it symbolized an end to the hardships of the past year, and, to be honest, I was eager to receive that vaccine sticker.

The head nurse was called into the room. “Oh, she’s just so small — that’s why there’s resistance. Look, it’s all muscle. You’re so skinny. We normally have to move the extra tissue out of the way, but you don’t have any. No offense.”

Offense was taken, not because she was being malicious but because, once again, I felt like my skinniness was under a spotlight.

My petiteness wasn’t an issue until I entered my twenties and started losing weight without a known cause. Once my clothes started to sag, my friends and family approached me. They knew something was wrong before I did.

It wasn’t until I received an eating disorder diagnosis that I began to feel like I was the problem. I couldn’t be fixed. I was isolated, and nobody around me was going through what I was going through.

Fast forward a few, long, hard years, and I’m in recovery. The nutrition and eating psychology coach I’ve been seeing weekly for the past 3 and a half years (yup, more than 3 years) has helped me see skinny stereotypes for what they are.

She has accepted me and my petite frame for what it is, and we’ve developed mental strategies to overcome the thoughts that still appear whenever food is mentioned. I’ve been in “bulking” — or, as we’re referring to it now, “strengthening” — season for a while. And it is working.

My nutrition coach helps push me outside my comfort zone by setting weekly food intake increases. I’m not striving for Thanksgiving levels of fullness, but I’m forging ahead and leveling up my portions — using another scoop of protein powder in my morning smoothie; adding ghee, collagen, and coconut oil to my coffee (try it — you’ll feel like a barista); swapping my smaller salad bowls for larger pasta bowls; loading up on healthy fats like avocado, coconut milk, nuts and seeds, and so on.

I take photos of all my meals and snacks and share them with my coach via an app, so she can see what I’m eating and when I’m eating it. Timing of meals has always been a rigid structure for me, and even more so while sheltering in place by myself.

Grocery stores limited their hours, and I never knew what would be left on the shelves. I started to restrict my portion sizes once again. It happened slowly. I’d be so nervous about entering a grocery store that I’d skimp on what I was eating or “save” an item for later so I wouldn’t worry about running out.

Working from home and having Zoom meetings meant I could drag out my lunches to 90 minutes so I’d feel full longer while eating less. And this was all happening while I was regularly Zooming with my nutrition coach.

Thankfully, I was listening to my body and recognized the signs that I was yet again losing weight. I had come so far and didn’t want to spiral back. I asked my friends to check on me and clued them in that I was once again in “bulking season.”

The world is starting to open again (thanks, science!), and dining out is a good test for me. The familiar internal monologue has returned. Am I eating the same amount as others? Am I worried about what others will think about my order? Am I scrutinizing the menu ahead of time in order to form the “perfect meal”?

These questions are the norm for those of us who struggle with eating. And yet the more I practice eating at restaurants, the easier it becomes to cast them aside. I’m reminded that meals are more about togetherness than about the food on the plate.

Having an eating disorder often feels like I’m swimming upstream. I have a heightened awareness of the weight loss narrative so ingrained in the day-to-day. I’ve tailored my social media feeds to promote only what I consider healthful and happy eating that supports my goals. I believe food can and should be an enjoyable experience — no matter our size.

As “bulking” season continues, I’m more open about my struggles with a wider circle of friends. I still have work to do, but I’ve made progress and I’m proud of myself.

And yet this progress was being called “resistance.”

The nurse had to stab my arm THREE TIMES with the shot to inject the full vial. She and the head nurse “had never seen this before.” All I could do was sit there and confirm that the full vial was in. After all, I’d waited long enough and wasn’t messing around.

“You’re just so muscular. Sorry about that.”

I smiled and thanked them before being ushered to the waiting room, understanding that they too are working with an unpredictable set of circumstances.

There are countless takeaways from my story, a story so many other young women and men who hide behind their “petiteness” share, but I’m going to offer just a few.

First, it’s a good idea to get your COVID-19 vaccine. Obviously. If I can get it (and have three bruises to prove it), then you can too!

Second, gaining weight is difficult, but it’s worth it for health and happiness. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, and anyone struggling shouldn’t feel defeated because they’re unique. Talking with someone you trust and having an accountability buddy can be enormously helpful and encouraging.

My friends practically jumped over mountains to help me. They paid (!) for my counseling when I didn’t think I had a disorder. I’ve cried and leaned on their shoulders when I didn’t see the light. I’ve gone on spontaneous dinners and cooked meals with them, knowing they were specifically looking at what I was eating.

But now we talk about my health as a continuous journey. We dine out or cook together because we want to try out a new recipe rather than check in on me. We swap photos of new Trader Joe’s finds and DM recipes to each other because we could all use some recipe inspiration. I will always have an eating disorder past, and I’ve come to terms with that. It is simply part of my story.

And lastly, let’s celebrate every body. No matter how we approach eating, fitness, or body image, we all have a story to tell. Mine isn’t going to look like yours exactly, but maybe there are aspects that you can sympathize with and vice versa.

We’re all beautiful human beings, and we all have our own set of mental and physical challenges. As we move through 2021 and beyond, I hope you remember that we’re still in this together. And that’s a pretty great thing.