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I am recovered from a decade-long eating disorder. I grew up in the affluent suburbs of Chicago. I attended a high school dictated by competitive fashion trends and irrational aesthetic expectations. I graduated from an Ivy League school known for its mainstream body image pressures. And I have lived in New York City for six years. Here’s how I maintain a healthy body image in a society oversaturated by low-calorie diets, expensive hair straightening treatments, and outrageously convincing exercise infomercials: I don’t give a shit.
The biggest myth about eating disorders is that they are caused entirely by a burgeoning desire to be supermodel stick-thin and celebrity magazine-airbrushed perfect. Indeed body image has something to do with eating disorders, but it’s not everything. It’s a trigger, a symptom, and more often a byproduct of what is first and foremost the most deadly mental illness.
The onset of my eating disorder was at age 11, when my school lunch turned into a small carton of orange juice. Borderline anorexia and EDNOS (Eating disorder not otherwise specified) eventually became a binge eating disorder, and then a long bout of bulimia. I began recovery during my junior year of college. Now, at 31, I am 10 years fully recovered.
Yet, through this horrific attempt to cope with my mental and emotional anguish by waging war on my body, I felt utterly apathetic towards the diet industry, and unimpressed by the expectations to which everyone around me seemed to cave. I knew happiness began within. The war I waged on my body was about control, perfection, and making the pain inside my brain go away with every binge and purge.
And so, with this fierce determination to adorn, feed, and move myself according to my own standards throughout the tenure of my eating disorder, I was set to recover within the context of a world void of make-up and fashion magazines. I quickly developed and embraced a theory I call “Enhancing vs. Escaping,” a balance between making better choices—enhancing—or surrendering to insecurity and societal expectations—escaping. It’s a revelation that came about through sobriety.
When I stopped binging and purging and committed to full recovery, I also chose to stop drinking. I was never a daily or binge user of alcohol or drugs, but in a devout effort to heal my body after ripping my digestive system to shreds, I figured anything foreign or unnecessary—like alcohol—deserved a kick to the curb, along with bulimia.
Not drinking at the University of Pennsylvania, where I attended college, was a bizarre way to socialize, as our motto was “work hard, play hard.” So I made sobriety a game. I wanted to engulf myself in my internal emotions and external observations. Dead sober amidst a sea of intoxicated overachievers, I realized alcohol served two purposes: enhancement and escapism.
I applied this epiphany to body image and self-love. Was I making choices about food, body, and exercise to enhance my health, fully embracing my inner core in environments and through activities that felt authentic; or was I escaping, doing things just because people, society, or the media told me I should?
So when I say “I don’t give a shit,” I’m really saying that I don’t escape from myself or what feels authentic to me.
For some people, the fastest way to a flat stomach means 60 crunches per day as recommended by a fitness magazine, and through it all, they feel joy and empowerment. For others, this same regimen may beckon shame, fear, and self-judgment. The key is shedding ourselves of these excess layers of happiness and perfection we have been fed—pun intended—through the diet industry and our peers. Instead, we must learn to fully listen to and honor the unique voice inside ourselves.
We live on a spectrum of authenticity. We come from endless varieties of backgrounds and experiences. The only way to sift through the garbage prescriptions from the cosmetic, diet, and exercise industries, all of which thrive on our commonality of self-doubt and self-hate, is to discover our cores and enhance them. That is how we can all—amidst the infomercials and advertisements—pick and choose accordingly, listen to our own voice, and ultimately, not give a shit.
This guest post was written by Caroline Rothstein, New York City-based writer, performer, and eating disorder recovery advocate. The opinions expressed herein are hers and hers alone. To learn more about Caroline, follow her on Twitter at @cerothstein or visit carolinerothstein.com.
Originally posted March 2013. Updated April 2015.