The Eating Disorder Side-Effect No One Talks About

Photo: Courtesy of Abbey Moore.
The first time I spoke to Katie Dalebout, I had that instant, middle-schooler thought: She's one of the cool girls! How can I be like her? She's just that funny, kind, and charismatic. But, in fact, Katie's story is an example of how true self-acceptance is infinitely more powerful than the best emulation. It's an old lesson, but one we should always be learning. — KM

Tears rolled down my temples and into my ears as I lay naked on my bed, clothes spread out all around me. I was packing for a yoga retreat I'd looked forward to for months when I discovered that none of my yoga clothes fit anymore. I don't even deserve to go, I thought. I'd been steadily gaining weight for the past few years — weight my body needed to function. Yet still, my mind resisted.

Throughout college, I'd steadily lost weight, and by my senior year, I'd been diagnosed with anorexia. Orthorexia wasn't widely recognized at the time, but my eating disorder was largely based on an obsession with "healthy" eating. I was more occupied with controlling my body than anything else, and by graduation, my weight hit an all-time low. So did I.

But being underweight gave me what I wanted: to feel seen, accepted, included, and worthy. I was praised daily for my looks with comments like, "You're so tiny! You can eat whatever you want."

I laughed off the compliments, but secretly reveled in them. They weren't true, of course. I wasn't meant to be "so tiny," and I wasn't eating whatever I wanted. All I ate were huge quantities of celery and spinach and not much else. But comments like these made all the restriction and salad-bingeing worth it. The constant validation made me never want to leave my underweight body, though something within me knew it wasn't sustainable. So I relished it, terrified of the day my thin body would disappear, taking the compliments with it. Every birthday, I wished the same thing as I blew out the candles on a cake I'd never allow myself to eat: "Please, let me be thin for life."

Health was an easy way to hide my eating disorder (from myself as much as anyone), because it was so culturally on-trend. Weight obsession seemed vain, but my addiction to green juice, superfoods, and all things gluten-free made me feel like a member at an exclusive club. I'd do anything to feel included; therefore, I ignored warning signs like losing my period, my hair falling out, and even doctors telling me my organs were compromised.

The more weight I lost, the bigger my obsession grew. I judged anyone who dared to eat something other than kale. I frantically clung to my diet, my smallness, and the praise that came with it. My size was the very source of my confidence. It was my superhero suit, complete with superpowers like self-assuredness, acceptance, and recognition. Without that extra-small suit, I'd have to give that identity up. Who would I be then? I didn't want to find out.
Photo: Courtesy of Abbey Moore.
I might have held on forever, had the compliments kept coming. But eventually, they turned to concern over my degraded condition. Soon, I wound up in a treatment facility. There, I finally recognized how physically sick I was, and began the process of healing my body. Healing my mind though, would come later.

Slowly, I dropped my dietary restrictions and began eating more. But the weight gain was so gradual that it wasn't until that moment — crying on my bed with my ill-fitting yoga pants — that I realized I was back to my pre-anorexia weight. Up until then, I'd clung to my thin, superpower body image, unaware of how changed I was. Now, there was no denying it. My clothes not fitting meant my eating disorder was over — physically, at least. But I didn't feel triumphant. I felt depressed and lonely.

During my recovery, I'd been smothered with support, which seemed to dissipate as my weight returned. True, I'd be surrounded by caring friends at this upcoming retreat, but I didn't feel I deserved their support at this size. I didn't even think I deserved to go on a wellness retreat and do activities I associated with thinness. I imagined my friends judging my new body — exposed in form-fitting exercise clothes — and comparing it to my old, thin one.

Finally, I realized I was being ridiculous. I wiped my tears and went out to buy some clothes that fit. I was going on this retreat, in this body. It was too late to change that now.

A few days into the trip, I sat in a silent breakfast, savoring my bowl of quinoa and looking around the room at the vast variety of bodies. Another realization hit: I hadn't stressed over my body once since being there. Now, noticing the beautiful body diversity surrounding me, I felt relief. When I was sick, I'd made myself feel so darn special and above other people. But sitting in that dining hall, I felt how unified we truly were. My fear of judgment vanished as my judgment of others dissolved.

Late that night, I took walk with my mentor. I told her about the packing fiasco and the dread and unworthiness I felt about coming here. She listened intently, looked me square in the eyes, and said something I'll never forget: "You and everyone else here felt that. We all feel like we're not good enough, but we are. We are all one."

It clicked, at last. For years, I'd assumed the acceptance I craved could only be reached through changing my body. But all I needed to change was my mind.
Photo: Courtesy of Abbey Moore.
I now accept that I will never be a naturally thin girl with long legs and straight hair. My hips are wide, my legs are short, and my hair is wavy. With the right tools and some arm strength, I can manipulate my hair into straightness, but it's an illusion. Pour a bucket of water over my head, and in seconds, every strand scrunches into its natural state.

I used to think of my body like that: something that, with enough willpower, I could change to fit current trends and beauty standards. But those years in my unnaturally thin body felt like wearing straight hair when mine is curly. There was nothing natural about centering my entire life around food and exercise. I may have been proud of my body, but I was also hypercritical and lame, choosing to stay in and drink swamp water over going out and living. Back then, I was always terrified of being caught and rejected. Now, I understand that true self-acceptance can never be taken away from me.

With that realization, I'm now giving my authentic self a shot — curly hair, medium-sized clothes and all. Since the retreat, I've mourned the loss of my thin body that once felt so powerful, because the fact is I do still miss it sometimes. I allow myself to feel the nostalgia, and then let it go. I certainly don't miss the chip on my shoulder, the preoccupation with food, and the damaging effects my eating disorder had on all my relationships. Remembering that helps me relax into the internal beauty of being at my natural body size.

There might come a day when I never even think of altering my weight, but I'm not there quite yet — and I don't beat myself up over those thoughts, either. I'm choosing to focus on how much I've learned since college, since treatment, and even since that morning crying on my bed. I'm constantly learning, healing, and becoming more okay with my body and myself.

Being radically comfortable with the person I am now is a practice I recommit to daily. For me, that's wavy hair, wide hips, big nose, and chattiness — all qualities I once hated and hid. What I'm finding now, though, is that my natural self is relatable and, to the shock of my inner mean girl, even lovable.

Katie Dalebout is a writer, mentor, and the host of the podcast WWRadio. Her first book will be published in 2016 and is available for preorder now. Find her on Facebook, Instagram, and in her weekly newsletter.

The Anti-Diet Project
is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, rational fitness, and body positivity. You can follow my journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller or #antidietproject (hashtag your own Anti-Diet moments, too!). Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here. Got your own story to tell? Send me a pitch at If you just want to say hi, that's cool, too.

More from Mind