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Why I Finally Stopped Making Jokes About My Eating Disorder

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Photographed by Brayden Olson.
This article was originally published on January 28, 2016.

"There were those few years in high school I didn't eat."

I always play this off as a joke when I casually throw it into conversation, though it never comes out funny. It’s not entirely true — of course I ate some things as a teen. But while I couldn't tell you what I ate last Monday, I can tell you what I ate on every Monday in 2007 and on every Monday in 2009 — which is to say, not much. But if the years of strategically throwing out my lunch, piece by piece, over the course of the school day came up, I would try desperately to make it fodder for comedy. Remember those awkward teenage years? My eyeliner was all over the place. I thought bucket hats were flattering. I would dare myself to go longer and longer without food, spend more and more time on the elliptical. #HighSchoolProblems, am I right?

I'm not quite sure when my anorexia slipped into my lexicon of self-deprecation, or why it stayed long after it was clear no one was laughing. Tales of my days in community theater dealing with stage fright by hiding behind the tall kid? A total crowd pleaser. Cheerfully riffing on the time a significant portion of the drama club held an intervention to get me to eat an animal cracker? Crickets every time.

But I needed to joke about it. By making light of it, I could feel like it wasn't really a part of my past. I wasn't in recovery — a terrifying, severe sounding state that I didn’t want to be associated with. No, I was just a stupid kid who had gone through a phase. A not eating phase. A shivering in late May phase. A hair falling out phase.

Joking meant I could keep it separate from my high school memories, which, overall, were happy. If it was a joke, it was an incident, a single story I could choose to tell — or not. "Those Years I Didn't Eat — A One-Woman Comedy Review" meant my senior year choral competition doesn't need an asterisk — the first time I went a whole day without eating.

While I may not know when I started joking about my eating disorder, I do know when I decided to stop. It happened when I watched the movie Drop Dead Gorgeous, which features, among other questionable gags, the portrayal of a anorexic beauty queen who is hospitalized after she's won her crown. The scene made me furious, indignant: "Who said it was okay to joke about that?" It was a moment of intense clarity for me. It left me afraid for every person dealing with an ED who had thought nothing of tuning into a ‘90s B-list comedy, only to be ambushed by a portrayal of a tragically waifish eating disorder patient. Because even as Kirsten Dunst brushed a hair clump right off her scalp, I could hear a tiny, encouraging voice inside my head say, "You could get that thin again, if you really tried." I know for so many people, that voice is impossible to ignore. And nothing about it is funny.

I'd never try to tell anyone how they should talk about their own experiences. Sometimes the only way to share something, something you need to share, is to strip away a little of its gravity. But I'm done trying to add a laugh track to the montage of me slipping the candy bar I told my best friend was delicious under the couch, and spending endless nights on the treadmill. In the end, you have to decide how you’ll present your own experiences. And I’ll never use my experience with an eating disorder to try to get a laugh again.

The Skinny is a dark comedy that confronts the topic of eating disorders in a smart, provocative way. Check out the whole series here.
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