Orthorexia feels like the new kale. It’s been around for a long time, but is recently seeing a rise in popularity among celebrities, millennials, and in social media. As a before-it-was-trendy lover of kale, I started to read each and every orthorexia article that popped up in my Facebook newsfeed or on my Yahoo! News homepage. With each article I felt the same I feeling I had when sautéed, steamed, and baked kale recipes first began appearing all over the place: this sounds like me.
Like nearly every other woman in North America I have spent my entire life criticizing my body. Anytime I lose some weight it’s not good enough and if I gain 5 lbs then I might as well have gained 100. In middle school, aware that my chubby frame did not match that of my Barbie-sized classmates, I began exercising like crazy. My parents bought a stationary bike and I kept it in my room, next to my bed, so that I could use it whenever I wanted. I lost some weight and got taller, slimming down to a healthy size 14, but I wanted to be smaller.
In high school I tried all sorts of avenues to shed more pounds. While my peers ate McDonald’s and Chic-fil-a on a daily basis, I brought a Yoplait yogurt and an apple for lunch. I ate while standing, convinced that that would help the pounds bypass my stomach. I spent a summer having a minimal breakfast and skipping lunch, drinking only the free coffee available at my part-time job from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. I spent a few weeks trying to be bulimic, but learned my gag reflex made it take too long. By my junior year I settled upon anorexia as the best disorder for me and severely limited my food intake to only those times when friends or family were around.
By college, my obsession with food and calories was as innate as breathing. Apples were 95 calories. A cup of mushrooms for a salad were 15. A cup of rice: 200. If friends wanted to go out for pizza I held off eating for the entire day so that the pizza would be my only meal. In my senior year I had cut myself down to one full meal a day: cup of reduced fat yogurt for breakfast, an apple or a bowl of corn for lunch, and frozen chicken fingers for dinner.
When I fainted while walking across campus one day and had to rely on the goodness of my friends, I told everyone I struggled with anorexia. At the time, I didn’t know if I was telling the truth or if I was lying. I had seen people with anorexia: emaciated, size 0 – 2, not eating for days or weeks, barely able to drink water. That wasn’t me. I still ate although it was limited and anything that wasn’t a fruit or vegetable sent me into a daylong self-inflicted guilt trip. I had slimmed down since high school, but only to a size 10. I knew this wasn’t anorexia, but I knew something was wrong. The way I thought about food and my body wasn’t healthy. I was envious of my few classmates who struggled with anorexia. I longed to have the bones of my ribcage and collar bone protrude as sharply as theirs did. I continued to describe myself as “struggling with anorexia.” I felt like a fraud, but I wanted a word to describe how I felt and “anorexia” seemed as close as any.
Orthorexia is defined as “an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy; a medical condition in which the sufferer systematically avoids specific foods in the belief that they are harmful.” I read this and a barrage of articles and thought about my family’s nickname for me, the “Food Nazi,” referring to my constant stream of what they should and should not put in their mouths. I thought about the day I snapped at my boyfriend for surprising me with a home cooked meal of fried pork chops, thick gravy, and various side dishes. I ate half a pork chop before crying and telling him I couldn’t eat the things he ate because they were unhealthy and would cause me to gain weight. I thought about, how at 27 years old, I still spend days without meals if I know I’m going to go out with friends at night. If friends catch me off-guard and invite me for a spontaneous drink I often lie and say I’m at the gym or I’m working when in reality I’m sitting in my apartment, sad and alone and kicking myself for letting food and calories keep me inside.
Like my protective blanket of anorexia, would calling myself orthorexic be just another disguise? Would I be naming my true disorder or would I simply be taking yet another undeserving title? Again, I am not emaciated nor am I going days and weeks living off just steamed kale. What I am doing is living off the same set of meals every day:
2 scrambled eggs
8 ounces of coffee
1 tablespoon of creamer
1 – 2 apples
1 stick of reduced fat string cheese
1 cup of rice
1 cup of kale (or any other leafy green vegetable)
1 teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil
This is how I have been eating for years. The days I stray from this menu bring torrents of anxiety and guilt. A chocolate bar will force me to run an extra mile the following afternoon and alcohol will cause me to not eat for a day. How do I know if this is orthorexia or just a symptom of being a plus-sized woman in America? Am I orthorexic or just insecure? All I know is that I want a word, a label, a title. Because with that word may come relief.